Thelonious Monk is one of the immortals of jazz, a cat who came up alongside and within a posse of giants still posed dauntingly to preside over extrapolations, refinements, and homages to the art for a long long time. His era was so rich with talent and intelligence (Miles, Diz, Rahsaan, Trane, etc.) that it's hard to credit that that much brains and creativity could exist without half a continent exploding in spontaneous combustion. Thus, as the liner notes by Robin D.G. Kelley rightly claim here, one kinda hasta tackle Monk's work to establish one's street cred. So, when you even just so much as glance at the line-up for The Monk Project, it's obvious this is not quite that; instead, it's good deal more, a treasure chest of loving jams upon the master's brilliance and a return to a time when what is now seen as proof of legitimacy was first hammered out in an establishing era.
Jimmy Owens should need no introduction. He played with some of the very legends who raised this mode of music to its heights: Hampton, Mingus, Basie, and God himself only knows how many other lions. Bless Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, and ensembles like The Strata Institute, but this music ain't that, though it certainly led into those mindblowingly apt gents and their genre-bending repertoire. In Monk Project, one sees the wellspring of the founding influences resurrected in all its many-faceted genius sans the later permutations. With this disc, the listener walks from the 00s straight back to the 50s, no detours, no deviations. Few remember that Owens got his start in the second edition of the Ars Nova progressive rock ensemble in the 60s and was grabbed because he and soon-well-known guitarist Sam Brown could cut the musical mustard after the protoype of the group melted down horribly when opening for the Doors at the Fillmore East.
Every cut on Project is pretty much nightclub laid back, but not like a Sinatra venue, not at all, rather a Cotton Club / Apollo kind of gig, sophisticated to the gills while tempo'ed cool and easy, the feel-good nature of everything a foil for masterful chops and surprising shifts. Yeah, there are upsurges here and there, but the whole is more a Harlem / beatnik vibe, little is raucous or N'Awleans Louis git-down. Equally famed pianist Kenny Barron and multi-instrumentalist Howard Johnson join Owens along with some outrageous newer guys, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Winard Harper beside Marcus Strickland (tenor sax) and Wycliffe Gordon (trombone) for a group sound that deftly glides between small big band and impromptu jam blow. Put this on when you need a reminder of what was going down just before Miles blew the walls out with fusion, when jazz split into a million pieces, but also dig it when you hafta remind yourself just how damn smooth a band can be while taking things apart at the seams as though a set of sonic tailors with bolts of new materials they can't wait to weave and stitch. Owens resurrects the times well, in Project elegizing them in perfect synchrony so that we, too, do not forget.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2012, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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