The Kronos Quartet
David Harrington - first violin
John Sherba - second violin
Hank Dutt - viola
Joan Jeanrenaud - cello
Produced by Orrin Keepnews, arranged and adapted by Tom Darter
The Kronos Quartet, a very open-minded classical string quartet, caused a lot of eyebrows to be raised with this unusual set. They perform eight Thelonious Monk compositions and two Duke Ellington pieces that Monk had recorded. All of the notes played by the strings were written out in advance by arranger Tom Darter but the improvising bassist Ron Carter is a major asset on five of the selections which are placed in a "Monk Suite." In addition, the two Ellington numbers have The Kronos Quartet joined by bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Eddie Marshall. Fortunately the string arrangements are very much in Monk's style, with many of the lines taken directly off of the pianist's recordings. This unique set is worth checking out.
All Music Guide
========= from the cover ==========
I am deeply aware of the richness and complexity of the music of Thelonious Monk, having worked with him during my earliest years as a record producer and having loved and admired his music then and forever after. The concept of this album, which basically involves the recasting of some of Monk's work as string quartet music, emerged (rather magically and almost full-grown) out of some conversations between myself and David Harrington, first violinist and musical director of the Kronos Quartet. And I devised or collaborated on various answers as all the pieces were put together: approach, repertoire, choosing an arranger, bringing Ron Carter into the picture, building a sound that is unusual for either jazz or classical recording.
Accordingly, I am heavily prejudiced in favor of this album and immensely proud of it. I find it doubly satisfying: valid and exciting performances that also add up to a sweeping affirmation of the strength and universality of Monk's music.
Kronos is a young, adventurous, San Francisco-based ensemble with a swiftly growing international reputation and a remarkable, deep-rooted unity (these four have been playing and thinking together since 1978). The quartet's usual concert activities involve current composers such as John Cage, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass, on occasion looking back -but only as far as Bartok or Shostakovich. Critic Alan Rich has praised a "fierce dedication to the music of its own time." Kronos deals with serious contemporary music; thus there should be nothing surprising about its turning to Monk, for he surely was - in every possible sense of the phrase - a composer of serious contemporary music...
These four musicians are not, and do not seek to be, improvising artists. What they do, superbly well, is to interpret the written material, which is as much a matter of individual and collective emotional reaction and understanding as it is of technique. It is a good deal closer to the aims and achievements of improvisation than many jazz people might realize, although it does call for much greater respect for the composer and a lot less license in dealing with his creation than is customary in jazz. But respect, and very little arbitrary license, is exactly the right way to approach Thelonious - as many players have learned, often the hard way, in the past.
Ron Carter, on the other hand, is a formidable jazz soloist. His appearance as a featured guest provides a substantial element of improvisation, while maintaining the proper attitude towards Monk and not departing from an overall string-music setting. I think the remarkable level of his playing here clearly conveys how much Ron enjoyed this encounter and how well the two worlds meshed. The five pieces that make up the Suite have much in common: several of them underline Monk's wry humor; all are early (Forties to mid-Fifties) compositions; four were included on his classic June 1957 "Monk's Music" album for Riverside Records (Crepuscule with Nellie was written for that occasion), and Rhythm-a-ning was first recorded just two months later. While Tom Darter's arrangements utilize elements from various recorded performances (including piano solos adapted - for the most part - for first violin), the voicings in those 1957 small-band versions provided his primary inspiration. (Epistrophy, although played at full length rather than in the closing-theme format with which Thelonious ended each club set for many years, does recognize that tradition by springing forward without pause from the last note of Off Minor.)
Two of the selections on Side 2 are of course not Monk compositions. It was David Harrington who requested these, having become fascinated by the highly personal way Thelonious had recast Duke Ellington material on his first Riverside album. Ellington as filtered through the mind of Monk is indeed unique; these two are near-literal transcriptions of the original trio pieces, retaining bass and drums (Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Clarke were on the 1955 recordings), and with Kronos in the role of the pianist.
The three purely string-quartet numbers include a strong and wonderfully restrained 'Round Midnight. I have described this classic work as "surely one of the most beautiful short pieces of music written in twentieth-century America"; this version - unlike more than a few over-embellished efforts we all have heard - supports my words. The intriguing Misterioso and the seldom-heard (because it is so damn near impossible) Brilliant Corners struck Kronos as almost inevitable choices. The first time Harrington heard the latter, on a recording that in 1956 had nearly strangled Sonny Rollins, Max Roach and me, he accepted the challenge, noting that "it sounds like string quartet music already."
Tom Darter is a distinguished music journalist, editor of Keyboard Magazine, a pianist and Monk enthusiast, and holds a doctorate in composition from Cornell University. He approached this project with a suitable mixture of daring and respect, combining originality with historical perspective, including an awareness of the late Hall Overton's pioneering big-band Monk orchestrations. On being applauded by the artists and producer for these efforts, he modestly argued that "there's hardly a note here that Monk didn't play." But that, of course, was one of the notable accomplishments we were congratulating him for!
- Orrin Keepnews