Saturday, January 14, 2012

Jimmy Owens and the music of Thelonious Monk on “The Monk Project”

Jimmy Owen's "The Monk Project"

The music of Thelonious Monk never fails to intrigue and entertain me. The maestro’s music could be dissonant and yet melodic, lyrical yet quirky and angular, sometimes seemingly unresolved yet confoundedly memorable with no end to rhythmic surprises. The trumpeter Jimmy Owens, who has previously revisited the music of trumpeter/arranger Thad Jones and the trombonist/composer Tom McIntosh, this time attempts some of Monk’s most identifiable music on his latest release The Monk Project.

For this project Owens was able to enlist the services of fellow NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron on piano, along with a fine rhythm team of bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Winard Harper and a front line that includes Owen’s on trumpet and flugelhorn, the rambunctious trombone of Wycliffe Gordon, the talented tenor of Marcus Strickland and the impressive multi-instrumentalist Howard Johnson.

Part of the success of this entertaining album is Owens’ choice of material. Most of the songs have slowly made their way into the canon of jazz standards. Owen’s arrangements unabashedly approach the music from a blues sensibility, humanizing the sometimes-esoteric qualities of some of Monk’s more challenging compositions. Starting off with Monk’s re-creation of  the playful “Sweet Georgia Brown”, his “Bright Mississippi”, ‘Owen’s, Gordon and Strickland  create a cheerful front line sound as Johnson’s tuba creates the New Orleans’style bottom.

“Well You Needn’t”  is played  surprisingly slowly with Owens’ accentuating the ballad qualities of the song on his mellow sounding flugelhorn. The interest is accentuated in the rhythmic changes carried by Winard Harper’ drums as he dances over Barron’s steady vamps on piano.

“Blue Monk” is transformed into a dirge with Gordon’s surly sounding trombone featured, growling and slurring its way to your brain. Strickland is given a chance to show where the music comes from with a gutsy tenor solo steeped in the blues. Mr. Barron tickles the ivories in true barrelhouse fashion in a celebration of a time gone by.

“Stuffy Turkey” is a more conventional offering where  Marcus Strickland and bassist Kenny Davis have a chance to build solo statements free from flair but filled with intelligent, economical choices.

“Pannonica” is a slow melancholy ballad , originally written by Monk for his benefactress, the Baroness “Nica”  De Koenigswarter. Owen’s is at his most lyrical here and his warm tone conjures up images of a time of more leisurely elegance and grace. 

On Monk’s less familiar “Let’s Cool One”, Owen’s goes for a ¾ time with Strickland taking the lead on a fluid tenor solo leading to a airy, buoyant trumpet solo by Owens.

The only non-Monk tune on the album is Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Don’t Have That Swing) ” where a student of Owen’s transcribed Monk’s original orchestration of this tune for the horns on this arrangement. Howard Johnson’s bellowing tuba is initially featured.  A solo by Owens and then the brash Wycliffe Gordon’s boisterous trombone complete the rounds on this one.

Perhaps the most challenging piece tackled on the album is Monk’s shifting “Brilliant Corners” and my personal favorite. Owen’s and company navigate the shifts in the contorted melody line in a deliberately slow cadence, quickening the tempo at precise junctions in the tune to great effect. Kenny Barron’s deep blues drenched solo midway is a delight and Owen’s own soulful interpretation of the melody hits the mark before Johnson, Strickland and Gordon all join the fray in a feast of interpretive sounds.

On “Reflections” Owen’s starts off unaccompanied, with his trumpet sounding deeply reflective. He is later joined by Barron’s simple piano lines and then is shadowed by Gordon’s expressive trombone. The two horns intertwine in perfect harmony briefly before the stage yields to Gordon’s solo trombone in his most restrained and lyrical of performances on the album.

The finale is Monk’s timeless “Epistrophy”. The horns back Owen’s trumpet in bright, crackling fashion. A rousing baritone saxophone solo by Howard Johnson creates another timber for the ear to enjoy as Harper and Davis make sure the song swings on. Owen’s, then Strickland, and then Gordon each get a chance to make their closing statements and they each do so with concise, well thought out lines that are both interesting and evocative especially the playful Gordon. When the horns play together in the closing minutes of the song their precision is executed flawlessly and seemingly effortless. For those who love the music of Monk played by expert musicians who know and love it, Jimmy Owen’s The Monk Project will not disappoint.

Musicians: Jimmy Owens, trumpet, flugelhorn;Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; Howard Johnson, tuba, baritone saxophone;Kenny Barron,piano; Kenny Davis, bass; Winard Harper,drums.

Recorded : IPO Records at Sear Sound Studio, NYC June 2nd & 8th 2011

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