Pianist Frank Kimbrough never really considered covering Thelonious Monk’s entire compositional oeuvre until a friend planted and watered the seed. Upon hearing Kimbrough perform a program of Monk’s music at New York’s Jazz Standard in October of 2017 (during the club’s celebration of Monk’s centennial), concert presenter Mait Jones approached him with the idea. Instead of balking, Kimbrough considered it. Then, once he saw that François Zalacain at Sunnyside Records seemed open to the project, the pianist put a plan in motion.
Between the initial gig and a two-night engagement at Jazz at Kitano in April of 2018, Kimbrough and his bandmates—bassist Rufus Reid, drummer Billy Drummond, and man-of-many-horns Scott Robinson—worked through 45 Monk tunes, more than halfway to the magic number of 70. Producer Matt Balitsaris was then secured, a course was plotted—a pair of three-day sessions with a short break between them—and the game was afoot. In comfortable rural-Pennsylvania confines, the quartet laid down 34 tracks in the first sessions and 34 more in the second. At a later date, Kimbrough recorded two solo piano performances. And just like that, it was done.
The fact that these men had the stamina and discipline to accomplish such a feat in such a concentrated amount of time is a marvel in and of itself. And that’s to say nothing of the quality of what they created, which is incredibly high, and the level of respect within it, which runs deep. Walking a careful line, Kimbrough and his companions never obscure the master’s truths, muddy his language, or attempt to erect a revisionist playground. Fidelity is a foremost concern, as melodies, harmonies, and shape are largely honored. Kimbrough even adopts a more percussive touch than usual, hewing closer to Monk’s mannerisms. But that doesn’t mean creative thought is suppressed. This is anything but mundane Monk.
Wonders abound across these five-and-a-half hours of music spanning six CDs, but it’s the hidden gems in Monk’s portfolio that stand tallest. “Humph” is angular chic all the way, showcasing the chemistry between Robinson’s tenor and Kimbrough’s keys; “Bluehawk” uses simplicity as elevating grace, giving Robinson’s echo cornet and Reid’s centered bass a chance to connect; “San Francisco Holiday” is a captivating affair built on descending lines and some artful connections from Drummond; and “Hornin’ In” is the stuff of casual brilliance, highlighting the group’s near-telepathic interplay. There remains plenty to enjoy in the “oft-covered” column—a “Bemsha Swing” with Drummond goosing the groove, a “Straight, No Chaser” in which Robinson’s contrabass sarrusophone leans more toward squirrely grouse than Charlie Rouse, a “’Round Midnight” possessed of a mystical Reid-focused introduction—but the element of surprise runs double at the other extreme. Regardless of any specific draws, though, the final analysis remains firm: This is an artistic coup and a musical masterstroke from one of jazz’s premier pianists.