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Monk’s Music Trio: Harmony of Odd Numbers

There are as many ways to interpret the music of Monk as there are pianists. The two passing in review here couldn’t be further apart than a Benedictine monk and the quirky, obsessive TV detective Monk.

The San Francisco-based Monk’s Music Trio, consisting of pianist Si Perkoff, bassist Frank Passantino and drummer Chuck Bernstein, takes a straightahead approach that, paradoxically, means angular and jagged in Monk’s terms. The trio generally remains faithful to Monk’s vision, but it never captures the muscular eccentricities of the great bop master.

The engineering tends to hide the contributions of Passantino. The best ensemble balance is heard on “Ugly Beauty” and “Skippy.” There’s a fine bass solo on the ballad “Functional,” I don’t understand why they gave the drummer a solo at such a slow tempo. Bernstein does the right thing eventually and doubles the tempo. Perkoff sounds most confident on the closer, “Epistrophy,” but by then you realize a dozen tunes played in the exact same style can be a bit wearying.

Monk’s Music is made up of highly regarded swinging seniors from the Bay Area; they boast impressive pedigrees and can drop some of the greatest names, but they should do what they do best: simply swing. Monk’s Music Trio should avoid the spirituality of “harmony with odd numbers” and focus on numbers with challenging changes.

In contrast, on Sphere Essence Peter Madsen offers such a highly personal interpretation of Monk that there are fewer recognizable links with the iconoclastic genius. Madsen, who divides his time between homes in New York and Austria, presents a solo master class in which his musical mentor, Monk, is merely a starting point-harmonically, rhythmically, even structurally. For example, at no time during the three “Monkaludes” do Madsen’s fingers touch the keyboard, nor do the hammers make contact with the strings; he plays the inside of the piano. Virtually the same can be said for “Evidence,” where every sound comes from within the frame and stringscape. “Evidence” is a first-rate example of combining strings and keyboard, but, like the “Monkaludes,” it contains not the slightest evidence that one is listening to Monk. The same can almost be said for “Thelonious”: following a long pedal point, Monk’s familiar tune finally emerges and Madsen reveals some intense swing. He reveals some his finest, adulatory stride on “Trinkle Tinkle.” As for the oxymoronic “Ugly Beauty,” it’s all beauty, and “Monk’s Mood” is gorgeous as well.

Like Monk, Sphere Essence is pure introspection. Madsen has captured the essence of his idol and stamped his own futuristic essence in his own sphere.

Originally Published