Apply Ornette Coleman’s guiding principle of harmolodics to the music of Thelonious Monk? Sure, why not? Horn and reed player Matt Lavelle and vibraphonist/percussionist John Pietaro have done just that on this 10-track collection. And, when blending the music of two jazz geniuses, what could possibly go wrong?
There has never been an exact definition of harmolodics. The best explanation — or at least the simplest — is that melody, harmony, rhythm and time share equal status. Applying this to Monk makes for an interesting concept. In practice, it provides Lavelle and Pietaro with space for melodic abstraction and shape-shifting tempos.
In isolation, some of the performances are compelling. Lavelle begins “Epistrophy” by teasing out the melody on alto clarinet, pushing and pulling the tempo as he goes along. By the time Lavelle reaches the song’s familiar gait, Pietaro adds tension with hypnotic counterpoint on vibraphone. The clarinetist’s gruff, breathy tone creates a brooding intensity that works well on “Pannonica” and “‘Round Midnight.” But Lavelle seems a bit less assured on flugelhorn and cornet, sounding tentative on “Pannonica” and unfocused on “Blue Monk.”
Unfortunately, this whole endeavor drapes an academic cloak on some of the most bluesy and swinging music in jazz history. “Ruby My Dear” and “Crepuscule With Nellie” (misspelled on the CD material) sound particularly mannered. Even the album’s title requires explanation, which reveals its targeted appeal to musicologists and other musicians. Before the 75 minutes expire, however, typical fans will probably just want to retreat to familiar Monk records such as Brilliant Corners or Live at the Five Spot.
Give Lavelle and Pietaro credit for their unique interpretations. But, some fine moments notwithstanding, the premise wears thin. —John Frederick Moore