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John Beasley: Presents MONK’estra, Vol. 1

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Thelonious Monk’s music reimagined and contemporized in an orchestral setting? If such a thing fills you with more dread than anticipation, rest assured: John Beasley, no stranger to Monk’s legacy, and an artist who has amassed a mile-long list of professional credits, knows precisely what he’s doing. His vision for this project is bold, and informed by Thad Jones, Gil Evans, Jaco Pastorius and Aaron Copland, among others.

You may want to keep the album’s credits handy. Yes, that’s vibraphonist Gary Burton contributing verve and elegance to “Epistrophy,” the percolating opener and an ensemble template of very good things to come. And yes, that’s harmonica player Grégoire Maret, another guest, infusing “Ask Me Now” with a fresh yet soulful air. Beasley’s turns on piano, while evocative, tend to be compact, the better to highlight a three-year-old band that boasts an exemplary horn section featuring Bob Sheppard, Tom Luer, Ryan Dragon and Brian Swartz. Arranging each of the album’s nine performances, Beasley brings the full might of the ensemble to bear on a spiraling, tempo-shifting, powerfully driven rendition of “Skippy,” prominently featuring Sheppard on soprano. And later, when an especially deft touch is called for, the arranger makes the most of drummer Terreon Gully’s light-handed nonchalance on “Gallop’s Gallop.” From start to finish, with an engaging Crescent City-flavored excursion en route, there’s no mistaking this session for what it is: a labor of love for Beasley and a reminder of the wonderfully malleable nature of Monk’s music when handled with care and ingenuity. Bring on Volume 2.

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Originally Published