Over the past 13 years, bassist, composer, and record label owner Matt Ulery has proven himself to be one of the more adventurous souls in contemporary music. Sit through one of his albums and you'll hear elements of jazz, "prog-rock", art music, classical strains and much more.
That description hold true on his latest effort. "Sifting Stars" (Woolgathering Records) is his eighth album as a leader. The program is two distinctive suites played by two very different ensembles. The first four songs features the Sifting Stars Orchestra, a 16-piece unit (although all 16 do not play together on each track) along with vocalists Grazyna Auguscik or Katie Ernst on three of the tracks as well as four members of eighth blackbird, the wonderful Chicago-based chamber sextet.
Photo: Harvey Tillis
The opening two pieces have arrangements that feature an emphasis on the strings. Ms. Auguscik's voice is featured on "The Remanent of Everything" telling a story of loneliness and disconnection, all the while the strings flow in and around her with both the melody and arrangement being quite lovely. Ms. Ernst, bassist in the trio TwinTalk and a solo artist in her own right, takes the lead vocal on "Pictures in Grey", a fascinating song with lush film-noir string sweeps plus a section with a rhythmic pattern influenced by Steve Reich. The voice becomes part of the ensemble and one must literally "go with the flow' of words and melody.
The six person brass section is more prominent on the next two tracks. Ms. Auguscik returns for "I'm So Shallow" that, after repeated listenings, sounds like a blend of a Paul McCartney melody with a Philip Glass arrangement. Yet, one grasps for comparisons; other listeners will hear other songs in this music. At times gentle, over times, the music becomes darker. The fourth song is all instrumental. "The Prairie Is a Rolling Ocean" is another melody with trombones, French horn, bassoon, and trumpets blending with flute to move the piece forward. There is a splendid pianist solo from Ulery's long-time musical partner Rob Clearfield with different horns and reeds rising out of the background to create a compelling counterpoint.
The album then shifts sonic gears. "Ida" is a six-part suite performed by Axiom Brass, a quintet also based in Chicago. Ulery was inspired to write the suite after viewing the Ivan Albright painting, "Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida" (see it here). Here, the composer creates a world for the character in the painting, what she may be thinking and feeling at the moment captured by the artist. Look and listen. Do you see and hear emotion? Are their feelings that are not easily defined by mere words but better by the sounds you hear? "Sifting Stars" is quite a recording. Not only does the music created by Matt Ulery, the Sifting Stars Orchestra, and Axiom Brass make you pay attention but it also transports one beyond the everyday, the mundane. This is an album for a cold morning as the sun rises or late in the evening when the house is quiet and the streets are still. Give this music time and you will be moved. For more information, go to www.mattulery.com. Here's one of the tracks:
Sifting Stars studio orchestra:
Matt Ulery – double bass and voice Rob Clearfield – piano Michael Caskey – percussion Grazyna Auguscik – voice Katie Ernst – voice Yvonne Lam – violins Jeff Yang – violins Aurelien Pederzoli – violas Nick Photinos – cellos Michael Maccaferri – clarinets Nathalie Joachim – flutes Ben Roidl-Ward – bassoons Andrew Nogal – oboes and english horns Liz Deitemyer – french horns James Davis – trumpets Chad McCullough – trumpets Steve Duncan – trombones Chris Shuttleworth – trombones
Dorival Puccini – trumpet Kris Hammond – trumpet Melanie Erena Kjellsen – french horn Mary Tyler – trombone Kevin Harrison – tuba
Photo: The Chicago Reader
Trumpeter and composer Russ Johnson has been one of the busier musicians for the past quarter century. A list of his associations on record and the bandstand includes artists such as Lee Konitz, Steve Swallow, pianist Kris Davis, bassist Matt Ulery, alto saxophonist Greg Ward, and a host of others. He was a member of the Other Quartet and has recorded seven albums as a leader or co-leader. It's easy to hear why. He possesses quite a powerful and expressive sound plus a facile mind.
