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Five New Tributes to Thelonious Monk, For the Great Composer and Pianist's Centennial

William P. Gottlieb
Library of Congress via flickr.com
Thelonious Monk

Take Five celebrates Monk at 100 with new tracks by Johnny O'Neal, Wadada Leo Smith, Barry Altschul and The 3Dom Factor, John McNeil & Mike Fahie, and Sam Newsome with Jean-Michel Pilc.

Johnny O’Neal, “Sweet Monk”

The easygoing charm of Johnny O’Neal’s vocal delivery — a remarkable thing, in and of itself — can sometimes overshadow the brilliant clarity of his piano playing. That’s not the case on his new studio album, In the Moment, just out on Smoke Sessions Records. I wrote the album’s liner notes, and so I won’t say more about it here, except to note that it opens with this track, an original carrying a heartfelt nod to an obvious inspiration.

The track features O’Neal’s working trio, with bassist Ben Rubens and drummer Itay Morchi, as well as two featured guests: trumpeter Roy Hargrove and tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart. 

Barry Altschul and The 3Dom Factor, “Ask Me Now”

The fine avant-garde drummer Barry Altschul formed The 3Dom Factor about five years ago, drawing on a longstanding association with bassist Joe Fonda and a newer rapport with saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Live in Kraków, recorded last year and out now on the Not Two label, is the band’s third album, an accurate snapshot.

The album covers some wild and woolly territory, but it also allows for the lyrical spell of “Ask Me Now,” in a version that recalls valiant tenor trios led by Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson. Altschul starts out in a free-flowing mode and then adopts a leisurely swing on brushes, behind solos by both of his partners. Listen for how much soul Irabagon brings to his articulation of the melody, both in tempo and out of time.

Wadada Leo Smith, “Crepuscule with Nellie”

One of my standout live-music experiences of the year was a solo trumpet recital by Wadada Leo Smith this spring, in his adopted hometown of New Haven. He focused on the music of Thelonious Monk, the composer he said was closest to his heart. It was a transporting and intensely personal performance, profound in its burnished solitude, and I had the sense it wouldn’t ever happen again. 

So I’m pleasantly surprised by Solo: Reflections And Meditations On Monk, an album due out on TUM Records on Oct. 20. Listen to this track — a spare, softly gleaming treatment of “Crepuscule with Nellie,” which has its premiere here — and you’ll get some sense of the deep-focus, unostentatious beauty behind Smith’s gesture, along with the intangible Monkish air that makes it feel almost preordained.

John McNeil & Mike Fahie, “Green Chimneys”

The frontline pairing of trumpeter John McNeil and trombonist Mike Fahie has been a reliable fixture on the scene in Brooklyn. (They lead a Thursday-night session at The Douglass in Gowanus, and have done similar things elsewhere in the borough.) Plainsong is their first album together, due out on Oct. 27 on Destiny Records, and it’s both breezily casual and serious business. 

"Green Chimneys," from 'Plainsong,' by John McNeil & Mike Fahie

The recording features an impeccable rhythm section — Ethan Iverson on piano, Joe Martin on bass and Billy Hart on drums — and a handful of elegant originals, including two McNeil-penned tributes to guitarist John Abercrombie. For our purposes, here is a premiere of “Green Chimneys,” a bright swinger that throws a spotlight on the jostling McNeil-Fahie blend. The only thing missing is Iverson, who sits out the tune. (Hearing him here would have been nice — but he’ll have his hands full with Monk this month, in a centennial tribute presented by Duke Performances.)

Sam Newsome and Jean-Michel Pilc, “Misterioso” 

Soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome has a winning track record with Monk’s music; see his album Monk Abstractions, from 2007. He doesn’t have an overriding repertory angle on Magic Circle — his intuitive duo album with pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, due out on Friday — but it should be no surprise that Monk crops up on a couple of tracks. 

"Misterioso," from 'Magic Circle,' by Sam Newsome and Jean-Michel Pilc

This version of “Misterioso” begins in stark serenity, as Pilc establishes the intervallic theme, followed by Newsome in a pecking staccato. The mood takes a bluesier turn during the piano solo, and then veers back during Newsome’s restatement of the theme, ending in a multiphonic split tone.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.