I think that the best way to appreciate the sheer genius of Thelonious Monk is to first listen to Monk’s records and then listen to others interpret his music. Because as idiosyncratic as it is, how others translate it reveals as much of themselves as it does Monk, no matter how “straight” they may try to play it.
That’s what makes Worry Later, a meeting of Ben Goldberg, Adam Levy and Smith Dobson performing all Monk tunes, a revelation on what makes these San Francisco Bay area musicians tick. Levy is a guitarist and singer/songwriter probably best known for his work with Norah Jones on her first three albums, while drummer Smith Dobson V is a third generation jazz musician mentored by Ray Brown and Jeff Ballard and the son of the renowned pianist Smith Dobson IV. Clarinet maestro Goldberg has been pushing out the frontiers of jazz at least since pioneering a blend of Jewish folk music and jazz with his New Klezmer Trio in the early 90s.
A relaxed, impulsive set, the performances of Worry Later are shaped by both the collective interpretation of these songs — many of which are lesser-known Monk tunes — and the interaction among the three. The kind of interaction they do is very fluid and dynamic.
For instance, the roles of who is leading and who is following are dispensed with for “Hornin’ In”; each is giving his own take along three parallel threads. For “Trinkle Tinkle,” Goldberg and Levy liberally swap melody and harmony parts. And for “Who Knows,” Goldberg plays a knotty but well-defined figure as the other two give more abstract readings, eventually pulling Goldberg in their direction. Goldberg and Levy double up on that famous Rubik’s Cube of a figure that defines “Brilliant Corners,” and then both offer up variations of it simultaneously.
Another example on the malleability of Monk is found in “Shuffle Boil,” where Levy’s opening figure is closer to blues-rock than Monk’s conception of bop and Dobson sketches out a sparse, funky rhythm for it. The trio accurately recalls the mopey mood of a typical Monk ballad in covering “Crepuscule with Nellie” in perhaps their most faithful interpretation here.
Dobson’s drumming is a real delight, a throwback to when most jazz drummers actively supported the melody and not just keep time. Dobson uses the full range of timbres on his drums during “San Francisco Holiday (Worry Later)” to draw a tonal connection to the song with the help of minimal cues from the other two, something Paul Motian also did so sublimely. He does that again for “Little Rootie Tootie,” and again during the middle of “Nellie.” Elsewhere, his loose, airy drumming makes the songs swing breezily without forcing it.
Accomplished musicians are still students of jazz when they take on the strange, beautiful compositions of Thelonious Monk. The tandem of Goldberg, Levy and Dobson passed their exam with flying colors.