It's easy to focus on the brilliant convolutions of his music, the blind-alley syncopations and the turbulent chord changes. But there was real grit, and no small amount of beauty, to the tortured pianist's worksomething that The Monk Project brilliantly underscores.
Owens downshifts the familiar boppish standard Well You Needn't" into a drawling reverie, performing alone on flugelhorn with pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Winard Harper. Joined by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and the rest of his talented sidemen, Owens and Co. transform Blue Monk" with a boozy cadence straight out of a New Orleans sidestreet parademade complete by Owens' squalling lines, a Ellingtonian growl from Gordon's trombone, and the band's winking quote of the old standard Frankie and Johnny." Pannonica" slows to an almost crepuscular gait, taking on the romantic shadows of late sunset. Brilliant Corners" becomes a showcase for Harper and Barron, who provide a soul-soaked foundation of shuffling swing.
Not that the The Monk Project doesn't swing; in fact, it does so from the firstas Owens charges into Monk's rhythmic reworking of Sweet Georgia Brown," which he called Bright Mississippi." The trumpeter's propulsive work here provides a terrific foil for saxophonist Marcus Strickland, a Roy Haynes alum. Later, the group adds an angular complexity to Stuffy Turkey," then burns through a piano-focused take on the classic Epistrophy." Tuba player Howard Johnson is featured on a harumphing journey through It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)."
But the album, for me, finds its most striking immediacy when this group digs deepest into the blues underpinnings of Monk's work, something that's not explored often enough.