Ellis Meets Monk (Finally)

In the liner notes to his Thelonious Monk tribute, Ellis Marsalis admits that there was a time he saw Monk’s music as an “anomaly.” He also admits to being in awe of the man, too self-conscious to introduce himself to Monk once upon a time at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. It was the only chance the pianists had to meet.

Ellis isn’t the only one who had trouble getting with Thelonious (reviewer admits a youthful inability to catch on here). Monk was so unique, so eclectic that it was hard to judge him against the norm. Once one tuned in to what he did, it became hard to hear anything else.

Marsalis finishes his notes saying that this collection represents his discovery of and “profound respect” for things Thelonious. You wouldn’t think an old smoothie like the elder Marsalis would be an apt interpreter of Monk’s quirky tunes. But he is. That’s because those opening assumptions—that Monk’s music is quirky and that Marsalis plays in a smooth, older style—aren’t necessarily true. There’s no denying that Monk had a gritty sense of melody and a fondness for eclectic chord progressions, oblong rhythms and harmonic hi-jinx. Yet distilled or not, Monk’s music can be extremely beautiful. You can hear anybody, including its composer, do “Round Midnight” and know it’s true. “Straight, No Chaser” isn’t a chestnut for nothing.

Marsalis, contrary to reputation, continues to evolve. Often dismissed as father of talented offspring and a “local” musician, the pianist deserves respect for a savvy style at the keyboard and skill for cultivating combos. This quartet, with son Jason on drums, bassist Jason Stewart and saxophonist Derek Douget, does the family name proud, presenting no-nonsense renditions of Monk’s best known numbers while injecting enough personality to make it stand out. Marsalis’ piano is svelte, knowing and surprisingly inventive, something akin to Sonny Rollins’ later playing on tenor. Like Rollins, he’s a master at inserting quotes from other numbers. In “Jackie-ing” he drops the “shocking glimpse of stocking” line from “Anything Goes.” In a case of Monk in Monk, he quotes “Well You Needn’t” during “Epistrophy.” His solo on “Ruby, My Dear” pegs him as a young-at-heart romantic even if he’s old enough to be your grandfather. He’s at ease on “Monk’s Mood,” holding hands with the melody in a devoted way.

The biggest surprise here is saxophonist Douget. Playing both tenor and soprano, Douget is the quartet member closest to Monk’s spirit. He pops, preens and pauses, occasionally working up a head of steam that seems unstoppable. You never quite get comfortable while he’s playing (and that’s a good thing). He crafts his attack to the song, getting all wobbly and unpredictable on “Crepuscule with Nellie,” melodic and thoughtful on “Ruby, My Dear.” Drummer Jason Marsalis speaks to Monk’s funkiness, finding groove that lets soloists do as they will. (The drummer writes in his liner notes “…if you take any of Monk’s tunes…and put a funk beat on top of the melody, the melody will fit the rhythm of the beat.”) His solos roll on easily grasped accents and he’s alert, underscoring his band mates’ inventions as he does con cymbal when Ellis drops some “Sweet Georgia Brown” into “Rhythm-a ning.” Stewart provides counterpoint to this groove, coasting along in his own beat-minded way.

The group is most Monk-like on “Teo,” Jason’s cymbal pop breaking up the theme before he gets behind the rhythm and swings it like a pocket watch on a chain. On “Light Blue,” probably the least familiar of the cuts here, Marsalis smooths over Monk’s rough edges, the edges that give the song a certain attractive grit, and lets the gold settle while inserting nuggets from other tunes. Marsalis may make nothing new out of Monk’s music. But he does remind us how wonderful it all is.—Cabbage Rabbit

ELLIS MARSALIS, An Open Letter To Thelonious, Elm Records

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