Miles Plays Monk, Steve Turre Gets Mellow and John Escreet Finds an Opening, in Take Five

Aug 19, 2018

Miles Okazaki, “Well, You Needn’t”

How gonzo an achievement is Miles Okazaki’s new release? WORK (Complete, Volumes 1​-​6) adapts the music of Thelonious Monk for solo guitar. That’s hard enough, though we’ve seen strong work in that vein from Rodney Jones, Peter Bernstein, Steve Cardenas and Bill Frisell. What Okazaki manages is also an act of immersive scholarship and exhaustive scope: WORK, which dropped out of the sky last week, consists of all 70 known compositions by Monk, from the iconic to the obscure.  

It isn’t the last comprehensive study of Monk that we’ll see this year. (More on that soon.) But it’s a singular achievement, and not just because of the instrumentation. Okazaki, whom you may know best from his longtime affiliation with Steve Coleman, has a methodical mind but also a sharply honed impulsive streak: he has just the right temperament to unlock the secrets in this music, and translate them to a fretboard lexicon. He also varies his approach, taking some pieces at face value and turning others into digressive springboards. (You’ll want to read his notes on the process, including a track-by-track annotation.)


The entire project was recorded in Okazaki’s Brooklyn apartment, using a Gibson Charlie Christian archtop guitar, a Fender Twin amplifier, and no pedal effects. (A fellow guitarist, Liberty Ellman, mixed and mastered the recordings.) There’s a spare and haunting quality to the sound, as a result of the restrictions imposed — but at no point does it feel as if Okazaki could have used more on his palette, or reinforcements. His effort has an integrity borne of solitary focus; I hear the same quality here that I do on the 1965 album Solo Monk.

Consider “Well, You Needn’t,” one of the more familiar pieces in the repertory. Okazaki builds his improvisation around a dark elaborative flourish that Monk played on a version of the tune from Monk’s Music. With that framework in place, the solo stretches and spirals; you might even hear a distant echo of Jimmy Page. “Like so many of these compositions,” Okazaki writes in his notes, “the things that seem simple can be treacherous.” Buy WORK (Complete, Volumes 1-6) at Bandcamp.

Steve Turre, “September in the Rain”

Ballads largely set the agenda on The Very Thought of You, a mellow but meaningful new album by trombonist Steve Turre. Releasing this Friday on Smoke Sessions Records, it’s a reminder of the steadying appeal of a seasoned hand — more than a few of them, in fact, given that the album’s rhythm section includes Kenny Barron on piano and Buster Williams on bass. A portion of the album also features a string ensemble, but on “September in the Rain” Turre adds only guitarist Russell Malone, as tasteful as ever. Listen for the way the band cruises through a rhythmic stutter-step in the arrangement, with light-clattering triplets from drummer Willie Jones III. 

John Escreet, “Opening”

John Escreet, a British-born pianist and composer, has carved out a space as an experimentalist — his two most recent albums feature a band with Evan Parker on saxophone, John Hébert on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums — but he isn’t averse to putting groove first. That’s one takeaway from his audacious new album, Learn to Live, due out Oct. 12 on BRM Records, and its lead single, which premieres here.

As the title suggests, “Opening” is the first track, a triumphant overture that builds on the presence of two exceptional drummers, Eric Harland and Justin Brown. On electric bass is Matt Brewer, and on Fender Rhodes piano Prophet 6 synthesizer is Escreet himself. (Elsewhere you’ll hear contributions from alto saxophonist Greg Osby and trumpeter Nicholas Payton.) This is new-breed fusion of a stylish sort, analogous to Brown’s NYEUSI, and it should raise anticipation for what’s to come. (For more about Learn to Live, see this EPK.)

Günter Baby Sommer and Till Brönner, “Apéro Con Brio”

The German drummer Günter Baby Sommer is an eminence in the European avant-garde, a wily presence on recordings stretching back more than 40 years. Trumpeter Till Brönner, meanwhile, shares the same nationality but a glossier profile, with a passel of awards and a place on the Sony Masterworks roster. So Baby’s Party, just out on the Intakt label, might seem a study in contrasts. “At first glance,” Thömas Bruckner writes in the liner notes, “there is more that separates host and guest than there is what unites them. Age, local entrenchment, social upbringing, musical development and much more are completely different.”


And yet they find more than common ground on Baby’s Party, which landed just in time for Sommer’s 75th birthday this Saturday. Throughout the album, the two artists operate along a higher curve of active listening, following their intuition where it leads. There are two beautifully abstracted standards, Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” and the traditional folksong “Danny Boy.” But the rarer genius lies in an array of spontaneous inventions, including “Apéro Con Brio,” which begins in solemn severity but finds an insinuative groove.

Judi Silvano & The Zephyr Band, “Hand and Heart”

Lessons Learned is an apt title for the 14th album by Judi Silvano, a vocalist and composer who draws from a wide range of experience. Her Zephyr Band — named after an early-2000s album she made with pianist Mal Waldron — has Kenny Wessel and Bruce Arnold on guitars; Adam Kolker on bass clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophone; Ratzo B. Harris on bass; and Bob Meyer and Todd Isler on drums.

The album, recently released on Unit Records, consists entirely of Silvano’s compositions, some of them sharp and spiky (“Dark Things”) and others full of wonder (“Round and Round”). One subtle high point is a ballad titled “Hand and Heart,” which would seem to be a nod to her spouse, saxophonist Joe Lovano, who produced the album. “When you go into the wide world,” Silvano sings, “I feel you pulling me too. / You build fires all around you / I am standing there beside you / Holding the glow.” (Silvano and the Zephyr Band will perform an album-release celebration at her regular haunt, Cornelia Street Café, this coming Sunday.)