I was struck, time and again, by the considered, almost slow-motion attention to detail here, as trumpeter Jimmy Owens and Co. tease out every blues-soaked nuance from the oft-heard music of Thelonious Monk.
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 work — something 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 parade — made 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 first — as 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.