The role of Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982) in the formation of what became the modern jazz scene has been documented extensively in the years since his death. As popular as he remains to this very day, he is scarcely imitated. Monk’s compositions are some of the most notoriously hard-to-play works in all of American music. Only the very best players can play Monk tunes with any hope of credibility, and even then such excursions are rare. Miles Davis was one of the few top talents to make regular use of more than one, and his are the definitive non-Monk versions of “Straight, No Chaser”.
There are a couple of very notable exceptions. One is Carmen Sings Monk, a 1991 album that paired the late Carmen McRae with a set of Monk tunes, augmented with the lyrics of Jon Hendricks (of the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross); this remains the only significant vocal rendering of Monk’s music to date. Another would be the late Steve Lacy, a veteran soprano saxophonist who in the late-1960s chose to devote the bulk of his remaining 30-plus years focusing exclusively on Monk tunes. He remains the all-time leading interpreter of Monk on record. The single-best recording of Monk’s music must be Anthony Braxton’s Six Monk’s Compositions (1987), in particular the Braxton quartet’s take on the infamous “Brilliant Corners”.
Does anything on Monk’s Bones match up to that standard? Certainly. This is the third album by Monk’s Music Trio—Si Perkoff, Sam Bevan, and Chuck Bernstein—but the first in which the trio is augmented by extra musicians, one of whom is a certifiable Hall-of-Famer. The addition of Roswell Rudd for this session is spot-on, adding heaps of gravitas and personal experience with the music. The absence of reeds is noticeable, since Monk’s most famous interpreters (Coltrane, Johnny Griffin Charlie Rouse, Steve Lacy) have tended to be saxophonists, but it’s hardly a detriment since the brass is so capable.
Max Perkoff, the son of Si, is the youngest of the group, but that is discernible only from pictures. He plays with a healthy, mature sense of balance, avoiding the temptation to overblow. They get a nice contrapuntal growl going on “Round Midnight,” laying down one of the best takes ever of this much-covered composition. (The definitive Monk version is a 20-minute solo fantasia on the reissued Thelonious Himself CD.)
Pianist Perkoff leads the group, as he must. He plays as if liberated from the task of holding down the melody. It would be awfully hard to consistently play Monk in these contexts without a pianist who has a personal familiarity with the music. This has been the undoing of more than one Monk cover: the horn men can catch up mid-stream, but the rhythm must be on from the start. This is the case here.
Almost all of the album mines a similar vein, tasty and competent, but a bit restrained. There is nothing truly visionary on display—nothing, that is, until the final track, “Friday the Thirteenth,” which has always been one of Monk’s less-accessible songs. The quintet takes a ten-minute excursion into the densest of muted effects over a galloping, almost Latin beat. This track not only raises the bar for Monk covers, setting a standard that may be useful to themselves and others in the years to come, but it also elevates Monk’s Bones from an album of interest to Monkophiles only to one of the best jazz releases of the new year.