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Anthony Brown Asian American Orchestra with Steve Lacy: Monk’s Moods: Music of Thelonious Monk

Percussionist Anthony Brown’s last project was a version of Ellington’s “Far East Suite” that used Far and Middle Eastern instruments together with standard jazz instrumentation. There was a logic at work there that doesn’t seem to apply to Thelonious Monk’s music-despite Monk’s apparent fondness for Oriental headgear as depicted on the cover of Brown and the Asian American Orchestra’s new CD, Monk’s Moods. But if I’m not sure why Brown has chosen to feature Monk on his latest, I’m certainly glad he’s done so because the results are hugely enjoyable.

The key instrument on the CD is the Chinese hammered dulcimer, played by Yang-Qin Zhao, which takes the role of Monk’s piano. This is a shrewd move by Brown (the main arranger), because the instrument is both similar to yet different from the piano. So Yan-Qin Zhao is able to evoke Monk, employing certain of his stylistic traits, without it sounding too much like imitation or pastiche. Other “exotic” instruments-Chinese viola, Chinese mouth organ, and contralto clarinet-are used sparingly and to good effect. In fact, the arrangements are imaginative and richly varied, perhaps even a touch too busy at times. All but one are by Brown, though in four cases (“Monk’s Mood,” “Crepuscule With Nellie,” “Little Rootie Tootie” and “Friday the 13th”) he’s drawn on Hall Overton’s charts for Monk’s 1959 big band Town Hall concert.

Steve Lacy, guesting with the orchestra, is a featured soloist on several tracks. His soprano jinks and oozes through tracks like “Hackensack” and “Misterioso” with a sassy confidence that shows why he’s arguably our premier Monk interpreter. The Orchestra’s regular members make fine contributions, too: I particularly enjoyed trombonist Wayne Wallace, and Brown himself, whose versatile percussion provides a judicious stream of color and punctuation. Favorite moments include “Jackie-ing,” with its clangourous brass-as-gamelan arrangement, and the closing “Pannonica,” an enchanting duo for Yang-Qin Zhao’s delicately plangent dulcimer and Lacy’s tender soprano. But Monk’s Moods fascinates throughout; it’s a very impressive piece of work.

Originally Published