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Kronos Quartet: The Complete Landmark Sessions: Music of Monk And Evans

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How well jazz translates to string quartet has been demonstrated by Kronos, and precious few other such ensembles, since its inception in 1978. Kronos has exposed wide audiences to not only 20th-century serious (i.e., neither wallpaper-thin nor decibel-proud) jazz and classical music, but the very string quartet format, showing it to be flexible, durable, timely. Orrin Keepnews produced Kronos’ projects playing Tom Darter’s arrangements of the music of T. Monk (1985, with Ron Carter on solo bass, as well as a rhythm section of Chuck Israels and Eddie Marshall) and Bill Evans (1986; three by Kronos alone, and three each adding Evans’ collaborators Jim Hall on guitar or Eddie Gomez on bass). Keepnews was the ideal producer, having produced both Monk’s and Evans’ seminal Riverside LPs. Brilliant conception and performance make these dates hallmarks for string ensembles who would play jazz.

Of the two, I found the Monk date more successful: the unexpected settings and sonorities work well on a string front line (fiddles as trumpet and tenor, viola as trombone); Carter’s role, beautifully balanced between arco and pizz, elicits solos of crisp authority. “Misterioso” is a gem of ambiguity; “Brilliant Corners” makes a rousing closer. Monk’s interpretations of Ellington (smeared “Black and Tan Fantasy” and saucy “Don’t Mean A Thing”) are inspiredly transcribed and performed, Dave Harrington’s and John Sherba’s violins in tight dissonance, Joan Jeanrenaud’s cello thumping in tenths. The Evans set, somewhat more awkward and predictable, rushes the beat at times. Hall’s role seems tacked on to “Walking Up;” his solo on “Turn Out The Stars” is prettily played but recorded distantly. In the last analysis, it strikes me that Evans’ compositions, with his hair’s-breadth timing and intimate voicings, simply sound better in his hands than in anyone else’s.