Forget Elvis, MONK is everywhere: Eric Reed; Organ Monk; Melodious Thunk; Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition; Laurent De Wilde’s “Monk”

Planet Jazz: Notes From All Over

Thelonious Sphere Monk, who would have turned 95 on Oct. 10, isn’t quite everywhere, exactly.

But the man, his playing and his compositions continue to loom large as an influence on and living presence in the work of jazz musicians all over the world.

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Monk is celebrated on at least two recent discs, both of which offer fresh approaches to familiar gems.

“The Baddest Monk” (Savant Records) has pianist Eric Reed joined by saxophonist Seamus Blake, trumpeter Etienne Charles, bassist Matt Clohesy and (on ” ‘Round Midnight”) guest singer Jose James for seven Monk tunes and two originals in that vein — the solo-piano title track, and the New Orleans-grooving “Monk Beurre Rouge.” Light funk rhythms drive opener “Rhythm-A-Ning”; creative use of space, harmony figures and bolero/tango flavors characterize “Monk’s Mood,” one of two trio pieces, along with “Green Chimneys,” done without horns; and “Bright Mississippi” is refried in 7/4.

“We had our way with Monk,” Reed writes in the liner notes. “To some degree, this is almost an un-Monk endeavor, but that was his whole point: individualism no matter what the cost.” (Check out Reed live at Smoke Jazz and Supper Club, courtesy of The Pace Report)

Individualism is also the modus operandi of  Greg Lewis‘s “Organ Monk: Uwo in the Black” (Greg Lewis), a sort-of sequel to the B3 specialist’s “Organ Monk,” released in 2010. For the latter CD, Lewis was joined by guitarist Ron Jackson and drummer Cindy Blackman; this time, the organist takes on Monk favorites and originals with the help of Jackson, drummer Nasheet Waits (replacing Blackman) and tenor saxophonist Reginald R. Woods.

The broader sonic canvas is refreshing, and so are several tracks — “Little Rootie Tootie,” with its call-and-response structure; “Skippy,” equipped with a rising-and-falling intro; a hard-grooving “Bright Mississippi”; and a version of “Crepuscule with Nellie” amplifying its inner quirkiness.  A third volume is in order, I say. (One quibble: Howard Mandel’s thoughtful liner notes are in tiny, tiny font, not at all easily readable for over-40 eyes).

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The Monk compilations continue rolling out. So far this year: The six-disc “The Thelonious Monk Quartet: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection” (Columbia/Legacy); “The Very Best of Thelonious Monk” (Concord Jazz/Riverside); “Pride” (jazz2jazz); and “Beyond Patina Jazz Masters: Thelonious Monk” (Beyond Patina

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More Monk doings:

+ Melodious Thunk, with singer Teri Roiger, bassist John Menegon, pianist Francesca Tanksley, drummer Tani Tabbal, and saxophonist Dan Faulk, celebrated Monk’s music with a show held in Woodstock, NY on his birthday; he was born in 1917 in Rocky Mount, N.C.

+ New Orleans drummer Jamison Ross, 24, a native of Jacksonville, FL, won the 25th annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, Sept. 23 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Yusuke Nakamura, of Japan, was the winner of the affiliated Composers Competition. The long-running Jazz Competition (thoughtful coverage by Nate Chinen of the New York Times) has become a springboard to greater success for past winners, including bassist Ben Williams (2009), trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (2007), singers Gretchen Parlato (2004) and Teri Thornton (1998), saxophonist Seamus Blake (2002), percussionist Pedro Martinez, and pianists Eric Lewis (1999) and Jacky Terrasson (1993), among others. Recently, on NPR’s “A Blog Supreme,” several winners and finalists weighed in on the advantages and disadvantages of musical competition. The discussion was something of a follow-up to one pianist Ethan Iverson (The Bad Plus) posted on his blog, Do the Math.  Iverson jumped into the fray again with another post several days later, and the blogosphere lit up with some back and forth, including a thoughtful dialogue between Iverson and Lewis.

+ The competition’s sponsor, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, continues an ambitious program of education and performances via offices in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and New Orleans. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance opened at the UCLA campus this past summer, and the first class of graduate students started in the fall.

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And finally …

Recently re-reading Laurent De Wilde‘s brief but substantial bio, Monk (Marlowe & Company), originally published in 1996, I came across a particularly elegant and insightful description of how bass and drums work together to create a foundation for a jazz group, particularly applicable to a composer whose melodies and improvising are so heavily rhythmic.