His newest album, "Headlands" (Woolgathering Records) is his third since leaving New York City for the midwest. Since 2010, Johnson has been Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Wisconsin/Parkside. Located 65 miles north/northwest of Chicago, IL on the shores of Lake Michigan, the trumpeter is often in the Windy City for gigs. The program is a 12-song suite, through-composed with six songs, 4 short improvisations (one for each member of the ensemble), plus a theme at the beginning and a longer reprise at the close (notice how the bass line is similar to that of the "hook" of Sly Stone's "Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin"). Joining Johnson is bassist Ulery, Rob Clearfield (keyboards), and Jon Deitmeyer (drums) - the album recalls the work of Miles Davis in 1969 just before "Bitches Brew", the music channeling mainstream jazz, rock elements, fiery passages, and impressive interplay.
Photo: The Chicago Reader
But Davis comparisons aside, this music moves in its own creative fashion. There are moments when the blend of the active drums with the bass serving often as counterpoint to the soloist, the atmospheric electric piano while the trumpet plays flowing melody lines stand out. The handsome "Fjord" and the darker "Kapoj" are pieces that open in a quieter fashion but both tunes pick up in intensity along the way, especially the latter cut. And there are times when the quartet breaks into hard-edged pieces that push against any soft edges, with roiling sounds from both Johnson and Clearfield plus powerhouse work from the bass and drums. Tunes such as "Serpent Kane", the roller-coaster-like "Mons Calpe", and "Wellenpeitschen" offer a much different feel. The last track mentioned starts quietly with an handsome trumpet intro before the the rhythm section kicks in and the music takes off. The title can be translated as "wave whip" - one hears that in the kicking drums and the rapid-fire melodic lines.
The liner notes state that the suite is "...intended to be listened to in its entirety." That makes great sense, although s few people have the patience to do that on record. You actually do not realize this is a "live" album until the applause comes in at the end. Russ Johnson has created music on "Headlands" that may remind you of the stormy months and events of the late 1960s, a time that many people have been equating to what's been happening in the United States for the past decade. "Headlands" is an album one can play play several times in a row and discover new elements each time. Give it a try.
Every year at this time, I take stock of my life and the health of the United States of America. For every person who tells you that America has become greater in the past two years+, there's another who says that the freedoms of this country are disappearing through the authoritarian actions of a corrupt government. And I will wager that, every year since the beginning of this nation, that's an argument that has been waged. And will be waged long after my grandchildren have their own grandchildren.
I watch my students grapple with these issues plus ones of identity politics, racial discrimination, economic disparity, studying for jobs that are disappearing and not being trained for the new ones that are being created - these students are, mostly, freshmen, and they realize early in their first semester, college or, honestly (in most cases), being away from home for the first time is both frightening and liberating as well as the first real opportunity to stretch and become themselves. They hate to make mistakes even though that's how most of us learn what's important. They respect their teachers but much of the respect is tinged with fear - "what if I get less than an A in this class?" When they read the goals and essential learning outcomes of the First Year Seminar program that I teach/facilitate, they don't quite realize every assumption they have, every "fact" they have held dear for 18, 19, or 20 years, can and should be held under the microscope. It's uncomfortable for them. Only by showing my discomfort that their teacher, a full five decades older than they are, struggled with these issues when I was their age, and continue to struggles with certain issues to this day, that they begin to understand what a class on Critical Thinking and Inquiry is truly concerned with.
My students may not be able to put into words that some of them are scared of the lack of compassion towards their fellow man that see on their electronic devices every day and, sadly, on campuses and in governmental capitals in this country and elsewhere. They want success, happiness, a lifetime of good health, of sunny days and starry nights. They need to believe that there is someone who will clean up the air and the oceans, stop wars, cure diseases, and make the streets safe in every town and city. I tell them those people already exist in this world and there are people in this very classroom who will join them. Because, if we are not here on Earth to make life better, then why are we here? Yep, that old 60's radical-on-the-sidelines part of me slips right out. While I do not admit to them who I voted for or my political affiliation, I do say that "we are in this together". Easy to say but I mean it. One of the paths to a better world is to understand where we all came from and how we got here. That's a life-long class in critical thinking and inquiry. To many of them, that class does not sound like fun and few believe me when I tell them it's part of what keeps me going when I could easily be swamped by "the news of the world." And I always say what my parents said to me - "You'll understand when you get older." Or maybe you won't.
To all of you in this imperfect yet often amazing world, enjoy the Holiday season!
