Angels We Have Heard on High Thelonious Sphere Monk was a study in opposites. He was called the "high priest of Bebop" while not really being a part of it. His music is immediately iconoclastic and readily accessible. He was mysterious and quite, while being open and friendly. Monk, along with Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, exists on a rarified plane of jazz composers. These were men who made standards out of their jazz compositions as opposed to Tin Pan Alley songs and show tunes.
"'Round Midnight" is perhaps the finest jazz composition to become a "standard". It can certainly be compared in stature to "Take the 'A' Train" or "Night in Tunisia". But Monk has many other compositions that exist in that upper echelon of jazz classicism: "Rhythm-n-ing", "Blue Monk", "Misterioso", "Straight, No Chaser", all have been covered dozens of times by the finest jazz musicians to perform in the idiom. Monk and his music stand alone above the mosh of jazz and its composers and performers.
A Seriously Inappropriate Digression. Marcus Roberts, former Wynton Marsalis protégé and excellent pianist in his own right, is the best (most precise and accurate) interpreter of Monk. My problem with Mr. Roberts is that he often instills the music he is playing with a huge infusion of Monk. A perfect case in point is his seasonal release Prayer for Peace (Novus 01241). I personally love this disc, but enough idol worship is enough. While this disc is enjoyable, it is not joyful. It is too academic, like much of Wynton Marsalis' music, on one hand. It is too commercial ("If Mozart Wrote Jingle Bells") on the other. Homage must be paid Thelonious Monk and few performers have done so with such a sense of humor dissolved in reverence as Sphere.
Endings and Beginnings. Thelonious Monk died February 17, 1982. Unbeknownst to them, Monk's longtime tenorist, Charlie Rouse and drummer Ben Riley entered the studio with the Kenny Barron on piano and Buster Williams on bass to recorded a collection of Monk compositions Four in One (Elektra, NA). Sphere recorded for various labels throughout the 1980s before being disbanded following the death of Charlie Rouse in 1988. They typically concentrated on Monk's lesser known compositions as well as their own original compositions. Sphere reformed in 1998 with Gary Bartz replacing the late Rouse and the result is the present recording.
Self-Titled. Sphere's new recording contains a delightful collection of originals ("Uncle Bubba"), standards ("Isfahan" and "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top") and, yes, Monk Tunes ("We See" and "Hornin' In"). I started this review after having considered Joshua Redman's Freedom in the Groove. Boy, what a difference a day makes (or in this case many years). Redman's 1996 recording is white-hot with ideas, funky, and sharp. A fun disc, to be sure. But when considering a knack for effortless, endogenous swing, Sphere wins hands down. Bartz's addition to the groups is as appropriate as was Ron Woods addition to the Rolling Stones after the departure of Mick Taylor. A perfect fit. This is a very fine jazz recording, that some how makes me think of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Tastefulness is always tasteful.
Track Listing: We See, Isfahan, Uncle Bubba, Hornin' In, Buck and Wing, Twilight, The Surrey with the Fringe On Top.
Personnel: Kenny Barron: Piano; Gary Bartz: Alto and soprano Saxophones, Ben Riley: Drums, Buster Williams: Bass
Record Label: Verve Music Group