There was something in the air in the past year, and part of it was the recent centennial of the birth of pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. What else can account for the 2018 release of two very different recordings of Monk’s entire catalog of published compositions, about 70 strong. The less obvious set was recorded by guitarist Miles Okazaki using no overdubs, a remarkable achievement. Pianist Frank Kimbrough has been a Monk fan and interpreter for decades—of course, what modern jazz pianist has not had to deal with the legacy of Monk?—and his approach may be more difficult than Okazaki’s. Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk presents the music in the format most often used by Monk himself, a quartet with a single horn player plus piano/bass/drums, mostly operating within the modern bebop language without massive liberties. The challenge, simply put, is to honor the music in its own vernacular without seeming slavish or irrelevant.
The challenge is met by this impressive box set.
Some of the music here makes a conscious choice of strict fidelity to the original, although that is rare. Kimbrough’s solo piano reading of “Crepuscule with Nellie” sounds, to these ears, like a note-for-note recreation of a classic Monk performance, without an improvisation. It set the table, then, for the quartet’s follow-up, a version of “Think of One” that does not choose to overtly ape Monk, featuring a stabbing kind of swing from drummer Billy Drummond and bassist Rufus Reid and two improvisations from Kimbrough and Scott Robinson’s tenor saxophone that have oodles of fun exploiting the song’s famous repeated note element. It is a joy and not slave-ish at all.
The quartet Kimbrough recruited played a Monk-only show with him a few years ago, and the decision to bring them back for the whole kit and kaboodle is largely inspired. The rhythm section has experience playing Monk’s music with the generation directly inspired by the master (for example, Kenny Barron), and they are solid, creative, and able to make every move necessary. Robinson is, theoretically, the wild card. A multi-instrumentalist who is at home playing in Maria Schneider’s big band and improvising freely with the avant-garde community, Robinson is as consequential to this recording as Kimbrough himself. He uses the broadest range of tools—both in the various instruments he plays and in his breadth of stylistic comfort. He can sound as straight-ahead as Monk’s stalwart Charlie Rouse, as pretty as Johnny Hodges, as aggressive as Johnny Griffin, or—only once in a while here—as antic and free as Ivo Perlman. There are a few places where Robinson’s versatility gets the better of the band. On “Thelonious” he plays both trumpet and tenor, but given the relatively short length of the performance (under five minutes), this seems indulgent. And on “Bluehawk” he switches back and forth between open and muted trumpet, call-and-response style, so quickly that it seems a bit like shtick. That’s rare, however.
Having Scott Robinson in the band means that you not only have a fluid and imaginative improviser on hand but you also can deploy any of his many horns. Robinson’s reed options range from the most-often-used tenor saxophone to a variety of deeper varieties (bass saxophone—played with a gorgeous tone that avoids any concern you might have about a gruffness that comes with the bigger saxes—as well as bass clarinet and contrabass sarrusophone, whatever that is). On “Bemsha Swing”, for example, the big horn Robinson uses not only makes this track sound like nothing from the Monk catalog but also, oddly, emphasizes the very Monk-ness of the tune, with its bumping/thumping tones and repetitions that come out more plainly in this deep register. Then Robinson solos and demonstrates how such insistent rhythms set up and complement the most elegant and floating melodies if the improviser is good. And Robinson most certainly is.
Some of the best tracks are, inevitably perhaps, the lesser known tunes. “Humph” is one I don’t know, though it sounds utterly and immediately like a Monk tune. And Kimbrough’s solo here is a perfect example of how a modern pianist can absorb Monk’s influence and play with a Monk-ian punch and playfulness without actually copying the original. “Two Timer,” a hip and geometric theme with a boogaloo groove, is another that is rarely played, and the band approaches it from a more modern, somewhat less Monk-ish angle, perhaps less hemmed in by repeated listenings to how the master did it. Did you know that Monk composed some holiday tunes? “A Merrier Christmas” is a gentle ballad that deserves more play, and the quartet treats it gently, whereas “Stuffy Turkey” is a swinging ditty over “Rhythm” changes that has a classically hip Monk-ian bridge.
Some of the most familiar tunes, however, come roaring at you with a combination of ease and freshness. “In Walked Bud” features one of Robinson’s low horns and the momentum of the repetitive/descending theme makes it sound fleet. Kimbrough’s solo ripples, and then Robinson plays one the finest improvisations on all the six discs, ripping runs, holding long tones, finding spots of lyricism and yet also coming close to flying free beyond the standard harmony before pulling back at the last second. The toggled melody of “Mysterioso” is made more compelling by being doubled in Robinson’s lowest register, and his almost sub-sonic solo over a slow, gut-bucket blues walk positively rattles your guts.
Kimbrough also varies his program by occasionally changing the size of the ensemble. “Blue Sphere” is a duet for Robinson and Drummond, for example, which gives the tenor saxophone more harmonic latitude and freedom generally and brings to mind the iconic duet passages that John Coltrane and Elvin Jones exploited so brilliantly in Coltrane’s classic quartet. On this track, Robinson doesn’t venture too far beyond the standard bebop harmony set, but he can stretch the form of the tune as he pleases and create a feeling of suspension of time. The great ballad “Ruby My Dear” is a duet for tenor sax and piano, and it is played with a gentle-slow swing and lush tone. Kimbrough plays “Functional” alone in a relaxing stride style that will convince any Monk doubters out there how he was capable of dissonance and beauty at the same time.
One of the most interesting performances is just for the piano trio. “Monk’s Point” is played out of tempo in a free-floating rhythmic environment, which abstracts and fragments its blues structure. Reid and Drummond are a capable team at this feeling, and Kimbrough threads Monk’s melody through the freedom incisively. There are other tracks (for example, “Hackensack”), where the head arrangement is fairly clean, but the band cracks into more contemporary playing on the improvisations. When you come to the last track on disc six—a fired-up “Epistrophe” with Drummond playing a lurching polyrhythm and Kimbrough’s pianistic approach being equally multi-directional—you actually are not tired of the music of Thelonious Monk.
The compositions themselves, of course, are superb and have proven capable of pushing musicians to great creativity and of being remolded in the hands of more modern players. Listen to Robinson’s solo on that last track as he plays a set of very high trills that flutter like hummingbirds over the groove. You’ve never heard Monk played quite that way before. There are just enough moments like that on Monk’s Dreams that you can stand to face the daunting task of hearing one man’s version of every last Monk tune.
Projects like this, of course, can inspire admiration more than passion. The desire to listen to the whole set at once is going to be rare, but the material is programmed with enough joy and intelligence that every disc is a stand-alone greatest hits package, with familiarity, variety, and just enough surprises. For my taste, the surprises and violations of the norm could have come more often and more completely, but that is just a matter of degree. Most importantly, the invincible musicianship here is enough to carry the day. Monk ought to turn 100 more often.