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Wadada Leo Smith (solo trumpet) – Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk – TUM 

Wadada Leo Smith (solo trumpet) – Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk  – TUM CD 053, 55:37 [10/20/17] *****:

Putting Monk in a new light.

If you’re looking for a new way to appreciate Thelonious Monk’s music, listen to Wadada Leo Smith’s Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk. This is nearly an hour of solo trumpet: eight tunes, four by Monk and four Smith originals inspired by Monk. Smith explains, “Most people would never realize that I am closer to Thelonious Monk than to any other artist. What connects us is a vision of composition and its forms.” Smith’s attraction to Monk’s solo recordings began five decades ago. Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk is the culmination of Smith listening to and studying Monk’s group and individual performances. Smith applies a degree of comparison and contrast throughout. He interprets a Monk composition, and then follows (for the most part) with a related original. This provides a conceptual flow as well as an instinctive musical path. The music on the CD was taped in late 2014 and summer 2015 at a Finnish studio and the engineering has a warm, bright tonality perfectly suited to solo trumpet.

Smith begins with a 9:20 translation of Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear,” purportedly written in tribute to Monk’s first love, a friend of Monk’s sister. Smith’s version is meditative, quietly introspective and accentuated by his resonant, superlative trumpet tone which brings to mind a ‘special someone’ who is the epitome of graceful, beautiful and luminous. Smith follows with the radiant “Monk and His Five Point Ring at the Five Spot Café.” This eight-minute piece is based on a scene from a recent Monk documentary where Monk is at the noted NYC jazz club and viewers can see a large ring on one of his fingers. In the clip, Monk stands up and dances a little and then goes back to the piano. Smith’s tune has a playful but also slightly edgy trait, emulating the feeling one might get from watching Monk on piano, then the lighthearted moment when he does an impromptu dance, and then his return to the piano.

Smith uses a muted tone to create a different timbre on his eight-minute take of Monk’s “Reflections,” a jazz standard recorded by Steve Lacy (another Monk devotee), Kurt Rosenwinkel and others. Over the course of the cut, Smith blends asymmetrical pauses, complex but never forced phrasing and a sense of melancholy and sepia-saturated memories. Smith’s counterpart to “Reflections” is his four-minute ballad, “Adagio: Monkishness – A Cinematic Vision of Monk Playing Solo Piano,” which was also stimulated by film, specifically a video Smith saw of Monk performing solo piano. Smith brings a nearly spiritual receptivity to this number. He does something similar to a pensive adaptation of “Crepuscule with Nellie,” which Monk wrote for his wife when she was undergoing surgery. Smith supplies an aptly twilight-tinged quality to this ruminative track. Smith never meanders but does offer a lightly askew characteristic in the way only a master musician can do. Smith returns to a muted trumpet on his second adagio, “Adagio: Monk, the Composer in Sepia – A Second Vision.” Smith crafted two renderings of this piece and states, “The color sepia in the title of this version with a mute is in reference to the old photographs of Monk that often have a faded brownish tint.” Instead of a filmic veneer, “Adagio: Monk, the Composer in Sepia – A Second Vision” is like a condensed narrative, perhaps one found in an old short story collection with yellowing pages and dimming ink. A tale of a different type permeates the nine-minute “Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium – A Mystery.” The composition was stimulated by a dream fragment Smith had of Powell and Monk visiting the now-demolished New York City baseball stadium. Why were Powell and Monk at the arena, what were they doing there? Smith doesn’t know, but that puzzle supplements the piece’s unusual structure and provides a patina of enigmatic symbolism and ambiguity.

Smith concludes with a composition which has been recorded by more artists than any other jazz classic, Monk’s “‘Round Midnight.” Smith takes it slow and somber, each note echoing into a nighttime landscape. There is a lingering languor throughout the 7:38 tune which stylishly summarizes Smith’s mindset regarding Monk’s legacy and heritage. The Finnish label TUM made a superb CD package for Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk. The multi-page booklet includes photos; a Smith poem dedicated to Monk; Smith’s history of Monk; liner notes written by Smith about each track; a lengthy biography on Smith; and information on the Finnish abstract artist who did the painting which graces the CD cover.

Ruby My Dear
Monk and His Five Point Ring at the Five Spot Café
Adagio: Monkishness – A Cinematic Vision of Monk Playing Solo Piano
Crepuscule with Nellie
Adagio: Monk, the Composer in Sepia – A Second Vision
Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium – A Mystery
‘Round Midnight

—Doug Simpson

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