Kimbrough, Robinson, Reid, Drummond: Monk’s Dreams(Sunnyside)
The subtitle of this invaluable 6-CD set is The Complete Compositions Of Thelonious Sphere Monk. By complete, Sunnyside means that the box contains six CDs with 70 tunes that Monk wrote beginning in the early years when his music was generally assumed to be an eccentric offshoot of bebop, to the time of his death in 1982.
By the end of his career, Monk was venerated and adored in music circles. He has become even more respected and better known in the decades since. After he made the cover of Time magazine in 1964 he said, “I’m famous. Ain’t that a bitch?” In the decades since, he has become even more celebrated. His music is embraced despite—perhaps even because of—its eccentricities. It is in the mainstream via reissued performances by Monk’s own groups and countless “covers” by other musicians including some born long after he died.
A friend of pianist Frank Kimbrough, Mait Jones, suggested the comprehensive project. Kimbrough liked the idea and hired multiple brass and reed instrumentalist Scott Robinson, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Billy Drummond for what turned out to be a trial run at aNew York club, Jazz Standard. Intrigued by the idea, veteran producer Matt Balistaris offered to be the producer. He recorded the group at his storied Maggie’s Farm studio in Pennsylvania. The sessions went on for days. Sound quality, balance and depth are flawless.
The claim of completeness may or may not hold up under close examination by Monk specialists. It is unlikely that anyone knows of everything that Monk wrote. For instance, he recorded “Chordially” for Black Lion in Paris in 1954, but it can be argued that the piece was a spontaneous invention and that he did not “write” it per se. Previous efforts to record complete album of Monk tunes have fallen victim to compromises, among them drastically short tracks and the incorporation of partial pieces into medleys. Here, we have a complete take of every piece.
Kimbrough has a long discography of his own, though he is perhaps best known of late for his extensive work with Maria Schneider’s orchestra. Here, he plays under Monk’s spell without ploys that could be mistaken for parody or stabs at comic effect. The box set is a major addition to his body of work. I am particularly taken with the measured thoughtfulness of Kimbrough’s solo on “Ugly Beauty” and his puckishness in “Little Rootie Tootie.”
Kimbrough, Reid and Drummond are among the most seasoned rhythm section players of the day. The evidence of the six Monk CDs suggests that they had an absolute understanding of the spirit of the project. On all of his horns, but notably on the tenor saxophone, Robinson further establishes his preeminence as one of the most imaginative, and daring tenor players at work today. That observation by no means downgrades his effectiveness on trumpet, bass saxophone or the formidable contrabass sarusaphone, which has a sound so low that it might be coming from the bowels of the earth. However, the tenor sax comment leads to a tip that is only slightly self-serving: watch for the Robinson album Tenormore, due out soon from Arbors. Writing the notes for it, I basked in repeated exposure to his imagination, rhythmic drive and—not so incidentally—humor, on tenor. In the Monk box, all of that is present in abundance.
Anyone ready for renewed familiarity with the extent of Thelonious Monk’s accomplishment as a composer will welcome this collection—and its superb playing from four seasoned improvisers.