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Steve Slagle Quartet: Steve Slagle Plays Monk

Monk is the object of much reverence in our world, so that recitals devoted to the great pianist/composer’s music are by no means unusual. But here are two dates, each led by a horn man, with nary a pianist in sight. Another point of intersection: Adam Nussbaum is the drummer on both discs-and more on that later. The similarities end soon enough, however: There is but one common tune on the two discs, and Slagle includes a tribute tune of his own. More to the point, Slagle makes his arrangements around the interplay of his alto sax and clarinet with Dave Stryker’s guitar, where Liebman takes a more daring trio approach. Slagle exploits the harmonic depth afforded by the guitar, still giving Jay Anderson on bass plenty of space to mediate. Highlights include a “Criss-Cross” that revels in the piece’s ambiguities, a languid “Light Blue” and Slagle’s “Monk,” a jump tune with a twist. Nussbaum is completely apposite throughout, offering a few rhythmic comments, but in large measure the accompanist here.

Working with Liebman, on the other hand, Nussbaum plays a much higher-profile role. He is an equal partner with the saxophonist and the bassist, the challenging Eddie Gomez. Gomez will not let the rock come to rest in the pit of expectation: his probing throughout has an aggressively physical dimension, both feeding off of and feeding Liebman’s highly personal approach to this music. Liebman and Gomez quickly establish the tone for the session with a wondrous duet on “Monk’s Mood.” From there, Liebman seems to take chances in trying to bring out as many nuances of Monk’s genius as possible: “Pannonica” breathes beautifully, “Skippy” moves breathlessly. The essential differences in these two approaches come through beautifully on two variegated readings of “Ugly Beauty”: Slagle and friends brilliantly polish the surface of the gem, while Liebman meditatively tries to get inside it.

Originally Published