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Clarence Penn & Penn Station: Monk: The Lost Files

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It is a testament to how singular and beloved the music of Thelonious Monk is that the slightest changes to it can be unsettling. Almost from the moment drummer Clarence Penn and his quartet Penn Station launch into “Well, You Needn’t,” Monk devotees will feel like something is off. The overall tone is more flippant than wry, words are being whispered in the background, and the piano and bass are electric. The intent is not blasphemous: On this opening track and throughout The Lost Files, Penn clearly has affection and appreciation for Monk. But the effect of his renditions is like greeting a dear friend only to discover that they have undergone psychological and emotional changes that occasionally bump their essential character.

Penn began this project after a couple of his students remarked that the music of Monk was old or dated. He sought to interpret the catalog “in a very contemporary way,” and successfully tested his arrangements on his daughter’s first-grade class. Their reaction is not surprising, as Monk’s playfulness continues to shine through. What’s missing is a small but crucial amount of the depth and sophistication, the trenchant angularity and plangent aftertones.

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