Owens says of his inspiration for this landmark recording, Thelonious Monk is one of the world's premier jazz artists and composers. Many of his compositions provide (even the best) jazz artists with musical challenges, such as the opportunity to maneuver through difficult chord changes and execute unusual melodies. I chose compositions that people may have heard before; however, when I arranged the pieces I wanted to give them a different feeling than how they have been performed in the past. I also kept in mind the musicians whom I'd chosen for the CD because they each could emote what I wanted projected when I arranged the music. When I first started to think about the The Monk Project, it was important for me to work with musicians who really understand the blues tradition and know how to emote. Each of the jazz artists really delivers on this project.
Joining Owens in his all star septet is an intergenerational roster of some of the finest, most highly respected players in jazz today. Seated in the all-important piano chair, Owens' longtime colleague, fellow NEA Jazz Master, Kenny Barron, is supported in the rhythm section by two young veterans, stalwart bassist Kenny Davisand drummer extraordinaire Winard Harper. Filling out the leader's lyrical trumpet and flugelhorn in the front line are former Wynton Marsalis/Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth Band alumnus, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and the amazing multi-instrumentalist Howard Johnson on tuba and baritone saxophone. Molding these remarkable musicians' various individual sounds into an orchestral whole, greater than the sum of its component parts, Owens' arrangement pay homage not just to Monk's music, but also the large group jazz tradition epitomized by the bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and many others.
As highly respected as a educator as he is an instrumentalist, Owens demonstrates the importance of his role as a pedagogue preserving and advancing the jazz tradition by showcasing the impressive talents of his former student, Eyal Vilner on the opening track. The young saxophonist-clarinetist/arranger-composer proves himself more than worthy of his mentor's generosity, providing the group with a swinging orchestration of Monk's Bright Mississippi." Opening with an interactive conversation between the brass section and Strickland's sax, the orchestration underscores the rhythmic drive of the composer's clever reworking of Sweet Georgia Brown," setting up Owens' driving virtuosic solo featuring some amazing acrobatic twists. Strickland follows with carefully constructed multichorus improvisation that leads to rousing climax that smoothly segues into a reprise of the opening melody and its clever tag.
Owens arrangement of Well You Needn't" (with some well-constructed ideas from student Corey Sterling) which features just flugelhorn and rhythm section, slows the usually up-tempo boppish melody to a relaxed loping crawl set over an unhurried piano vamp around which Harper's drum dance. Interspersing dramatic pauses that invest the song with a deep bluesy feel not often associated with the piece, the trumpeter varies tempo in his opening solo, hurrying up to slow down, adding to the orchestration's narrative nature. Barron follows suit in much the same manner, then accompanying the leader's extended winding improvisation with sympathetic comping that attests to their lengthy association.
The whole band returns to dig deep down into the blues on Blue Monk," again taken at a measured deliberate tempo redolent of a New Orleans funeral march. The feel gets a little dirtier here, with Owens smearing notes on his opening solo, the band riffing a Frankie and Johnny-like line adding to the tunes down home ambiance. Wycliffe Gordon follows, in the tradition of Ellington Jungle Band trombonist Tricky Tricky Sam Nanton, soulfully growling on his plunger muted trombone, succeeded by Strickland, his wide gritty tone recalling swing era masters Chu Berry and Herschel Evans. Barron tinkles his notes with air of a late night-early morning barrel house pianist, Davis and Harper nailing down the slow beat, then pushing to a rousing finale led by Owens blaring horn.
Monk's Stuffy Turkey" is one of the iconoclastic composer's more conventional constructions. Owens' treatment of the almost poppish melody gives the piece a more esoteric bent with strident harmonics and interspersion of some kaleidoscopic rhythmicfour-bar extensions for the improvisations. Strickland solos first, charging out of ensemble, building intelligently on the various facets of the melody and its orchestration. Kenny Davis then steps into the spotlight, displaying the lyrical virtuosity that makes him one of the most respected bassists of his generation. Owens, batting cleanup, has the final say, short and sweet, before calling back the ensemble to close out with a concluding reading of the melody.
Owens says of Pannonica," I wanted it to be slower than the original." In bringing the tempo down from its already leisurely cadence, the trumpeter manages to muster an even dreamier ambience from one of Monk's most contemplative compositions. The ensemble sound shines here, supplying suppleness through which the leader's trumpet alternately brooding and celebratory comes to the fore with sublime clarity. Gordon's trombone follows in similar fashion with Barron's piano statement offering respite from the melancholic mood,
Monk originally recorded Let's Cool One" in straight ahead 4/4 time. Here Owens changes the songs time signature to medium fast 3/4 thereby completely transforming the piece's feel. Strickland steps out front again, followed by Owens, who creatively improvises his own memorable melodic inventions.
Duke Ellington's It Don't Mean (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" features the work of another Owens' student, Jack Ramsey, who transcribed the arrangement from Monk's original orchestration of the classic composition. The brass gets to work out on this one, starting off with Howard Johnson's articulate tuba solo, followed by Owens clarion trumpet statement and Gordon's brash trombone.
One of Monk's more knotty compositions, Brilliant Corners," is creatively arranged by Owens, slowing it down from its faster original rendition, into a lazy shuffle driven by Harper's soulful drumming. Barron is featured here, digging deep into his blues bag for an extended outing, as is Owens, who too gets down in the idiom. Gordon and Strickland then converse leading to a collective horn improvisation that climaxes into a faster reading of the melody to close.
Owens opens Reflections" unaccompanied, his bell-like tone clearly ringing out Monk's thoughtful line, before being joined by first, Barron and then Gordon. Gordon begins the improvised sections, preceding the leader, who joins him in a measured call-and-response dialogue, followed by a brief piano interlude before a choral ensemble closing of the piece.
Epistrophy," one of the jazz cannon's classic closer's appropriately ends the set. Owens' arrangement completely transforms the piece, maintaining its rhythmic drive but setting it over a rolling piano part that gives it a more flowing feel. Johnson is featured on baritone sax on this one, followed by Owens, Strickland and Gordon, and then Barron, with the septet concluding in a grand finale worthy of Thelonious himself.
While there have been many, many memorials to the majesty of Monk's music, few have displayed the originality of Owens' outing. Jimmy Owens & The Monk Project pays tribute not only to one of jazz history's greatest figures, but to the talents of the date's creator, one of the music's finest trumpeters, creative arranger/composers, dedicated educators and stalwart activists, Jimmy Owens, on what is perhaps his most significant recording to date.