Thelonious Monk is a good example of one of those musical geniuses who, early on in their careers, created a sound that was considered experimental and cutting edge, but with the passage of time has become standard fare on the jazz menu. The innovative young pianist composer became the revered grand master, and after his death in 1982 nothing short of a legend. And nothing says legend like fellow musicians paying tribute to your music by making it their own. It’s one thing when people copy what you’ve done; it’s quite another to use what you’ve done as an inspiration to build upon and create.
Trumpeter Jimmy Owens’ The Monk Project is just such a tribute. “Thelonious Monk is one of the world’s premier jazz artists and composers,” Owens says. “Many of his compositions provide (even the best) jazz artists with musical challenges, such as the opportunity to maneuver through difficult chord changes and execute unusual melodies. I chose compositions that people may have heard before, however, when I arranged the pieces I wanted to give them a different feeling than how they have been performed in the past.” Owens has taken the music and transformed it into something new, yet something still quite recognizable. But more importantly, something that might well have brought a smile to the face of the legend. The Monk Project is jazz as it ought to be.
The trumpeter leads a septet consisting of Wycliffe Gordon on Trombone, Marcus Strickland on tenor sax and Howard Johnson on the tuba and baritone sax. Kenny Barron is on the piano, Kenny Davis on bass, and Winard Harper plays drums. It is a group that combines veteran talent with new young voices—age and youth, a winning combination. They feed off each other as though they have been playing together for years, and in some cases they have.
There are ten tracks on the album, beginning with a swinging arrangement of “Bright Mississippi.” “Well You Needn’t” follows, featuring Owens on the flugelhorn and the septet’s rhythm section. Owens and Barron have in fact played together for years, and it shows. A funky “Blue Monk” is a real show-stopper with some down and dirty trombone from Gordon. This is one of the highlights of an album filled with strong performances. The group’s take on “Stuffy Turkey” is treated more playfully, in contrast to the low down “Blue Monk.” Davis gets an opportunity to get out front on the bass.
“Pannonica,” one of Monk’s most elegant melodies, is slowed down some in Owens’ hands and achieves an almost more impressive eloquence. They follow with an uptempo version of “Let’s Cool One” with Strickland’s sax featured in the opening solo. “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” will have you bopping and nodding again with some low down improvisation.
Owens and the combo play around with rhythms on the complexities of “Brilliant Corners,” and the album follows with a contemplative (what else would you expect) take on “Reflections.” A ten minute ride through “Epistrophy,” which gives each of the seven a moment to shine, ends the album with style. Scheduled for release in January of 2012, The Monk Project is an album to keep your ears open for.