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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.

That said, The Lost Files is an enjoyable listen if taken on its own terms. Pianist Donald Vega and bassist Yasushi Nakamura play acoustic as well as electric. Some songs, like “Hackensack” and “Rhythm-a-Ning,” are both vibrant and faithful to the entire spirit of Monk. Others are inspired experiments, such as the way Vega introduces “In Walked Bud” with soulful electric piano that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bill Withers tune, accented by Penn’s brittle cymbal effects. “Bemsha Swing” is foreshadowed by what sounds like a distant tape of the tune, only to erupt and flower under the sway of young saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown. Even “I Mean You,” inflected with tropical rhythms and concluding in a dreamscape that has guest keyboardist Gerald Clayton working the wah-wah pedal attached to his Rhodes, is a pleasant excursion. Still, you’ll probably miss the originals.

Originally Published