Thelonious Sphere Monk was born just over a century ago. Frank Kimbrough has produced a remarkable six-disc tribute featuring virtually all Monk’s compositions, which number about 70. (Pieces not on the album include ones that Monk created spontaneously, such as “Chordially” from the final London sessions released in 1971 – and there must be other unpublished compositions.) It’s an excellent line-up, featuring the beautifully tight drumming of Billy Drummond and warm, propulsive bass of Rufus Reid, plus Scott Robinson on horns. Most tracks are by the quartet, but there are also smaller groups, including solo piano – and “Blue Sphere” has just tenor sax and drums.
Complete surveys of Monk’s music have been attempted before, most recently by Alexander von Schlippenbach with “Monk’s Casino”. That release featured quirky, often quite sketchy treatments, whereas Kimbrough, though still individual, offers a straightahead account. This isn’t the first curatorial assignment he’s undertaken; in 1992, he formed the Herbie Nichols Project. On the Monk albums, we are reminded of the compositions he played and recorded often, such as “Epistrophy”, “Blue Monk” and “Evidence”; and the rarities, such as “Hornin’ In” and “Humph”, recorded once only, in this case on their Blue Note premières.
Other rarities include “Blues Five Spot”, with a standout solo by the pianist, forceful in its iteration of Monkian whole-tone scales and semi-tonal clusters; “A Merrier Christmas” is a plangent delight. The succinct version of “‘Round Midnight” has a thoughtful, tonally-nuanced solo by Robinson on tenor – Monk’s beautiful melody has rarely been interpreted so gorgeously. On tenor, Robinson comes across as playing the light-toned Warne Marsh-ophone, sometimes mistaken for alto sax.
The composition “Coming on the Hudson”, Liam Noble writes in his useful review, “[seems] to exist simply on the strength of its melodic stubbornness”. Here, Kimbrough increases Monk’s slow tempo; conversely, he slows “Locomotive” almost to a crawl, with Robinson on gently melodic bass clarinet. Two of Monk’s solo blues improvisations get some of the most novel treatments. On “Blue Hawk”, Robinson, on echo cornet, plays the theme as call and response between open and muted horns. Echo Bell cornets, to give them their full name, made from the late 19th century until just after WW1, had a fourth piston valve and a second bell, tapering in the opposite direction to the main bell, to give an effect like a Harmon mute. “Monk’s Point”, another little-known blues, features just piano and drums.
There’s a surprisingly mobile bass saxophone on “Blue Monk”, while Robinson returns to tenor for a hypnotic “Friday the 13th”. “Straight No Chaser” features contrabass sarrusophone, a double-reed instrument apparently first used in jazz by Sidney Bechet on Clarence Williams’ “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind” from 1924; Robinson is one of very few jazz performers of this bigger replacement for oboe or bassoon in outdoor bands. “Brilliant Corners”, the tricky composition that had problems at its 1956 recording session, so that producer Orrin Keepnews had to piece it together out of its 25 takes, is brilliantly interpreted here; Robinson is again very apt on bass sax.
Kimbrough’s own playing is outstanding, on occasion approaching Monk’s attack, and always aiming at the cool, compositional logic of his improvisations. His two greatest influences were Bill Evans and Monk, and here he downplays the Evans aspects of his style – “I intentionally played with a lot less sustain than I would normally”, he comments in the sleeve notes. That approach raises some interesting issues about individual style. My only cavil is that at least some of the time, the piano is slightly out of tune – not something that seriously mars a really excellent release.
Full album title is Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk
CD1: Thelonious; Light Blue; Played Twice; Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are; Ask Me Now; Humph; Bright Mississippi; Reflections; Bemsha Swing; Teo; Blue Sphere (56.57)
CD2: Crepuscule With Nellie; Think Of One; 52nd St. Theme; Eronel; Bluehawk; Little Rootie Tootie; Two Timer; Ruby, My Dear; Boo Boo’s Birthday; San Francisco Holiday; Functional; I Mean You (54.16)
CD3: Shuffle Boil; Monk’s Dream; Evidence; Misterioso; Four In One; Brake’s Sake; Pannonica; Bye-Ya; North On The Sunset; Introspection; We See; In Walked Bud (56:55)
CD4: Nutty; Trinkle Tinkle; Blues Five Spot; Round Midnight; Jackie-Ing; Well You Needn’t; Sixteen; Locomotive; Gallop’s Gallop; Children’s Song; Blue Monk; Friday The 13th (60:02)
CD5: Criss Cross; Raise Four; Let’s Call This; Who Knows; A Merrier Christmas; Stuffy Turkey; Monk’s Point; Work; Brilliant Corners; Off Minor; Hackensack; Oska T (52:07)
CD6: Let’s Cool One; Hornin’ In; Coming on the Hudson; Straight No Chaser; Monk’s Mood; Green Chimneys; Rhythm-A-Ning; Ugly Beauty; Skippy; Something in Blue; Epistrophy (50:32)
Scott Robinson (ts, bs, contrabass sarrusophone, c, t); Kimbrough (p); Rufus Reid (b); Billy Drummond (d). Pipersville, Pennsylvania, 22-24, 28-30 May and 20 June, 2018.
Sunnyside SSC4032 6XCD