Here it is:

“The bass sketches out time with a primordial pulsation, and the drums draw it in India ink. The crystalline precision of the ride cymbal. The shrewd and solid comments of the snare and bass drums. Depth, contour, innuendo, doors that open and close as the drumskin is struck. And if the drummer decides to play “Summertime” as a tango, you can always curse him out afterward, but there in concert, you just have to go along with him. It’s the opposite of the lemming phenomenon — when you don’t follow the drummer, that’s when you’re in trouble. The bass and the drums are the instruments which keep us in contact with the ancient beauty of rhythm. The gut string you pluck, and the stretched skin you strike  — what could be more carnal, more animal, than that?” 

Click here for more info on Monk.

The Blue Note 7: Mosaic

Blue Note Celebrates Its History … Again

A band organized by Blue Note, specializing in music from that label’s archives?

Déjà vu, anyone?

Blue Note’s New Directions Band, with the storied jazz label’s young stars — alto saxophonist Greg Osby, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, pianist Jason Moran and vibraphonist Stefon Harris — joined by bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, was just such a group.

New Directions, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the label, recorded a self-titled CD in 1999, and released it early the next year.

The band gave a significant boost to the careers of its members, several of whom obviously have notched considerable artistic and commercial success. I caught one performance on the group’s national tour, at a tiny, smoky, now-defunct club in Ybor City (Tampa).

Blue Note, too, has celebrated itself with countless concerts, films, sampler recordings, and other products.

The Blue Note 7 Launches

Now here comes The Blue Note 7, a band suggested by booking agent Jack Randall, and organized by Randall, pianist Bill Charlap, and talent manager Danny Melnick, as a way to celebrate the label’s 70th anniversary.

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“When plans for the extensive tour reached more than 50 American cities, the idea of a recording was inevitable,” according to jazz critic Ira Gitler’s liner notes for the group’s just-released CD, Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records.

 

The septet, this time not a group of upstarts, includes a stellar front line of horn players — celebrated New Orleans-bred trumpeter Nicholas Payton, underappreciated New York alto saxophonist and flutist Steve Wilson and tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, still laboring to escape the shadow of his famous father.

Charlap, the musical director, is joined by rhythm-section mates Peter Bernstein on guitar, Peter Washington on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums – solid pros and creative players, all.

The material, variously arranged by band members and pianist Renee Rosnes (who happens to be married to Charlap), emphasizes compositions recorded for Blue Note from the mid-’50s through the mid-’60s.

Melnick, the CD’s executive producer, is head of the company producing the band’s tour. So is The Blue Note 7 an organically assembled outfit, or merely a sampler recording designed to promote a tour and boost sales of the label’s new and archival recordings?

Gitler writes, “It is more than a tribute band, a cadre with a cohesive compatibility, dealing with powerful music and reinterpreting it through new arrangements and individual solos.”

Mosaic

That assessment rings true, as the music on Mosaic is familiar (maybe overly so) but almost fresh — the band builds interesting new arrangements and consistently superb solo work on gems by major jazz composers. Thelonious Monk’s “Criss Cross,” arranged by Wilson, comes with new rhythmic twists, a spiky Coltrane solo and aptly rambunctious piano work.

Payton’s playing is particularly incisive and poignant on a floating-to-grooving version of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance,” arranged by Rosnes, also responsible for a soaring arrangement of McCoy Tyner’s pretty, slow-moving “Search for Peace”; the horn players on the latter come off as a brass choir. Bernstein turns in warm melody work and a searching improvisation on his arrangement of Duke Pearson’s “Idle Moments,” originally recorded by Grant Green.

The title track, penned by Cedar Walton for the Jazz Messengers and arranged by Nash, lifts off with the drummer’s tricky rhythmic set-up. The tune later offers the kind of driving, chunky swing and extended trap-set wizardry sure to warm the heart of anyone who’s ever loved hard bop and lamented its passing (that includes me).

Also included in the eight-song set: Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” arranged by Payton; Bobby Hutcherson’s “Little B’s Poem” (Wilson); and Horace Silver’s “The Outlaw” (Charlap).

Blue Note 7’s U.S. Concert Trek

The tour is off to an impressive start, according to jazz critic Doug Ramsey’s report on the band’s performance in Seattle. “…the little time they have spent as a unit is out of proportion to the ensemble’s spirit and unified sound,” Ramsey writes.

(Sadly, the tour itinerary doesn’t include any Florida dates).

Will this band continue working together after its weeklong engagement at New York’s Birdland, which concludes April 19?

Yes, as Charlap relates in the above video clip.

“We’ll be continuing later in the year, in the fall, in Europe,” he says. “Many of the players are already writing new arrangements. … Perhaps there will be a volume two and a volume three. I would not be surprised if that happens.”