Jimmy Owens,
The Monk Project
(IPO, 2011)

By the time Thelonious Monk died in 1982, he had become known as a master jazz pianist and composer, a giant of American music. In some instances he was more respected than enjoyed; his improvisational, free-wheeling and complex style made his music seem occasionally out there, and his own eccentric personal style did little to contribute to a serious discussion of his music. Still, he was a critic's darling with a sizable fan base, and he was worshipped by other musicians who had the chops to know what he was doing.

On this CD, trumpeter Jimmy Owens has assembled a fine band -- Wycliffe Gordon, Marcus Strickland, Howard Johnson, Kenny Baron, Kenny Davis and Winard Harper -- to interpret the Monk songbook. By 2011, when this was recorded, enough time had gone by that Monk's compositions didn't seem so eccentric anymore; now they sound contemporary. What he pioneered has become staples of modern jazz and, as such, more familiar to contemporary ears. So, if we don't have the shock of the new, we still have the astonishment at the beauty. This is fine music, finely played.

These musicians never imitate Monk. They insist on finding their own way. On "Blue Monk," for example, Gordon plays a trombone solo that sounds like distorted speech . He growls and barks his way through the tune so that you indeed feel Monk's blues in the song. Strickland punctuates with a marvelous tenor sax solo, and Barron's piano comments on it all. It's a masterful performance. Owens' trumpet introduces and closes the song, holding it all together.

The rest of the album is up to that performance. It's both challenging and accessible, skillfully and lovingly played. This is highly recommended.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

5 May 2012

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