Long before the arrival of 2017, his centennial year, Thelonious Monk had become the most covered composer in jazz. It sometimes feels like every new jazz record has to have a Monk tune. And Monk tribute albums are myriad: Latin Monk, vocal Monk, alt-rock Monk, organ Monk. His art is large enough to absorb almost anything.
John Beasley’s salute to Monk, now in two volumes, is an ambitious big-band project featuring new arrangements, 16 proficient players and several high-profile guests. Vol. 1 got good press and two Grammy nominations. The news on Vol. 2 is mixed.
Beasley is a very clever arranger who works his charts hard, and this album is continuously surprising. Every piece twists Monk into new shapes and paints him in new gaudy colors. Monk loved to break rules. Therefore there are no rules for a Monk tribute. Beasley comes up with rap Monk (“Brake’s Sake”), funk Monk (“I Mean You”) and clave Monk (“Criss Cross,” with guest Pedrito Martinez, a badass, on congas). All the guests (violinist Regina Carter, trombonist Conrad Herwig, vocalist Dianne Reeves) make vivid contributions, especially saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who seizes “Evidence” and flies away.
But carte blanche to mess with Monk is one thing. Questionable taste is another. Beasley’s little backbeat groove trivializes “Pannonica,” one of Monk’s loveliest, most mysterious ballads, and his gratuitous noisy riffs intrude upon its spirit. The shattering insertions are even more destructive to “Crepuscule With Nellie,” Monk’s haunting love song to his wife. The shrieking brass expletives are incongruous.
The downside of too much cleverness is that it sounds gimmicky; at worst it sounds cute. Beasley’s busy, spiky charts are overwrought with extraneous flourishes and nervous tempo reversals. His Monk shtick becomes a novelty act. This is a technically dexterous, entertaining, inconsequential record.Originally Published