Monkey is a two-part recording of baritone saxophonist Fred Ho's multimedia musical Journey Beyond the West, centered around the Chinese trickster figure of Monkey (à la Coyote in much native American lore) that combines Chinese folk music and instrumentation with jazz. Acts I and III (composed in 1990/1989, respectively) are featured here, with Acts II and IV (both written in 1994) on the companion Monkey, Pt. 2 disc.
As a composed work, the music is divided into concrete sections rather than relying on the flow and pulse of jazz. The jazz component comes through in the choices of tones and notes, like the way Ho and the other horns play long notes and melodic themes rather than section charts or improvising behind the traditional Chinese instruments on "Siren Spider Seduction Song." A first impression that this was the more "jazz" of the two discs may only come down to the fact that it's programmed in longer segments. The important thing is that the music always keeps the listener on his toes. "Monkey's Origin" careens all over the map, with composed sections setting off sax tonal blasts, a brief outside section halfway through before resolving as a feature for erhu, the Chinese fiddle. Operatic Chinese vocals open "Monkey Meets the Dragon King" with an almost funky riff and incorporates what could be an adaptation of the Mission Impossible theme and a pretty rocking boogie beat near the end.
Ho is an avowedly radical musician but he's not above having some fun here. Some light-hearted parts of "Heaven Wreaks Havoc in Heaven" sound like cartoon big band with Chinese vocals and instrumentation, but later, ominous horns and drums take over the lead role. "Monkey to the Rescue" (not exactly a Seventh Cavalry charge) features a whooping trombone over banjo and drums, and kind of angular big-band riffing for a bit. Ho has done a really excellent job integrating the traditional Chinese instruments with Western jazz ones, not to mention the compositions and arrangements. The shrill, operatic Chinese vocals might be pretty hard to take for any length of time but he savvily measures them out in short doses here so it becomes just another color to use.
Monkey, Pt. 1 is an impressive achievement for Ho as a composer in creating an intriguing synthesis of the two musical worlds he draws inspiration from. Pt. 2 may be a little better, but that's a pretty subjective, flip-a-coin call. If anything, the musical model is the big-band or orchestral work of Charles Mingus, but the only warning for fans of Ho's work in the jazz tradition is not to expect the same focus on improvisation or even soloing.