CD review

Teodross Avery – “Harlem Stories: The Music of Thelonious Monk”

Teodross Avery – Harlem Stories: The Music of Thelonious Monk
(WJ3 1024. CD Review by Peter Vacher)

This is the ninth ‘name’ album released by 47-year old Californian tenor saxophonist Teodross Avery; that said, it’s a first for me. The Berklee-educated Dr. Avery, having long ago familiarised himself with Monk’s music, sets out here to put his own stamp on ten of his hero’s venerable compositions.

Monk’s biographer, Robin  D.G. Kelley, who contributes a scholarly booklet essay, calls it, “Less a tribute to Monk than a deep study of the music”. Avery uses two different ensembles for this erudite purpose, each with five numbers to play and all recorded in a single day, 14 January 2020, with bassist Corcoran Holt the sole carry-over.  

Save for the initial theme statements, there is no attempt on Avery’s part to replicate Monk’s own handling of these pieces, “no stale mimicry” in Kelley’s words. Instead what we have are tenor- [or soprano-] led examinations of each piece, the improvisations mostly extended in the Rollins manner, sometimes rising to a kind of near-crescendo, cacophonous certainly, the tenor expostulations often culminating in what I’ll call the horn’s ‘high-screech’ upper harmonics. Avery is not a memorable phrase-maker on this evidence, nor much of a man for light and shade, more a force of inexorability, urged on in tempestuous fashion by both rhythm sections.    

Teo is a prime example, the tenor extemporisation like a medley of aural possibilities, as drummer Willie Jones III builds fire much as Elvin Jones used to do with Coltrane, Anthony Wonsey’s piano moving into calmer country, Avery returning, the tone jagged and edgy. Monk’s Dream is less direct, Wonsey taking his time over Holt’s firm bass line, bluesy and loquacious, Jones driving hard, before Avery opens up, his solo again a rag-bag of ideas, not all of them immediately pleasing. Ruby My Dear, with added cajón, is taken at ballad tempo, Avery throttling back, turning the sonic wick down, Dexter-ish almost, Wonsey quite excellent. Evidence swings while Rhythm-A-Ning gets tear-away treatment, the tempo up, Avery harrying every chord-change into submission, Jones alert and Wonsey romping, ahead of Holt’s fast-walking solo.

The same level of intensity pertains with band no 2, pianist D D Jackson opening In Walked Bud with demonic, near avant-garde energy even as Avery is a tad more subdued, Marvin ‘Bugulu’ Smith rattling the can throughout. Avery switches to soprano on Ugly Beauty, his sound perhaps echoing the composition’s title, his playing on this often wayward instrument markedly shrill, vibrato-less in the Coltrane manner, Jackson all over the shop. It’s soprano again on Pannonica, taken straight at ballad tempo, Jackson offering continuous keyboard glissandi as Avery launches into a fluent solo, the sound still quite piercing. Trinkle, Tinkle ends on a single, repeated, rasping tenor note.

At different times, says, Kelley, “this music is quick, soulful, complex, ugly and beautiful”. Make of that what you will: I’m minded, at certain points in these performances, to recall a comment by the late Ronnie Scott when contemplating playing similar to this: “Plenty to admire but not much to enjoy.” See for yourselves.

Band1 : Teodross Avery [ts,sop]; Anthony Wonsey [p]; Corcoran Holt [b]; Willie Jones III [d]. Allakoi ‘Mic Holden’ Peete [cajón, on ‘Ruby My Dear’]

Band 2: Teodross Avery [ts, sop]; D.D. Jackson [o]; Corcoran Holt [b]; Marvin ‘Bugulu’ Smith [d]

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