Sunday, January 21, 2018

John Beasley's MONK'estra: Wondering if the Thelonious Monk legacy is in good hands? Well, you needn't (mostly)

MONK'estra maestro John Beasley
I found several of the band's videos on YouTube a thrilling indication of what I would be likely to hear in its Carmel appearance, so my anticipation ran high at the outset of MONK'estra's concert Saturday night at the Palladium.

In many respects, I was rewarded with more opportunity to delve into the cleverness and surprise threaded through Thelonious Monk compositions in bandleader John Beasley's arrangements. But I came away wondering if the personnel changes that are a necessary evil in this kind of project —  where participants tend to have so many other professional obligations — were responsible for a certain lack of focus.

Thankfully, however, my impression was confirmed that MONK'estra does not fall into the "tribute band" box. That has to be stated up front. Nor do its surface and in-depth pleasures seem to depend on the kind of tribute programming that has generated so many recordings in recent years, as well as the "repertory" emphasis best represented by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in the Wynton Marsalis empire.

Not to put down tributes, though the plethora of them (always with an eye to the box office) is wearying. And Marsalis's Monk album is quite good, though probably too tidy for some listeners. It shows that Monk's uniqueness as a composer is not hermetically sealed, but responds well to various skilled approaches. Beasley's is among the very best: He's got his quirks, but they are not the quirks of an amateur or someone merely lost in devotion to the master. He's insightful, even visionary, about the uses of a large ensemble in shedding new light upon the Monk canon, even such relative obscurities as "Skippy" and "Gallop's Gallop."

But a small indication of the variability in the 15-piece band's performance as it goes around the world came with Beasley's difficulty getting members' names right in the course of the program. The young bassist, given to me secondhand but ultimately from Beasley's representatives, was Ben Shepherd. At one point Beasley called him that; elsewhere, Ben Williams (who indeed has been a MONK'estra bassist, according to the website).

"I should have a trio," Beasley joked at one point after one of his sideman name stumbles Saturday night.

Ah, but Beasley has some great concepts to apply to Monk's music, and he hires capable musicians. I lost the thread during "Criss Cross," whose wildness seemed fairly untethered to the tune. But the ensemble largely jelled throughout the show. Some blends didn't quite come off, prompting the suspicion that the afternoon sound check hadn't ironed out all balance issues.

And sometimes Beasley puts a perfect backdrop behind unconventional soloing. The best example was during the linked arrangements of "Ugly Beauty" and "Pannonica," a showcase for lead trombonist Ed Neumeister, who minced, growled, pleaded, and whimpered creatively throughout a plunger-muted solo. As bizarre as the solo was, the accompaniment in pastels felt comfortable with it.

Some other solos were illuminating, especially in other ballads: trombonist Eric Miller's in "Crepuscule for Nellie" and the leader's turns on melodica during "Ask Me Now" and on piano, with hints of "'Round Midnight," to introduce the encore "Blue Monk," which Beasley dedicated to Indianapolis trumpet master Freddie Hubbard (1938-2008). Beasley is quite an imaginative pianist, who honors Monk in part by not aping his keyboard style in the slightest.

Eventually, every band member had at least one solo. Of the four trumpeters, only Brian Lynch took care of business consistently and cohesively ("Evidence" and "Brake's Sake"). A couple of saxophone turns by Greg Tardy and Oliver Santana made sense to me. On the whole, solos featured a fair amount of generic bluster and scatteration, generating whoops from the crowd.