Various Artists

Music of the Sphere: The Thelonious Monk Songbook

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If anything is to be learned from the towering genius that was Thelonious Monk, it's that there is no single way to play music. Monk made a lifestyle out of bucking expectations and following his own path, and that's the least one can expect from a tribute album to the songwriting of Thelonious Monk. The artists that populate this 11-song compilation understand that. They are not here to attempt to mimic Monk but rather to extract his essence and reconstitute it in their own image. With that in mind, not all of the tracks here even feature a pianist: the principal player on "Ask Me Now" is guitarist Bob DeVos, who gives the ballad a sweet and soulful reading, accompanied by Dan Kostelnik on the Hammond B-3 organ and Steve Johns on drums. Tenor saxist Houston Person also unites with an organist, Sonny Phillips, and drummer (Frankie Jones) for an extended "Blue Monk" that keeps in mind the song's familiar motif without being enslaved by it. "Stuffy Turkey," meanwhile, is led by alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, who chooses a tuba player, marimbas, and drums to support his animated take, while guitarist Larry Coryell teams up in counterpoint harmony with tenor saxophonist Willie Williams, plus bass and drums, on a "Trinkle Tinkle" that departs from Monk signatures to take on a life of its own. "Straight, No Chaser," one of Monk's best known and most oft-recorded compositions, is recast as a big-band romp, but not in the traditional sense: guitarist Joel Harrison, violinist Christian Howes, and the ace rhythm team of bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Jordan Perlson are joined by a line of brass players (among them alto saxist David Binney and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire) to successfully put the tune to the funk test, bringing to it a contemporary buzz. The rest of the tracks do feature pianists, some mighty fine ones at that: Mary Lou Williams, George Cables, Eric Reed, and others. But each of these keyboardists choose to do Monk their own way: Williams' "'Round Midnight" is soft and dream-like; Larry Williams' "Rhythm-a-Ning" (with Eddie Gomez on bass and Billy Drummond on drums) swings madly; and the duo of Blythe and pianist John Hicks turn "Light Blue" into a late-night saloon tune. Gathered from a variety of sources and produced by several individuals, there is a consistency to these interpretations nonetheless: the brilliance of Thelonious Monk as composer is omnipresent throughout, even if the man himself isn't.

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