Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Re-Imagined Monk: Eric Reed Trio's The Dancing Monk

With so many different ways of finding the idiosyncrasies in the music of Thelonious Monk, the default position for most jazz musicians is to take the so-called bent notes and bend them further. For pianist Eric Reed, it's a decidedly different approach that smooths out the rough edges of Monk's music by bringing to it more relaxed, less up-tempo arrangements. The Dancing Monk (Savant, 2011) is Reed's recent release of nine tunes from the Monk songbook. Reed wrote the title track.

The trio features Ben Wolfe on bass and (someone new to my ears) McClenty Hunter on drums. It's a solid rhythm section backing the pianist and sounding well-schooled on the music while attuning themselves to the uniqueness of Monk's rhythmic patterns. To the purists, this record may offend those who probably think this band has watered down the great composer's work. But that would be a superficial response because, upon deeper inspection, Reed and the trio have successfully freed up the music and turned it into an inspired experience. All the musical Monkisms are heard, but they are improvised with Reed's distinctive voicings which are closely supported by the rhythm section.

Drummer McClenty Hunter, who earned experience playing the local scene in Baltimore and the D.C. area, really shines as he hits all the marks perfectly. His playing is really solid on "Light Blue" and "Ask Me Now," two of Monk's lesser-known compositions. Hunter really drives the bus on this record, which, in a trio setting, is essential to keeping the music moving forward. It also frees up Reed to improvise at will.

Thelonious Monk
The Dancing Monk refers to the spirit of the composer, who used to get up and do a circular dance beside the piano during a typical performance. Eric Reed has expressed that idea in all of the selections on this album, thus creating a new feel to Monk's be-bop melodies. As a result, the band takes some serious risks that are bound to upset the purists especially when the trio plays the ballads at a faster tempo. "Ruby My Dear" and "Ugly Beauty" are two of the most beautiful songs in Monk's repertoire. They are almost always played slower than everything else and probably should be as instructed by the composer. But jazz is always left to the musicians to change it with the hopes of advancing the form.

But Reed only goes so far. On "'Round Midnight," he plays it straight not daring to speed up the tempo and ruin the feel of this untouchable composition. The trio plays it with just enough swing to push it forward with grace and simplicity. The result is an insightful performance with a nice balance of the blues and humour. It's one of the best recordings of the song I've heard in a long time.

Eric Reed gained experience as a sideman for Wynton Marsalis, Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson. Along the way, he recorded several albums of solo and trio combos on smaller labels. The Dancing Monk is his 19th release as a leader and it's not with his so-called working trio. So it's really a treat to hear such solid players, ego-free, playing in unison. This is a record full of respect for the composer and it succeeds in blending that respect with a point-of-view.

John Corcelli is a musician, writer and a radio producer. He is a member of the Festival Wind OrchestraWith Kevin CourrierCorcelli is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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