The band Anthony Braxton assembled for this unique exploration of the compositions of Thelonious Monk is one of the wonders of the composer's retinue. Braxton, pianist Mal Waldron, bassist Buell Neidlinger, and drummer Bill Osborne use six Monk tunes and go hunting for harmonic invention; in order, they are "Brilliant Corners," "Reflections," "Played Twice," "Four in One," "Ask Me Now," and "Skippy." From the jump, the listener can tell this is no ordinary Monk tribute. The music is fast, skittering along at a dervish's pace on "Brilliant Corners," and Braxton's horn - an alto on this album - moves right for that street where interval meets modulation and sticks his solo in the center, careening over the arrangement - which is what the tune is in essence, an arrangement rather than a "song" - and slipping just behind the beat to allow Waldron's brittle, almost angular percussive sonority to define the melody enough to move around the harmonic framework. And this is only the beginning. The other five compositions here are treated in a similar fashion, in that they are radically reinterpreted, played and executed with a degree of musicianship seldom found on any tribute. Braxton's intent was to get at the knotty - even nutty - harmonic and rhythmic idiosyncrasies that make Monk's music connect so deeply and widely yet remain difficult to interpret correctly. If all you get is a listen to "Four in One" or "Skippy," just listen to how completely each of these musicians reinvents himself to approach the material. On alternating tunes, Braxton and Waldron provide the catalyst, but all four become changelings in light of this intense and addictive harmonic conception.
- Thom Jurek (All Music Guide)
In the six years since the death of Thelonious Monk, more than a few tributes to his genius have been recorded, by artists of great or lesser stature-either all-Monk programs (by the particularly adventurous), or individual pieces (by those who wish to temper their enthusiasm with reason-Monk's compositions are a bitch to play). It is gratifying to see how Monk-The-Composer is becoming solidified in the historical continuum, as musicians of varying artistic temperament discover that they can channel their individual talents through Monk's own unique, once-thought impenetrable, musical vision. And yet this attention in no way lessens the unique attributes of the album at hand.
Buster Williams, bassist for the group Sphere, acutely measured the difficulties facing those bold enough to tackle the Monk repertoire: "Monk's rhythmic and harmonic concepts are unique. Playing his music is always a study because it makes you play a little differently, and the way his tunes are structured opens you up to new ideas about ways to approach different things. Many times the tune itself is an arrangement; the tunes dictate an approach, rather than the other way around. Of course, his concept is not yours, so it creates a challenge for you. And it's also a challenge for you to put your own personality into music so strongly individual while still remaining totally faithful to the composer's intentions."
Thus one can't interpret Monk's music as you might, say, a Brahms intermezzo or a Gershwin song-you have to confront it totally, consider it carefully, alter it and, more importantly, allow it to alter you. For Monk's true, lingering genius resides not only in the rhythmic/harmomic puzzles or deftly pointed themes he created, but in the attitude they en-gendre, in the electrically-charged emotional and intellectual response they demand from performer and listener alike.
The quartet on this recording of Monk compositions (and be assured they are not merely "tunes" or "songs" but compositions with the full weight and resonance of the word intact) may at first seem like a curious amalgam of attitudes and contrasting musical styles, but it is precisely these diverse natures which provide the creative friction necessary to energize these striking performances. At the same time, there are similarities under the surface which cause a common bonding between the component parts.
The scope and breadth on Anthony Braxton's own compositional work, and the fervency with which it has been created, might distract one's view from his performances "in the tradition", and in fact his previous pair of encounters with Monk's music on Seven Standards 1985, Volume Two (Magenta Records)-an alert reading of Trinkle Tinkle and a suitably moody Ruby My Dear-barely prepare us for the level of commitment and identification with which he attacks these six pieces herein. The sheer technical brilliance of Braxton's alto playing here is staggering, but the particular compositions chosen-arguably four of the most difficult and, as a result, least known of Monk's creations among them-reveal meaningful affinities between Monk's structures and Braxton's own studies of musical movement and shape.
