The Monk Project
Ask a casual jazz fan what he knows about Thelonious Monk, and the likely answer will be that he was an avant-garde composer with an idiosyncratic approach to his piano playing. That shorthand take on Monk’s role in post-swing jazz, however, doesn’t begin to convey the breadth of his output or his influence on what has transpired in the jazz world since he rose to prominence almost six decades ago.
The Monk Project, led and arranged by veteran trumpeter and newly minted NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Owens, surveys a wide range of Monk’s stylistic influences. “Blue Monk,” for example, moves at a slow, bluesy pace that’s accompanied by drummer Winard Harper’s snappy backbeat and the robust presence of R&B, with a hint of Dixie, in the ensemble lines and solo sections. Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon’s raunchy plunger mute solo enhances the Southern feel of the piece. “Stuffy Turkey,” with its humor-laden melody that sounds like a hip nursery rhyme, features clashing harmonies and brief openings for pianist Kenny Barron to add splashes of Monkish chords. Tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland’s aggressive attack counters the more deferential outings by bassist Kenny Davis and Owens. Indeed, throughout the album’s 10 tracks — nine Monk compositions and a version of Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing”) — Owens keeps his cool, allowing his sweet, often melancholy tone to establish a mood that is reverential without being overly polite or fawning.
The presence of Howard Johnson on tuba, an instrument Monk frequently employed, provides a telling insight into how the late composer conceptualized his sound. “Bright Mississippi” and “Brilliant Corners,” both enhanced by the tuba’s virile presence, remind us that Monk’s stylistic universe was practically boundless, extending from World War I-era traditional jazz to the new sonic world he helped create half a century later.