Kind Folk, a quartet that take its name from a song by Kenny Wheeler (1930-2014), came together the year that the great Canadian-born trumpeter and composer passed. All four - trumpeter/flugelhornist John Raymond, alto saxophonist Alex LoRe, bassist Noam Wiesenberg, and drummer Colin Stranahan - are leaders of their own groups. Yet, Kind Folk does not feel neither like a side project or a Kenny Wheeler tribute band. There are many reasons for that but one just might be that the freedom that the group hears in Wheeler's music spurs them find forward and helps them find their own voices in this aural landscape.
Photo: Desmond White
The group's debut album, "Why Not" (Fresh Sound New Talent), features only one tune from Wheeler but it's the one were they got their name. The tune is led by Wiesenberg's thick bass lines and Stranahan's cymbal overtones before the trumpet and alto sax come in. They play the lovely melody, mostly together, but there is a bit of call-and-response and harmony before Raymond takes the first solo. He produces such a clean trumpet sound, as much related to Clifford Brown as to Kenny Wheeler. What's really fun is to listen how he is prodded forward by the drums who, at times, converses with his lines. LoRe, who also possesses a cleaner tone, rises out of the rhythm section, his lines swooping and diving around the bass and drums. The forward motion pulls the listener along willingly.
Besides the opening track and the album closer ("Silence", from the pen of Charlie Haden), the program includes songs by each musician including three short duos, one each for trumpet and drums, trumpet and alto sax, and alto sax and drums. Those are each pleasing interludes but the meat of this group's music is the interactions that each songwriter hopes to create in the longer tunes. Stranahan's "Motian Sickness" opens with drums but when the mournful melody comes in (first lines played by Raymond on flugelhorn and the second by LoRe), one has a better understanding of the title. Raymond's "Landmarks" skitters in on the dancing brushes of Stranahan and, again, the front line shares the melody. This track has an Ornette Coleman feel, right down to the active bass work. There's a hint of Steve Reich in the opening alto sax/trumpet intro to LoRe's "#14" but that disappears as the bad leaps into the angular melody and stop-and-start rhythm.
"Silence" brings the album to a close, a soft coda with a powerful lullaby for a melody. The quartet is, at the beginning, careful with the melody while Wiesenberg's majestic bass lines over Stranahan's soft brushes. There's a hint of "freedom" in the trumpet-saxophone interaction but mostly they stick to the melody. It's a tender finish to a powerful album. "Why Not" stands out from 2018's bumper crop of new releases for the power of its message and its music. Kind Folk does not tour much, especially since each musician is busy as a leader and/or sideman - Colin Stranahan plays in John Raymond's Real Feels while Noam Wiesenberg has toured this year with Chano Dominguez and guitarist Yotam Silberstein plus his own groups. Alex LoRe plays with lots of people in he New York City but mostly with his own quartet. Find this album, then hope the group tours nears you so that you feel this music in a live setting.
Tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Steve Treseler is a Seattle, WA-based musician who is slowly but surely building a career in both music and music education. He first recorded with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen on his 2013 sophomore album "Center Song." Upon the 2014 death of Kenny Wheeler, the saxophonist called Ms. Jensen, who was touring with her quartet of Martin Wind (bass), Jon Wikan (drums), and Geoffrey Keezer (piano), and suggested they make a tribute album. They put the tracks down in March of 2015 plus played two shows in Seattle's The Royal Room. Two tracks on the 10-song program come from that live show (more about those later).
Three and 1/2 years after the recording and live shows, Whirlwind Recordings has released those sessions under the title "Invisible Sounds: For Kenny Wheeler." Treseler and Ms. Jensen created a list of thirty songs and lined them down to nine for this album. The album opens and closes with "Foxy Trot" (from Wheeler's 1984 ECM release "Double, Double You") - each version opens quietly busy soon the quintet hits the ground running. Keezer, Wikan, and Wind create a powerfully rhythmical storm for both soloists and neither one disappoints. These musicians do not pay it safe as both versions thunder forward. Ms. Jensen plays tribute to the late Wheeler by opening her solos on both track with a taste of the famous Wheeler fire before taking off on her own sonic adventures. Her sister Christine, herself a leader of a delightful Canadian-based big band, play a fiery soprano sax solo on the studio version.
Besides two short tracks, the 75-second "Duet" (for trumpet and tenor sax) and the 1:56 "Ingalude"), the songs stretch over seven minutes. The one exception to that statement is "546" which, at 3:51, starts as a quiet ballad that resembles John Coltrane's "Central Park West" and substitutes the sweet soprano voice of Katie Jacobson for Wikan's drums. Halfway through, Keezer's piano powers the song forward while the drummer returns to drive the band.