In contrast to the first-time nature of Braxton's involvement, pianist Mat Waldron has long been considered one of the foremost exponents of Monk's music and methods, and his articulate, intuitive playing here shows why. His hard, nearly brittle, percussive sonority, angular melodic bent, and acutely lean harmonic underpinnings are reminiscent of Monk's pianism, while never resorting to mimickry. Further, he shares with Braxton (to vastly distinctive-sounding ends) a rigorous concern for organization; his incessant repetitive rhythmic/intervallic kneading prods his chosen motifs until they stretch and splinter or expand into another related phrase (as opposed to, in this case, the saxophonist's expansive, arpeggiated exploration of "areas". (A curious historic parallel to these proceedings, by the way, is Steve Lacy's 1958 album Reflections, currently available on Fanta-sy/OJC, which features two of the same participants-Waldron and bassist Buell Neidlinger-and four of the six tunes. A comparison of the musical similarities and differences is enlightening).
Given the extreme approaches of Braxton and Waldron to this material, a sturdy rhythm section is essential to maintain the foundational pulse-the heartbeat-which enlivens all of Monk's music. Buell Neidlinger, too, has a longterm commitment to the maestro's music. In addition to sideman sessions such as the one mentioned above, he has seen fit to expose Monk's music to settings as extreme as quasi-bluegrass (onSwinGrass'83, Antilles Records) and as natural as his current repertory quartet, Thelonious (on his own K2B2 Records)-a valuable attitude indeed, as Monk's music would evaporate if left solely to the purists. The bassist fulfills his supportive role with aplomb and accuracy here-no slight feat-in sympathetic union with drummer Bill Os-borne, an experienced cohort in the group Thelonious.
If, as Buster Williams' quote previously alluded, all of Monk's music is a challenge, this foursome has gone to great pains to confront pieces which severely test every facet of a musician's mettle. Brilliant Corners, for example, is a multi-tempoed torment; so much so that the Monk/Rollins/ Roach version which everyone knows is actually (according to session producer Orrin Keepnews) a spliced composite of various takes, a musically successful complete performance beyond the capabilities of even such distinguished talents on that particular evening. This performance-like all of those on this album-may not be note-perfect, but that would lead to a clinical sterility; these are flesh-and-blood renditions, sung with an air of compulsion and need. Braxton's playing is alternately airy and earth-bound and everywhere exhilarating; fortunately Waldrdh allows us to catch our breath before he progresses into unexplored territory. (Note, too, here and throughout, Waldron's exquisite prompt comping-minimal, tart chords (and much laying out) a la Monk, echoing pertinent intervals and pregnant harmonies without forcing the soloist to follow hjs dictates... as when Braxton gets gruff and bluesy on this cut, Waldron's right there to supply the appropriate chordal cushion, then back away before locking Braxton into a straitjacket "groove".)
Reflections, conversely, is one of Monk's most performed pieces, a ballad deceptively simple in design and melodic contour, but rife with hidden subtleties. Waldron, like Monk, fashions melodic variations rather than running over chords, and Braxton ornaments the theme with his own personal character. Compare this approach with the knotty contour of the seldom heard Played Twice, which lends itself nicely to the twists and turns of Braxton's phrasing. Themes like this are so hard to negotiate that most musicians would be satisfied to conquer the head; Braxton, Waldron, Neidlinger, and Osborne do considerably more.
Braxton is hard-charging and agitated on Four In One, inserting audacious flurries of notes which jolt the already frantic line and ultimately give the illusion of acceleration, kicking the music into overdrive. Waldron, in contrast, is steady, unflappable in his insistent ordering and reordering of thematic details. Ask me Now is pungent, and only a brief respite before the breathtaking sprint through Skippy, which by its misleading title one might assume is a light, slight sing-songy kid's tune, but in actuality is a treacherous labyrinth of cascading melodic spirals, dead-end harmonic modulations, and landmine rhythmic accents. Here Andre Hodeir's phrase, "urgent beauty," was never more appropriate.
In thinking of all four participants-but especially Anthony Braxton, is his saxophonistics here and primarily his compositions elsewhere-I'm reminded of what the esteemed pianist Bill Evans wrote of Monk: "Make no mistake. This man knows exactly what he is doing in a theoretical way-organized, more than likely, in a personal terminology, but strongly organized, nevertheless. We can be further grateful to him for combining aptitude, insight, drive, compassion, fantasy, and whatever else makes the "total" artist, and we should also be grateful for such direct speech in an age of insurmountable conformist pressures."
Art Lange, January 1988