Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982) is considered to be among our greatest jazz composers. Born in North Carolina, he moved to New York City as an infant. The pianist was gigging by age 22, and he was among the young musicians hired by Coleman Hawkins in 1944 for some of the first bop records.
Remarkably, Monk’s playing and compositional style were fully solidified by about 1947, and he saw little need to alter them in the decades to come. The pianist has been described as eccentric, and for many years some people thought him inferior because he left a lot of space in his rhythmic solos and had an unusual technique. We now recognize Monk’s influential music as unique and timeless. Many musicians are tested by the melodies, syncopation and chord changes.
Trumpet and flugelhorn player Jimmy Owens’ prime challenge in presenting The Monk Project is to bring some of his own originality and surprises to these classic tunes. “Blue Monk” and “Epistrophy” are standards today, but these and some others were covered and recorded as early as 1942 by the Cootie Williams Band. “Well You Needn’t” is classic too.
From Monk’s catalog of about 70 compositions, Owens also offers some tunes that are less frequently covered, most notably his seven-minute arrangement of “Stuffy Turkey” and a nine-minute rendition of “Let’s Cool One” translated here in 3/4 time. I also particularly enjoyed hearing “Bright Mississippi” to open the set, and an 11-minute “Epistrophy” closes the show with plenty of surprises.
Monk himself recorded with groups of various sizes, but one of his arguably best albums (Monk’s Music) was recorded in 1957 with a septet. For The Monk Project, Owens also has a septet with Wycliffe Gordon (trombone), Marcus Strickland (tenor saxophone), Howard Johnson (tuba, baritone saxophone), Kenny Barron (piano), Kenny Davis (bass), and Winard Harper (drums). These master raconteurs provide just the right amount of instrumental narration to the songs to brand them with their own bluesy and affable personalities. They also serve up the tasteful set in a way that’s welcoming, pleasant and quite charismatic. For example, one doesn’t often hear tuba used in Monk’s music or in Duke Ellington's “It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing),” but it provides a low end that’s really quite full of gumption and steam.
Liner notes are written by USC Professor Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Overall, the playing on Owens’ album is first-rate, the interpretations are enjoyable, and the arrangements are warm and engaging.