MONK: The Lost Files

Clarence Penn Group at the Jazz Gallery -- Sweet, deep, inventive and hip

Wow, what a beautiful scene. Days later, I still feel absolutely sustained by the joy and positivity sparked by this group. The subject? Monk. The personnel? Clarence Penn on drums, Gerald Clayton on piano, Yasushi Nakamura on bass and Chad Lefkowitz Brown on tenor sax. The vibe? Sweet, deep, inventive and hip.

Each of the four shined and spurred the others on, while paying tribute to one of the greatest jazz composers of all time—Thelonious Monk. The group happily embraced every challenge and offered us fresh takes on a wide variety of favorites, including Evidence, Thelonious, Well You Needn’t, Hackensack, Teo, Bemsha Swing, Rhythm-a-Ning, and many more. The packed room was responsive and eager for this experience!

Penn on drums exudes such enthusiasm and love for the music—it is simply impossible not to feel uplifted. His approach is very unique, with gesture and space surging from a place of heart-felt and fluid integrity. Latin-infused, swing-infected and super-creative with sonic choices, Penn’s drumming simultaneously drove and cradled the band. Ever endearing at the mic, he worked overtime to give us the background that is always so appreciated. His arrangements left so much open space for inventiveness that the entire evening felt uber-free wheeling, yet it was very clear that the man put an enormous amount of time into creating deeply thoughtful compositional constructs.

Clayton on keys continues to slip through every superficiality of convenient definition. This man must drive the marketers insane! What integrity. I’ve seen him six or seven times in various situations over the years, and he is never, ever predictable--not for one single second. Clayton’s involved pacing in the group’s radically slow and lush version of In Walked Bud set the room on fire with intensity and reverence.

Lefkowitz Brown on sax. He is only 23 – get out! omg and help me mother. Wow. At one point near the end, he led the band in this group decrescendo motif that felt so incredible. The movement of volume was very short, but repetitive and placed in very unusual spots. And the band moved as one man doing this. It felt like: here’s a window into a world you’ve never been to yet, nope, not yet. Gotcha! Gotcha again! How impish. Lefkowitz Brown also showed a fondness for many runs down the slope, but each time he varied the path with cool syncopated licks that included triplet figures punched into drops filled with space and threaded together in mysterious ways.

This was the first time I’ve heard Yasushi Nakamura on bass, but it will not be the last. It felt like he was walking a lot, but yet, the way he threaded his lines was like no other bass player I’ve ever heard. His approach seemed conceptually symmetrical, but not in a pedestrian way; more like he embodied the healing dream of a quiet shaman holding up a magic mirror. His stance is very percussive, yet relaxed. I noticed he kept in sync with Penn in a way that really created a firm rudder for the group. I think this really allowed the freedom of the evening to emerge. Penn described Nakamura as a player who devours challenges. I agree. He’s kind of scary, actually—but in a cool way.

What a beautiful tribute to creativity and imagination. Thank you to everyone involved, including the Jazz Gallery, a place that exists simply for joy.

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Monique Avakian