Tom Aalfs / Group 15

Group 15 Plays Monk

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Five-string electric violinist Tom Aalfs, six-string electric guitarist Peter Bernstein, and four-string acoustic contrabassist Jay Leonhart make up the "15." Though some might deem these 14 interpretations of Thelonious Monk's greatest compositions somewhat polite, the pervasive spirit and compact efficiency with which they play with these themes is hardly tame or lame. In fact the three conjure up an effortless spirit that borders on delightful gypsy dialect. There's a Stuff Smith connection here in that Aalfs displays the haunting lyricism that earmarked Smith's sound, and Leonhart (when he was 17) played with Stuff in the '50s. Bernstein is simply an incredibly talented, amplified but non-treated, clean guitarist. He seems to always fall into a comfort zone, whether playing Joshua Redman's modern jazz, in an organ combo, or this stylized, angular, boppified chamber music. All cuts feature the triad, arrangements are kept to a minimum, the simplicity of Monk's music, if anyone dare say that, is beautifully rendered. Elfin deviations from the three include the exquisitely conceived stairstep call-and-response between violin and guitar on "Misterioso," the slight strut of "Bolivar Ba-lues Are," (misidentified as "Bolivar Blues"), the ultra-cool "Bye-Ya," an off-kilter sauced guitar during "Blue Monk," the minimalist repetition and almost classical reading of "Ask Me Now," or the slightly modified arrangement of "Straight, No Chaser." If there's any fault or nit to pick, it is in the remarkable evenness of this program, and a format which varies or deviates little in sonic punch, but yields so much more in heartfelt sentiment and brilliant musicianship. How much more wonderful can a CD get?

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