The other tune from the live session is a rollicking New Orleans-flavored "Old Times". Not just rollicking but also roaring with the pounding piano fueling Ms.Jensen's hard-edged solo while Wikan dances on below.The intensity level drops a notch or two when Treseler's tenor sax enters but the power slowly, steadily, builds back up. Back in the studio, Keezer channels McCoy Tyner for the powerful chords and rippling piano flourishes that color "Everyone's Song But My Own" (from Wheeler's 1987 Soul Note album "Flutter By, Butterfly") - after the stunning opening, the piece drops into a medium-tempo and the quintet moves forward.
There's not a dull track on the album, so let me just say that "Invisible Sounds: For Kenny Wheeler" is a delight from start to finish. Ingrid Jensen and Steve Treseler shine throughout as do Jon Wikan, Martin Wind (the foundation glue of the music), and Geoffrey Keezer (who is downright brilliant). No pale imitation here, this is real music!
Here's a track to enjoy:
Now about that live show in The Royal Room. NPR recorded for its "Jazz Night in America" series and you can watch it in its entirety below. Goes well with fresh Holiday food or the ubiquitous leftovers paired with a glass of good wine and/or craft beer!
Composer, arranger, educator and guitarist Darrell Katz has lived and worked in the Boston, MA, area now for over four decades. In 1985, he was one of the founders of the Jazz Composers Alliance, an organization with aims similar to those of the Chicago's AACM and New York City's Jazz Composers Collective; among those aims was to promote the work of a variety of artists in the area . JCA also formed an orchestra to work whose early concerts and commissions featured the likes of Julius Hemphill, Sam Rivers, Dave Holland, Maria Schneider, Fred Ho, and others. The JCAO has been featured on the majority of Katz's albums.
His latest aural adventure, "Rats Live On No Evil Star" (JCA Recordings), is a sprawling set of songs that cover many topics and myriad genres. The opening track, the title song, is a multi-part composition originally composed for the chamber music duo Marimolin in 1987. Here, it is expanded for the 19-piece ensemble. The evocative marimba work of Vessela Stoynova, the powerful violin playing of Helen Sherrah-Davies, the wordless vocals of long-time JCAO associate Rebecca Shrimpton, the saxophones solos of Rick Stone (alto) and Phil Scarff (tenor), are highlights; then again, so is the brilliant orchestration and the use of Bill Lowe's expressive tuba along with Mike Connors funky drumming.
Photo: Andrew Hurlbut
After that concerto-style opening track comes the three-part "How To Clean a Sewer" - at 35+ minutes, the music goes in so many directions. Part I, titled "3 or 4 Kinds of Blues", has so much going on, different groupings of instruments "conversing" with each other all revolving around a simple blues melody. Again, the marimba is a major rhythmic and melodic voice as is the violin. Part II, "Windfall Lemons (air, earth, water, fire)", is also blues-based but this time revolves around poem written by Katz's late wife Paula Tatarunis. It's fascinating how Ms. Shrimpton can make such "dark" lyrics sound so inviting. Part III, "Attention", also revolves around lyrics: this time, it's Simone Weil's quote "Attention is the rest and purest form of generosity." Now, one hears the influence of Neal Hefti and Henry Mancini in the arrangement as well as more modern arrangers.
By this time, one is already 49 minutes into the album and there are still four more tracks. Each one of the remaining cut stands out but it's the album closer, "Red Sea", that truly stands out. Ms. Shrimpton adapted an essay from Ms.Tatarunis, a remembrance of a fascinating man that poet had met early in life who returned other life much later. The vocalist also wrote the music along with Katz who plays guitar on the track. This trio piece is rounded out by pianist Alizon Lissance, yet another musician on the album who works at Berklee College with the leader and vocalist. This music is quite handsome underneath Ms. Shrimpton's heartfelt vocal. It's a gentle ending to a program that has great energy, at times, blending flashes of anger with long passages of brilliant music.
"Rats Live On an Evil Star" is, like other Darrell Katz recordings, one that you should take time with. Enjoy the music, the hairpin curves, the quick turns, the powerful lyrics yet don't ignore the settings and the orchestrations that Katz creates throughout. The brilliant juxtaposition of the mallet instruments with the "low" sounds of the baritone saxophone and the tuba, the voice with the violin, the sectional work and the short, pithy, solos; that and more makes this album an exciting adventure from beginning to end.
