The tribute is big stuff in jazz and the tribute to Thelonious Monk is really big stuff. That Jimmy Owens would choose to do such a thing on his debut recording as a leader on IPO Recordings is gutsy, to say the least, but The Monk Project largely works because of the trumpeter’s commitment to Monk’s insistence that those tackling his work “play it right.”
The jazz world is a tricky one, sometimes a maddening mistress. It can be narrow-minded and big-headed, often snubbing the “outside world” in favour of its own mores. This approach, while sometimes vital when it comes to preserving jazz traditions, can create a sense that nothing is moving ahead.
Happily, The Monk Project is fresh and funky. It breathes, moves forward with cheek. It swings like it damn well should. It is jazz “played right.”
Owens has already been featured on a number of big band and small group recordings, including IPO’s One More: The Music of Thad Jones. For this recording, he’s enlisted a careful crew that includes saxophonist Marcus Strickland, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Kenny Davis, drummer Winard Harper, and baritone saxophonist/tubist Howard Johnson.
Now anyone who knows even the slightest thing about Monk knows that his approach to piano was less than conventional. He took to it with mind and spirit; he wanted to illustrate that the ivories had a pulse and a beating heart to go with it. And Monk wasn’t afraid to screw a good melody around until it got giddy and thanked him open-handedly for the good time.
One of the magical things about The Monk Project is how Owens, also an educator, turns the keys to the arrangements over to some young lions to try to capture that playfulness. Eyal Vilner, a saxophonist/clarinetist, gets to handle the arranging duties on the record’s opening track. His take on “Bright Mississippi” is sprightly, cut with splish-splashes of horns and cheerful percussive control. There’s some awesome unison playing, too.
My favourite track is the dodgy lowdown blues of “Blue Monk.” The piece is perhaps an obvious choice, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t a fun track. The song takes the step of New Orleans funeral march and the band snarls like hell, with Gordon taking to a plunger-muted trombone solo like a wino shouting curses from an alleyway. This is murky, dirty jazz.
Out of the muck is another familiar Monk tune, “Pannonica.” Owens’ company gets to play a slowed-down version of the original, which opens up some more space thanks to its careful pace. Solos are immaculate and clear, with a reflective air taking hold when Owens’ trumpet takes hold.
So while it would be easy to abandon this as just another tribute project, Owens’ exuberance for the music and his nose for the future keep it from sinking into the monotony that plagues too many junctions of the modern jazz world. The Monk Project is a lively, daring vision of Thelonious Monk that looks ahead at where this great musician can take us. It is not a static idea, thank goodness, and it pops like good jazz should.