Alexander von Schlippenbach

Monk's Casino

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The jazz world owes a deep debt of gratitude to pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, who undertook in 2003 and 2004 a project that was long overdue: a recording of everything written by the eccentric genius Thelonious Monk. In retrospect, it seems crazy that no one else had done this before: Monk's oeuvre isn't very extensive -- the core repertoire of his compositions would fit easily on a single disc -- and yet there are a dozen or so pieces that are rarely played and a handful that had never been recorded before this. The three discs in this box set are, therefore, a very nice mixture of the familiar ("Ruby, My Dear," "In Walked Bud," "'Round About Midnight," "Epistrophy") and the less familiar ("Brake's Sake," "Green Chimneys") with a smattering of delightful, if sometimes rather slight, complete obscurities ("Oska T," "Raise Four," "Consecutive Seconds"). In creating this musical monument, Schlippenbach had two basic approaches to choose from: he could either play the tunes in a relatively straightforward style, offering both an enjoyable tour of the Monk book and a handy reference tool for other players, or he could interpret the music more freely, using this kaleidoscopic assortment of quirky melodies as a framework on which to build his own personal jazz statement. For better or for worse, he took the latter approach, arranging the tunes for an unusual ensemble (trumpet and bass clarinet with piano trio) and in sometimes startlingly abstruse ways, combining multiple tunes into medleys and sometimes bopping back and forth between different compositions within a single track. The result is sometimes brilliant and occasionally questionable, but there's never any doubt about Schlippenbach's understanding of and affection for the material. The irreverence with which he approaches Monk's music is something that Monk himself would surely have appreciated -- and yet there's a constant and deep undercurrent of loving admiration running beneath every bar he plays. This set would not make a very good introduction to Monk's music; newcomers are more likely to find it baffling than enlightening. But those already familiar with the music will hear Schlippenbach's interpretations as a breath of fresh, if sometimes astringent, air. Highly recommended.

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