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August 2008

Ellis Marsalis Quartet
An Open Letter to Thelonious
ELM

Doing Monk is dangerous, especially when you do him with the instrumentation of his own classic quartet. Monk and his tenor saxophone alter ego, Charlie Rouse, in their vast Columbia discography, recorded many definitive versions of virtually every tune Monk ever wrote. Most of their takes, masters and alternates, clear and bright and hard as diamonds, have been meticulously reissued on Columbia/Legacy.

The problem is that Monk tributes often sound a little pale. When Monk played “Jackie-ing,” he hit that last chord in the third measure of the head like a ferocious clang of belligerent joy. Ellis Marsalis plays it with tame refinement. A bigger problem is tenor saxophonist Derek Douget. Whereas every Charlie Rouse entrance was an explosion of exuberant expletives, Douget steps mildly—even timidly—into each song. Ellis Marsalis’ arrangements are always thoughtful and his own solos are always orderly and musically pleasing, but fierce Monk texts like “Straight, No Chaser” and “Rhythm-a-ning” are defanged.

The player here who has the most interesting perspective on Monk is drummer Jason Marsalis, Ellis’ son. He believes that Monk was “the first unofficial funk musician,” and proves it with grooves on “Epistrophy” and “Teo” that sound both nasty and natural.

Originally published in August 2008
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