Sphere was formed in 1977 as a tribute to Thelonious Monk, who was no longer performing or writing. The personnel included pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Buster Williams, drummer Ben Riley, and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, whose distinctive, hoarse tone and Monk-like melodic turns had been part of Monk's quartet from 1959 to 1970. After several critically acclaimed albums, which supplemented Monk material with originals and tunes by other composers, the group disbanded when Rouse died in 1988.
The re-formed Sphere replaces Rouse with alto and soprano saxophonist Gary Bartz. The group's 1998 debut is solid but seems more conservative than its predecessors. Of course, we've been conditioned by a decade more of bebop-by Young Lions and veterans alike-and by a revival of Monk's music in the marketplace. That said, good playing is ageless, and this certainly is good playing, from the opening "We See," by Monk, to the closing, revamped "Surrey With the Fringe on Top."
Bartz, who definitely belongs in the august company of this group, brings a supple, rolling articulation and lines reminiscent of John Coltrane to the date. His alto is most fiery on Monk's "Hornin' In." Barron, Williams and Riley are eloquent and orderly in a manner that calls to mind the Modern Jazz Quartet.