Monk: Peter Bernstein Trio

One would think the Thelonious Monk songbook would be a road more taken by jazz guitarists, considering the angularity and rangy attitudes found in Monk’s writing. Yet, for whatever reasons, guitarists haven’t generally flocked to Monk music, apart from the usual standards, making Peter Bernstein’s Monk project all the more delicious and refreshing. The intrigue and engaging playing on the album-empathetically fortified by his trio-mates, bassist Doug Weiss and the wonderful, witty (and intrinsically Monk-minded) drummer Bill Stewart-comes as no real surprise. Bernstein is a guitarist who tends to dignify and energize whatever he touches, and he is one of those perennial lurkers on the guitar scene, ever deserving wider recognition.

Bringing his fluid, nimble, clean-toned playing to the job rather than copping a Monk-ish minimalist quirkiness, Bernstein’s interpretations nonetheless show his deep respect for the music at hand, and his solos bask in the particular language of each tune. In fact, Bernstein seems to be on a mission of rescuing Monk’s songbook from predictability. He conspicuously avoids “Straight, No Chaser,” for instance, and kicks off the set with a coolly swaggering “Let’s Cool One.” He plays “Well You Needn’t” in a teasingly odd 5/8 meter, and his trio plays musically geometric tricks with “Brilliant Corners.”

Bernstein also brings a special guitaristic flair to “Work” (also memorably treated, guitar-wise, on the Hal Willner-produced Monk tribute album years ago, by guitarists Chris Spedding and Peter Frampton, of all people). On more lyrical turf, Bernstein takes “Monk’s Mood” and “Ruby, My Dear” solo, and overdubs a rhythm guitar for the closer, “Reflections.”

However familiar, Monk’s classic songbook is always available for an intelligent redesign. Bernstein’s Monk is just that, a smart, guitar-slinging charmer, casting new light on music we thought we knew.