Here's one of the tracks not in the review, "To An Angel":
Ernesto Cervini wears many hats. He's a drummer, composer, arranger, publicist, husband, father, and brother to vocalist Amy Cervini, all the while leading or co-leading several ensembles. One of those ensembles is Turboprop, a sextet that features bassist Dan Loomis (he of the thick tones and penchant for melodies), pianist Adrean Farrugia, tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, alto and soprano saxophonist Tara Davidson (she also contributes flute), and trombonist William Carn. The sextet has just issued its third album, "Abundance" (Anzic Records) that is an aptly titled collection of originals and standards. The album gets its name from Loomis's "Abundance Overture", a splendid tune with a folky opening melody (played by flute and accompanied by Cervini's sticks. The horns enter, the piece takes on a jaunty feel and everyone plays with great joy.
This is quite a versatile ensemble that often sounds as if it's much larger. Farrugia's "The Ten Thousand Things" is a high-powered romp with moments where the band drops out and you just hear the composer's fine chord work. The band really flies during Frahm's muscular solo, powers by a rampaging rhythm section. The leader's "Song For Cito", perhaps the only song you'll ever hear dedicated to the former manager of the Toronto Blue Jays Cito Gaston. Carn's hardy trombone solo is followed by a high-powered romp from the pianist. "Gramps", the other original by Cervini, is a ballad dedicated to the drummer's grandfather yet it too has an intensity that shows up as the Ms. Davidson moves through her solo. The piece does return to its gentle roots as the ensemble slows to the finish.
On an album loaded with highlights, none shine brighter than the two back-to-back standards. First, there's the powerful "My Shining Hour", a Howard Arlen that Cervini heard on a Geoff Keezer solo piano album. The arrangement opens with a splay of all the instruments before the pianist leads the way into the melody that is played by the reeds and trombone. It's the trombone that gets the lead on the gentle reading of "Smile", the Charlie Chaplin composition that the composer, writer, and director wrote for the soundtrack of his 1936 movie "Modern Times." The spotlight is on Carn for the first three minutes of the piece but do pay attention to how the rhythm section frames his solo. Loomis steps out for a solo - he's so melodic, always going for the emotional heart of the song and not showing off his technique.
"Abundance" is the sound of a sextet that is comfortable with each other, willing to challenge each other, and having a great time making good music. There's much to enjoy when Ernesto Cervini's Turboprop gets together - give them a close listen!
Every once is a while, the reviewer receives an album that wins you over initially on the strength of the joy that the musicians exude. Such is the case with the debut recording by drummer, composer, and arranger Henry Conway III. "With Pride For Dignity" (self-released) finds the Detroit, MI native leading a trio that features Kenny Banks Jr. (piano) and Kevin Smith (drums). It's a cooperative ensemble with all three musicians contributing arrangements and/or songs. Listening to the opening track "Slippery" (composed by Ray Brown and arranged by bassist Smith), the first impressions I had after "how delightful" was how much the overall blues feel sounded like the musical approach of Phineas Newborn Jr. and what a lyrical bassist Smith is. The leader does not impose his will on any song but you cannot miss his presence. The title track (composed by Banks Jr.) is an episodic journey that, at times, feels like the history of jazz going into your ears. Note how the tempo changes happen on a dime, how the music swings with power, and all three musicians are tuned in to each other.
Photo: Adrian H. Tillman
The trio pays tribute to composer/musicians such as Duke Ellington ("Cottontail"), Jimmy Heath ("Gingerbread Boy"), Detroit native, and mentor to the drummer, Marcus Printup ("Hopscotch"), and the afore-mentioned Phineas Newborn Jr. ("Sugar Ray"). Each on of the tunes shines on the power of its melody and the reinvention of a modern ensemble. Both the Printup and Newborn Jr. songs are "deep blues" with the former having an irresistible rhythm as well as the hint of "rent party" piano while the latter has such a jaunty feel with Banks Jr. digging into his solo over the walking bass lines and the "easy" beats from the drummer. "Cottontail" speeds forward on the power of the brilliant brushes work and an inventive bass line (here's where the listener detects the Ray Brown influence on Smith). The leader starts on supplying the rhythm of "Gingerbread Boy" aided and abetted by the bassist and the pianist's left hand. Once Conerway III switches to his sticks, the trio is off on a romp.
