In 1974, trumpeter Jimmy Owens helped prepare and played on a Carnegie Hall concert of Thelonious Monk’s music. On the night in question, the orchestra featured a surprise soloist: Monk himself. It was one of the pianist’s last public performances. Thirty-eight years later, Owens has just been honored as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, and he has a new album of Monk compositions arranged for seven players, called The Monk Project.
In Monk’s lifetime, his pieces weren’t played so very often, and interpreters often smoothed away their idiosyncrasies. After Monk’s death in 1982, jazz players started paying more attention to his tunes’ specific quirks, to the point where musicians jamming on them might simply mimic their counterparts in Monk’s band. Something like that happens here, a little — tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland sounds like he’s been studying Monk’s last great tenor, Charlie Rouse.
Owens’ septet epitomizes one modern approach to Monk, not too straight, not too quirky. He doesn’t ape Monk’s sound, but instead honors his method: Keep the melody in mind at all times, leave plenty of space so the music can breathe, and make it sound old and new at once — rooted in the masters, but freshly shuffled. Owens knows Monk’s tunes swing all by themselves, if you play them right. His funny timing catapults the music forward. When Monk recorded “Brilliant Corners,” a tricky tune even for him, he doubled the tempo every other time through the melody — a weird move, but good show business. Owens puts “Brilliant Corners” through different rhythmic variations, leading to a slow conversation for four horns — avant-garde Dixieland.
That’s about as loose as it gets. Jimmy Owens mostly dresses Monk’s tunes for uptown wear — Monk the Harlem jam-session swinger. The four-horn voicings, with Howard Johnson on either tuba or baritone sax, grease the tunes for cooking. The champ rhythm section is Kenny Barron on piano, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Winard Harper. On trombone, the versatile Wycliffe Gordon is a wizard with a plunger mute, adding some Ellingtonian earthiness.
A few rough spots turn up in Jimmy Owens’ own trumpet and flugelhorn solos on The Monk Project, which is a good sign in a way. He’s more concerned with showcasing the music and the ensemble than making himself look good. This midsize band jells so well, it might think of regrouping for some encores. The Monk Project makes me daydream about other composers whose music they could feature, like Tadd Dameron or Andrew Hill, or whomever Owens may be thinking about already.