Jimmy Owens: The Monk Project (2012)
Who better to pay homage to one of the musical geniuses of the 20th century than seven of today's most idiosyncratic artists? The septet is lead by Jimmy Owens, who is known for his versatility in settings as diverse as swing bands and avant-garde ensembles; most notably, for this undertaking, he organized a concert of Thelonious Monk music at Carnegie Hall in 1974 that featured the legendary pianist himself.
Although The Monk Project features nine of the master's compositions, they are not slavishly reproduced but they serve as inspiration for Owens' loose interpretation. On "Well You Needn't," for example, Owens' muted trumpet introduces the theme in a more lush and fluid style than the original recording, but soon his edgy, free flowing solo follows on the heels of Kenny Barron's angular and dissonant piano flourishes.
Barron, who led Sphere (named after and dedicated to Monk's music) in the 1980s, is much at home with Monk's work, as heard on "Blue Monk," where his keys drip with the deepest of blueslike a barrelhouse pianist, but with a modern and unique bite worthy of the record's honoree. This smoky quality is enhanced by saxophonist Marcus Strickland's gutbucket tenor.
Strickland is also adept at advanced improvisations. On "Let's Cool It," his expansive sound, full of vibrato, is quite stimulating and sets the stage for Owens' own contemplative trumpet explorations. The two carry on an interesting conversation on "Bright Mississippi," which is transformed into a progressive trad-jazz tune (if such a thing existed), covering a wide swatch of jazz history. Howard Johnson's raggedy tuba contributes to this unique atmosphere.
Johnson switches to baritone sax as he punctuates Owens,' meandering and emotive trumpet lines on the languid "Pannonica" and on the intelligently reconstructed "Epistrophy," where he builds crisp and logical series of notes. The star of this, the centerpiece of the album (although it is the last track), is Wycliffe Gordon whose growling trombone embarks on, perhaps the most adventurous of extemporizations, simultaneously earthy and ethereal.
Granted, this disc is not for those who seek to listen to Monk's music as he played it. It is, however, a supremely rewarding experience for those who like to hear the impact he still has, thirty years after his death.
Track Listing: Bright Mississippi; Well You Needn't; Blue Monk; Stuffy Turkey; Pannonica; Let's Cool One; It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing); Brilliant Corners; Reflections; Epistrophy.
Personnel: Jimmy Owens: trumpet, flugelhorn; Wycliffe Gordon: trombone; Marcus Strickland: tenor saxophone; Howard Johnson: tuba, baritone saxophone; Kenny Barron: piano: Kenny Davis: bass; Winard Harper: drums.