Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Reflections of Monk

I attended the "Reflections of Monk" performance at New York City's Birdland jazz club on Tuesday, Feb. 18th, and thought it might be fun to share some of my impressions.

This was my first time in the new Birdland, and I was highly impressed with the club's physical layout.  The stage is well situated so that everyone sitting at tables has a clear view of the band.  The $40 music fee was steep; nevertheless, the club appeared to be at near capacity.

photo by Brian O'Kane
The band featured:
Tom Harrell - trumpet
Greg Osby - alto saxophone
Ben Allison - string bass
Matt Wilson - drum set

Producer, Milan Simich was given credit for assembling the ensemble.  I imagine that a recording session might follow the week long stint, but this wasn't announced.

As the title infers, they played renditions of Thelonious Monk tunes.  I could only stay for the first set, which was comprised of the following tunes:

Who Knows?
Let's Cool One
Monk's Dream
Friday the Thirteenth

To my ears, it was obvious that this was the band's opening night.  Some of the heads (especially the opener) were a bit sloppy.  The band interacted well, but clearly they were still "feeling out one another".

It was interesting hearing Greg Osby in this context.  Monk's harmonic material forced him to play more bop-like than I have heard him play before.  Only on Rhythm-a-ning did he really open up, let loose, and play the fast, angular, "slightly out" linear material I equate with his sound.

Tom sounded great throughout.  No complaints.  His tremor may have increased since the last time I saw him, but it didn't affect his sound drastically.  His improvisational lines were beautiful and well executed.  Some of the Monk heads weren't as polished as I would have liked, they aren't the easiest pieces to play, as any jazz musician will attest.

This was my first time hearing pianist Aaron Goldberg live, and I was impressed.  He's got incredible facility and great ideas.  In my opinion, his rousing solos consistently stole the show.  I appreciated his ability to develop simple motifs and move them around harmonically.  When pianists play Monk tunes, they often fall into the unfortunate trap of playing like Monk.  Their touch changes, and they play more clusters and whole-tone runs than usual.  Aaron did a nice job of sounding true to himself on this repertoire.

Ben Allison is a marvelous soloist.  In fact, he may be one of my favorite string bass soloists, due to the beautiful, singable melodic content in his solos.  I hate to be critical, but I'm not a huge fan of his walking.  His quarter notes often sounded short and detached.  Sometimes the pitch wasn't very distinguishable; it was just a nondescript thump.  (I may be off base... no pun intended.) This was my second time hearing Ben live, and I had the same impression when I heard him at Smalls with Jonathan Kreisberg a couple of years ago.

Matt Wilson is a bit of an anomaly.  Honestly, I can't decide if I love or take exception to his orchestrational choices on the drum set.  He's a bit of a show boater which I find off-putting.  I found myself closing my eyes to see if I'd be less critical without watching him.  I admire his creative spirit, but at times its just too much for my tastes.  There were some beautiful moments though, which he played a significant role in creating.  What he played during bass solos was especially sensitive and complimentary.

Overall, I'd say it was a good night and I'd recommend the show for those interested in attending on subsequent nights.  The band did a nice job breathing new life into Monk's timeless, beautiful compositions.  I imagine that by the end of the week, the music will have reached a remarkable level.

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