Jimmy Owens – The Monk Project – IPO Recordings IPOC1022, 74:57 ***1/2:
(Jimmy Owens – trumpet, flugelhorn, producer; Wycliffe Gordon – trombone; Marcus Strickland – tenor saxophone; Howard Johnson – tuba, baritone saxophone; Kenny Barron – piano; Kenny Davis – bass; Winard Harper – drums)
There’s not much more which can be said about Thelonious Monk’s enduring legacy. Jazz enthusiasts know Monk’s music and also know how important he is to other musicians. Every year there is one or more Monk tributes, either live or recorded. Fans also understand: there are countless Monk websites and some devoted entirely to Monk tribute undertakings: which brings up the new Jimmy Owens album, The Monk Project, which is Owens’ first foray on the IPO label.
Owens is no stranger to tributes. He was involved with One More: Music of Thad Jones and Summary—Music of Thad Jones Vol. 2. Here, NEA Jazz Master Owens takes the leadership role. He wanted to give Monk’s compositions a different feeling, with particular emphasis on reconfiguring Monk’s music within the blues tradition, and chose fellow artists who really appreciate how to play the blues. Alongside Owens (on trumpet and flugelhorn) is longtime compatriot Kenny Barron (another NEA Jazz Master) on piano; trombonist Wycliffe Gordon (probably most recognized as a member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra); tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland (who has recorded with Dave Douglas and been on stage as part of Charles Tolliver’s jazz big band); the versatile Howard Johnson (tuba, baritone sax); in-demand bassist Kenny Davis (Don Byron to Cassandra Wilson and many in between); and drummer Winard Harper (of the famed Harper Brothers).
The 74-minute, 10-track outing moves between even-tempered moods and up-tempo swingers, and flits between familiar hits (“Well You Needn’t” and “Brilliant Corners”) and lesser known tunes (“Stuffy Turkey”). The standouts are those numbers where the arrangements exhibit imagination and the soloists take chances and change things up. “Blue Monk” is downshifted to a deliberate, almost funereal march which starts out in traditional territory. Owens’ opening improvisation has a slightly dark quality but “Blue Monk” alters to a wonderfully boozy and woozy attitude when Gordon leans in with his plunger mute-strengthened solo. Strickland echoes Gordon’s tactic in good stead with some smeared sax soloing and Barron’s lightly barrel-housed keyboard keeps the muddy ambiance in a suitable stride. A lengthy version of “Brilliant Corners” is also modified in a unique manner, slowed from the typical tempo, highlighted by Harper’s loose rhythmic shuffle, and the contrast of both bright and smeared brass. Barron reveals his soulful side as he digs deep into the blues when he takes the spotlight. The ensemble uses the extended time to display Monk’s full breadth: idiosyncratic and endearing.
Some pieces sway between customary expectations and stimulating exploration. The band maintains Monk’s conventional structure during “Stuffy Turkey” but slips in a few bent harmonics and rhythmic alterations. Davis’ memorable bass solo near the halfway mark is one instance where predictability disappears for a while but for the most part there are limited surprises. An enjoyable, elongated take of “Let’s Cool One” is centered on a pleasing waltz-like cadence, but is mostly noteworthy for Strickland’s tenor work. “Well You Needn’t” is nicely remodeled to a relaxed pulse and features fine Flugelhorn, but there is a sense of homogeneity which creeps in. There have been many Monk memorials and it’s a dependable bet more are on the way. If a listener has to pick just one during the new year, The Monk Project is an appropriate one to acquire.
The Monk Project is keenly recorded. Despite the myriad instruments in the mix, producer Owens and engineer Jonathan Rosenberg provide an audio atmosphere where each player’s contribution is impeccable and clear. There is tangible attention to detail. This is heard effectively during unaccompanied or duet sections (especially during a beautiful rendition of “Reflections”) as well as when the complete group muscles along in unison (the vivid opener “Bright Mississippi,” for one example, and the rolling closer “Epistrophy” for another).
TrackList: 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.
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