The Monk Project
In a perfect world, The Monk Project would be a hit record. It finds veteran trumpeter Jimmy Owens and a hard-swinging bop septet making fresh, joyful work of Thelonious’ oeuvre. That’s no easy task in a Monk-saturated world, but Owens’ intricate arrangements and gift for melody unearth new riches in every tune.
“Well You Needn’t” is the most potent example. Owens (on flugelhorn) and his rhythm section—pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Winard Harper—give it a gentle Afro-Cuban groove, in the process revealing an introspection that lay hidden in the song. “Let’s Cool One,” Owens also on flugelhorn, becomes a whirling waltz with big band-like horn charts courtesy of Owens, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. Owens even finds new harmonic possibilities in a Monk arrangement of a song the pianist didn’t write: His piano-trio rendition of Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” on which Owens and Gordon engage in uneasy frontline harmony while tuba player Howard Johnson adds commentary.
Distinctly Monkian touches abound, such as half-steps and solos constructed from abstractions of the theme. (The latter approach is a Barron specialty, notably on the closing “Epistrophy.”) Even the ensemble is just a French horn short of Monk’s innovative 1959 Town Hall orchestration. But Owens stamps the album with his burnished tone and melodic, logically developed solos, as in the boozy burlesque of “Blue Monk” and supple lyricism of “Reflections.” In short, Thelonious would approve.