Frank Kimbrough/Scott Robinson/Rufus Reid/Billy Drummond – The Complete Compositions Of Thelonious Sphere Monk.
(Sunnyside SSC4032. Six CD Set. Review by Liam Noble)
When I was a kid I had an encyclopedia. Every Saturday morning my nan would bring one volume, one more chunk of knowledge, a ledger of facts and statistics, extending my world from Bromley outwards across the earth and into outer space. Now this box set of Monk’s music sits on my shelf, an anthology not of facts but of stories.
Frank Kimbrough, Scott Robinson, Rufus Reid and Billy Drummond certainly sound like they know these tunes inside-out, although some must have been less familiar than others. Whilst hearing these tunes back to back certainly brings out their iconic status, it turns out that this recording is more about just playing. It’s respectful, not of the duty to preserve the notes, but of the process. Recorded over two three day sessions, there are no particular angles here, no agendas or concepts. It’s the pleasure of simply playing the tunes, waiting patiently for the moments of inspiration to appear. Frank Kimbrough plays a long game here in allowing that to happen over a long stretch of music with essentially the same line-up.
Monk’s own recorded output seemed to narrow in scope after the extreme compositional radicalism of his early recordings for Blue Note, gnawing endlessly at certain tunes like Epistrophy and Evidence, whilst those like Hornin’ In and Humph never appeared after their premieres. So I always saw Monk’s music splits into two equally tricky areas; hard-baked standards like Round Midnight and Well You Needn’t and the lesser played tunes like Brilliant Corners and Skippy (Like Beethoven, it’s the catchier stuff that made it to hit status). On the one hand, the re-treading of the paths often trod, on the other, finding out just why feet rarely walked this way before.
Steve Lacy was the first musician to learn all of Monk’s music, and reckoned he knew more than Monk himself did. His album, School Days tells you in its title what he was after; a period of deep study at a time when Monk’s music was perhaps less fashionable. Here the approach seems more informal, allowing everyone to simply work their magic on the tunes. In the excellent and exhaustive liner notes, Kimbrough talks of not wanting to “re-invent the wheel”, and some of these tunes are so gnarly and bumpy that getting to the end without losing a few spokes is an art form in itself. Coming On The Hudson is a case in point; its logic defies musical “rules”, seeming to exist simply on the strength of its melodic stubbornness. Monk himself always took it at an awkward stagger, definitely chugging against the current; here, Kimbrough ups the tempo and makes it cut through the water like a speedboat. Conversely, Locomotive is taken at a strikingly slow tempo, the dark shades of the bass clarinet making the whole atmosphere melancholic, the last journey of a steam train destined for the scrap heap. Two of Monk’s solo blues improvisations get some of the most novel treatments here. Blue Hawk has Scott Robinson’s “echo cornet” playing the head like a call and response between open and Harmon-muted horns, and Monk’s Point strips back to piano and drums for a brilliantly free dialogue around which bell-like semitones of the melody are reworked and abstracted, standing like pillars amid the hits and splashes of Drummond’s kit.
Monk talked a lot about the role of the rhythm section, and he’d have loved this one. Bass and drums often get namechecked at the end of reviews but, like a really expensive mattress, you never quite know the value of a good rhythm section until you sit on one for yourself. On Skippy, Reid and Drummond simply burn brightly and allow Robinson and Kimbrough to surf on their waves of swing, to bounce on the bed springs as it were. This is not the only way a rhythm section works though, and a tune like Green Chimneys shows how expertly they can weave in and out Monk’s melodies. Reid’s bass solo is then shadowed with a deep and understated groove from Drummond that blends and propels; in this music, pulse and rhythm are like harmony and counterpoint to Bach, and these guys are masters.
Perhaps the greatest change to Monk’s relatively monochrome approach to instrumentation is the inclusion of Scott Robinson, who alternates between the familiar tones of the tenor saxophone and the trumpet (sounding beautifully un-brassy), but then digs deep into the contrabass sarrusophone and bass saxophone, imbuing melodies with a murky low swampiness. Misterioso has a gut-rumbling humour but nevertheless swings like the clappers. On Let’s Cool One, Robinson’s tenor solo stretches the melody in a way that feels part maths genius and part old-school balladeer, which is an intoxicating mix, but mostly he just soars through Monk, with melodies seeming to effortlessly spring forth at every turn.
Some of Monk’s less song-like tunes offer up interesting opportunities for improvising. The riffy structure of Oska T enables the rest of the band to play off the melody instead of the chords, and Kimbrough seems to relish the chance to open things up where elsewhere he’s often remarkably faithful to Monk’s vocabulary, without resorting to fully fledged “licks”. Perhaps this is the key to the success of this recording; everything is somehow familiar, but it has that freshness that only real improvisers can generate. It’s like watching a seasoned comedian tell an old familiar joke, the stories around the punchline getting just as many laughs.
I must admit to skipping straight to Round Midnight when I first got these CDs. Completists love it for its pernickety pedantry, its harmonic do’s and don’ts, but here there are broader brush strokes, Reid’s sonorous solo exploration of the tune leading to a surprising key change into the solos. From there on it’s business as usual, which simply means its full of surprises within a format that often leaves lesser players bereft of ideas and complaining of its limitations. Following on from this is another evergreen, Well You Needn’t played straight and with many of Monk’s original asides between phrases. With its mix of reverence and invention, it’s typical of many of the tunes in this set. Bass saxophone on the head lends a lurching gait, and then Kimbrough lays straight into the chords; he has something of Monk’s attack, but what comes across most is the logic of his explorations. Like Monk himself, he often sounds like he’s listening to what he just played, ear cocked to the ground, before moving on. Unlike Monk, he is also able to soar fluently over the chords when he wants to. It’s a good example of why this format has persisted into the music’s mainstream beyond its “golden age”; so much remains undone, unexplored if you’re willing to get into the details. Much of Monk’s repertoire has, of course, been neglected, but it’s also such fun to just play it as it is, and that feeling communicates to an audience that can sit past ten seconds of music and get immersed in it. And what better way than to listen to 68 tunes of the stuff.
I have noticed how often I’ve referred to “CDs” here; these are objects that feel good to pick up. You’ll want to read Nate Chinen’s liner notes, as well as those of the musicians, producer and engineer. As I was reading over this paragraph, with the almost-slightly-ridiculously-silly Children’s Song on in the background, I suddenly heard trumpet and piano inadvertently stray on to a stream of identical notes, accompaniment and solo becoming one. Such moments of telepathy are peppered throughout this set. It reminds me of the creative possibilities still existing within the miraculous convergence of harmony, melody and rhythm that was and is Monk. He is of course often praised as a composer but, as with Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, not many have the courage to leave the spaces he left as an improviser.
Frank Kimbrough gets inside Monk as both player and composer, and for that reason alone this is something you will want, like the Young Person’s Encyclopedia, sitting on your shelf (if it can take the weight).
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Frank Kimbrough – piano
Scott Robinson – tenor and bass saxophones, trumpet, echo cornet, bass clarinet, contrabass sarrusophone
Rufus Reid – bass
Billy Drummond – drums