(Ben Riley, drums; Bruce Williams, alto and soprano sax; Don Sickler, trumpet; Wayne Escoffery, tenor and soprano sax; Jay Brandford, baritone sax; Freddie Bryant,guitar; Jimmy Greene, tenor sax; Peter Washington, bass; Kiyoshi Kitagawa, bass)
Playing the compositions of Thelonious Monk “piano free” might seem odd at first, like playing John Coltrane songs without saxophones, but that’s what Ben Riley, who drummed with Monk throughout his career, has set out to do with his septet of four horns, guitar, bass, and drums. The intention behind this is to reveal anew the melodic and compositional genius of Monk’s tracks.
Let’s Call This, the album’s first track reveals Riley and arranger Don Sickler’s modus operandi: Have the guitars and horns alternate comping where the piano would have done and have both instruments play a lot of short call-and-response solos. The effect is swinging, energetic, and quite enchanting. This model continues through to Rhythm-A-Ning, which is wonderfully anchored by the baritone sax of Jay Brandford.
Nutty shows sign of Monk’s discordant style of playing, a strange note popping up at the end of a horn or guitar line here and there. However, when two saxophones hit a wrong note, it’s far less jarring (and arguably less charming) than when Monk hit an odd note on his piano. Freddie Byrant does some gorgeous guitar comping on Brake’s Sake, providing the melody’s backbone. On Pannonica, Bryant plays perfectly bittersweet guitar lines as the horns gently swing.
Straight No Chaser seems a bit of a mis-step, the song sounding out of place with so many players. Much of the original’s charm was its sparseness. Epistrophy suffers from the same syndrome. Despite those two misfires, overall Ben Riley and Co. have made a wonderful tribute to Monk, revealing his talent for composition and his ear for beguiling melodies.
Tracks: Let’s Call This, Rhythm-A-Ning, Gallop’s Gallop, Nutty, Brake’s Sake, Pannonica, Straight No Chaser, Bemsha Swing, Shuffle Boil, Green Chimneys, Epistrophy.
– Dan Krow