The pianist's "The Feel Goods" and the drummer's "Carvin's Agreement" closes the proceedings; the former is a delightful medium-tempo blues and the latter a solo drum piece. Even though there are no ballads on the program, neither does that lack bother this reviewer. At this time of such negativity in the U.S. and elsewhere, the brightness of this music, the obvious joy of the musicians as they move through the songs, the promise of more-to-come, is a breath of fresh air. Plus, this album reminds you of the power that the blues has to settle one's mind and to assure you we're all on this trip together. Kudos to Henry Conerway III and his trio!
Over the past four decades, pianist, composer, educator, and author Kenny Werner has created music that can move one's feet, touch one's heart, capture one's mind, and explore the far corners of our world as well as our worlds of emotions. "The Space" (Pirouet Records) is his 35th release as a leader or co-leader and his fifth solo recording. The program features three originals, two pieces from label owner and saxophonist Jason Seizer, two standards ("You Must Believe in Spring" and "If I Should Lose You"), and a fascinating take on a Keith Jarrett improvisation. The Jarrett piece, "Encore From Tokyo", an excerpt of a piece first heard on the 1976 ECM album "Sun Bear Concerts", is one of those delightful pano romps the composer/improviser creates during his shows - here, Werner's performance finds the joy of the piece, the uptempo yet entrancing rhythm, and the lyricism that hints at Charles Lloyd's "Forest Flower."
The title track opens the album. At 15:57, it's the longest track on the recording, moving from melody to rhythm to a pleasing combination of both, soothing the listener, the "spacious" (no pun intended) sound and clear audio makes every note stand out. Really, what the composer and the pianist expects is that the listener will surrender to the charms of the music, throw away labels, allow the music to bot out out extraneous sounds, close one's eyes, and relax. This is not a "new age" trance dance but an adventure in which the listener is allowed into the mind of the creator. There is no other piece on the album that sounds like this one yet it sets the stage for all that follows, "loosens up" the listener, and you are ready to follow Werner everywhere his fertile mind takes him.
And, it's a treat. From the Jarrett tune to the lovely take of Michel LeGrand's "...Believe in Spring" to both of Seizer's elegant compositions to the gracious flow of the Rainger/Robin classic "If I Should Lose You" (from the 1936 movie "Rose of the Rancho"), this is music that gets its hooks (pun intended) into you. The other two Werner originals are "Fifth Movement" and the album's close track "Fall From Grace." The former, which does right after the Jarrett piece, is somewhat more introspective yet also displays flashes of lengthy melodic flourishes throughout; but, listen to the pianist's left hand as it suggests both a rhythm and a bass line. The latter cut opens with a handsome, stately, melody. The steady left hand chords set the pace and do not let down, hinting at a J. S. Bach air. That slow but steady pace makes the piece very much of a closing statement.
"The Space" deserves tome listened to all the way through time and time again. Kenny Werner continues to create music that follows no one's directions but his own. The avid listener is the grateful beneficiary.
I can't claim the sobriquet "Thelonious The Onliest" for my own creation (there are numerous references to where it came from) but it is certainly a fitting description. Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982) first came to critical notice in the mid-1940s during the birth of bebop and stayed popular through the 1960s. The native of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, created a unique style with references to the "rent party" piano of James P. Johnson, the rollicking stye of Thomas "Fats" Waller, and others but, really, nobody sounded like Monk. His splintered lines and fractured rhythms stand beside his fascinating melodies as a touchstone for pianists and other instrumentalists over the past seven decades and there is no reason to think that influence will ever dissipate. He played and recorded in many settings, from solo to trio to quartet to large ensembles yet his musical style never wavered. Songs such as "'Round Midnight", "Mistersioso", "Crepuscule With Nellie", "Well You Needn't" and so many more, show up on set lists every night in clubs and on stages from Chicago to Shanghai, New York City to New South Wales with musicians continually trying to decode his compositions.
