Early Gil Evans-style little big band with a great drummer plays Thelonious Monk compositions.
Ben Riley's illustrious career has included, famously, a period with the longstanding Thelonious Monk Quartet -- and with that quartet's undervalued tenor saxophonist, Charlie Rouse, membership in the Sphere quartet, dedicated to Monk's music. Monk's in his drumming, notably through a tremendous performance of "Green Chimneys", one of the last of Monk's compositions to be premiered by the genius himself, and the one extended item here which might be called a Monk performance.
Monk performances, as contrasted with performances of Monk's compositions, have been essayed by -- among others -- the current Monk's Music Trio formed by Chuck Bernstein, and by Roswell Rudd and the late Steve Lacy. John Stetch had a solo piano CD saturated in Monk not long ago. The point of these performances is that they go so far into Monk that they expound emotional implications Monk worked or condensed into his compositions, operating with a different range of response than that of, for instance, Fred Hersch, whose brilliant solo piano CD of Monk compositions retains much of their sort of empathy while delivering a very accurate translation of Monk into a less idiosyncratic idiom. From what I've heard of the old-time German avant-garde-ist Alexander von Schlippenbach's recent project of recording every Monk composition he could find, he may be more of the complete immersion school. Dennis Mackrel's Monk scores for the new Dizzy Gillespie alumni big-band follow up implications of Monk's music along lines established by Gillespie, a sort of marriage of muses. While "Green Chimneys" here is a Monk performance, the rest of the set, while never exactly transgressing Monkian priorities, is for the most part something else, an independent band with roots in Birth of the Cool, early Gil Evans and Tadd Dameron, playing a repertoire of Monk compositions. I say this in full awareness of Riley's and the arranger Don Sickler's involvement in other distinguished ensembles named for and inspired by Monk.
"Let's Call This" is a nice start, with a somewhat Clark Terry-ish trumpet from the set's arranger, Don Sickler, and a tenor saxophone solo from, I think, Wayne Escoffery (it might be Jimmy Green, the details Concord supplied aren't clear), with a proper gravitas worthy of Charlie Rouse -- like the tenor solo on "Rhythm-A-Ning" too. The statement in the blurb supplied, that "Rhythm-A-Ning" is a "somewhat lesser-known [Monk] piece . . ." had presumably not been shown to Ben Riley, who would certainly recognise it as ignorant nonsense. Actually Riley, and especially the bassist on that really very famous Monk number, put in a colossal effort throughout in order to secure Monkian values. The prominence of the baritone sax in arranged ensemble "Rhythm-A-Ning" creates, however, a dark fudgy texture a long way from Monk.
"Gallop's Gallop" certainly is a lesser-known Monk number, and the performance here, with impressive flowing alto from Bruce Williams, would not help anyone in a blindfold test to identify the piece's composer. While "Nutty" is more Monkian, as in other titles the use of fragments and phrases from Monk -- sometimes imported from other compositions -- doesn't intensify any Monk-ness. Hall Overton made use of extracts, and arranged transcripts of Monk piano solos in arranging Monk compositions for concerts in which Monk played. He did so, however, without the virtuosity which gives some charts here an air of cleverness, which by Monk's standards can come near to striking false notes of slickness. This is far from the explosion of ebullience which sometimes came from Monk, and which Rudd excels at.
The idea of Monk performances by a piano-less ensemble, with an electric guitar prominent, would only be remarkable in the way the blurb suggests, if the music had been closely Monkian in ways this set for the most part simply isn't. The finest of tuning would be required to correct the music into the intensely Monkian, and this set has to be identified as by a band of different, still individual character. Its values are far from unworthy, but they're other than Monk's.
Except on "Green Chimneys", which stands out above the guitar-prominent "Pannonica" or "Bemsha Swing" with likeably sparky guitar, or "Shuffle Boil", probably because the theme is pretty well untameable. The rhythmic conception is inseparable from any attempt to play that tune, it's untranslatable, whether by Hersch or Tommy Flanagan. Thus we have what I think is Jay Brandford's baritone, light-toned, and Don Sickler maybe nearer Thad Jones, and Freddy Bryant very impressive on guitar, and the band for once not merely in perfect unity with Riley and the bassist (Kiyoshi Kitagawa or Peter Washington) but able to keep up with Riley.
This CD features -- it has to be insisted in what's perhaps the most demanding review to which it could be subjected -- a fairly distinguished little big band with trumpet, three reeds, and rhythm, with some spirited little individual effects in Sickler's ingenious scores. After the last full performance, "Green Chimneys", the one-minute theme statement tailpiece "Epistrophy" finally delivers all the gravitas and passion Monk needs.