2017 was Monk's "Centennial Year" and 2018 is shaping up to be the year where artists are making recordings of Monk's oeuvre.. Before the end of December, there will be three albums on the market. First out of the gate in mid-August was "Work: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk", a solo gem from guitarist Miles Okazaki. The guitarist, who has worked and/or recorded with Jane Monheit, Steve Coleman, and Jonathan Finlayson plus many more, started the project in early 2017 and discovered he needed to learn a slew of the songs before he recorded. The album is only a digital form, available through Bandcamp, but Okazaki's liner notes (found on his website at www.milesokazaki.com/albums/work-2018/) tells the tale of how he came to record this project and why, what guitar he used, and about the importance of fellow guitarist Liberty Ellman in bringing this project to fruition.
If you are a long-time fan of the man and his music, it's a delight to hear what Okazaki does with the composition. It's important to note what he doesn't do, including any overdubbing, changing melodies or even key signatures, never utilizing different guitars, just his trusting Gibson Charlie Christian archtop guitar. What he does do is allow the listener to soak in each and every melody as well as expose the public to less often recorded Monk tunes ("North of the Sun", "Stuffy Turkey", and "A Merrier Christmas"). There is no shortage of rhythm on the album and the guitarist's approach truly brings out the influence of the blues on Monk. Plus, dig the bossa nova influence on "Bye-Ya", the flamenco-like lines of the title track, and the emotionally strong take of "'Round Midnight." There are moments you might think you're hearing Mary Halvorson or Howard Roberts but comparisons disappear after two or three listenings.
You can purchase "Work" as one large digital file or as six separate files of approximately 50 minutes. Whatever you choose to do, Miles Okazaki will, at turns, charm you, make you laugh, and become wistful. All that's there is the music of Thelonious Monk - just listen!
In the summer of 2017, pianist Frank Kimbrough was invited to perform in a Monk Centennial program to take place later that year at The Jazz Standard in New York City. He assembled a band that featured multi-reed master Scott Robinson, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Billy Drummond. After the concert, a long-time friend suggested that Kimbrough and company record the entire Thelonious Monk songbook. The pianist felt it was possible and, with the help of another good friend plus the head of Sunnyside Records François Zalacain, the project was put in motion. The band (minus Robinson) played 15 songs in April 2018 one night at Jazz at Kitano's in NYC and then 15 more the next night (with Robinson). The ensemble them headed to engineer Matt Balistaris's Maggie's Farm recording studio and, over the span of six days (May 22-24 and May 28-30), recorded 68 tunes (Kimbrough returned in June to record the two piano solos).
The result, to be released by Sunnyside on November 23, is titled "Monk's Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk" - the album comes as an entire six-album set and each CD has a subtitle. The music is delightful throughout not just for the interactions of this fine group but also for the fact that Robinson is featured on tenor and bass saxophones, trumpet, echo cornet (a cornet with a fourth valve and a detachable second bell), bass clarinet, and contrabass sarrusophone! Once the listener gets over the sound of the lower reeds, you hear just how masterful Robinson is and how he can swing on absolutely every instrument he plays. He even plays trumpet and tenor sax on one track ("Thelonious"). It's no gimmick - it adds to the joyous sounds emanating from the speakers.
The quartet does not mess around with the songs, no radical departures but also no rote repetition of the originals. Besides the two solo pianist pieces, there is a splendid piano-tenor sax duo on "Something In Blue" where the stride piano influence on the composer comes shining through. also, dig the bass - bass saxophone duo on "Reflections" for just how sweet both instruments sound and work together to tell Monk's story. Kudos to all involved, from the four musicians to the excellent work of Balistaris to engineer, edit, and mix. The sound is so fine and clear, the low notes of the contrabass sarrusophone and bass saxophone rumble in your gut, Reid's class bass work stands out, Drummond's cymbals shimmer at the sides of the spectrum, and the piano tones ringing out.
I have had the opportunity to live with this music for the past month so, listening to four or five tracks each time I sit down (more on several occasions), and, if you buy "Monk's Dreams", you'll want to do the same (even though bingeing seems to be the "in thing"). I recommend you do purchase this album (as I do with the Miles Okazaki digital album) - you'll come away with an even greater appreciation of Thelonious Monk and be blown away by the brilliant musicianship!
Frank Kimbrough, Rufus Reid, Billy Drummond, and Scott Robinson (and his instrument menagerie) appears on November 27 and 28 at the Jazz Standard, 116 E. 27th Street, New York City, NY - call them at 212-576-2232 or go to jazzstandard.com.
I did mention that there three recordings that will be released before the close of 2018. The last one to reach the public is the work of pianist Jed Distler - go here to read more.