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John Beasley: MONK’estra Vol. 2 (Mack Avenue Records) Out now


4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)




In music reviews, we often see a record described as “ambitious” or “honest”. That can sometimes mean the writer wants you to read between the lines and that he or she really means…For “ambitious” or “brave”: “Good idea, but missed the target”. For “honest”, maybe that implies it is “warts and all”…

When I write in a review that “it is an uneven listen”, that’s me saying: “some if it is good, some if it not so good”. One of those records where you might well be tempted to skip on to the next track more than once. Well, in the case of this record, when I say it is an “unusual” and “ambitious” project, I am not asking you to read anything into those descriptions at all.

When I go further, and say it is a “very even listen”, that is exactly what I mean. If I added the word “honest”, I’d be saying that it is patently obvious to anyone who hears these 10 tracks, that Mr Beasley is not only an accomplished pianist, composer, conductor, arranger, producer and band leader, it is clear this is a labour of love and he delivers the warmest possible homage to one of his heroes, The High Priest Of Bebop. AKA Thelonious Monk, the jazz Titan; pianist and composer who lived from 1917 to February 1982, when he died of a stroke at the age of 64, after many years of ill health.

This is the successor to the widely acclaimed, and twice Grammy nominated Volume 1, and again sees the former Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard sideman leading a large ensemble which explores the Monk songbook in the latter’s centennial year. Guests are Kamasi Washington, Dianne Reeves, Regina Carter, Conrad Herwig and Pedrito Martinez.  The record was recorded in LA, and New Jersey, produced by John Beasley, Ran Pink and Gavin Lurssen.

John Beasley and a 15-piece orchestra (including star drummer Peter Erskine) recently performed Monk’s music at Ronnie Scott’s in London, and received rave reviews in The Guardian, The Times and Financial Times. Looking to the past for inspiration brings the music into the future for “MONK’estra, Vol. 2”, which applies a rich orchestral palette across an array of modern infectious rhythms.

John aimed to write and perform “juicy, funky, street” elements and avoid clinical, sanitised, “stuffy” results. Thus; he brings things bang up to date from the off, with the opener “Brake’s Sake”, by adding trumpeter Dontae Winslow rapping about racial and economic justice.

This may be a tribute record, but it expresses ideas about the human experience at Monk’s time and at our time today. “How we live and what we value with a poignant point that the equality issues that his generation of black musicians faced are still present today,” comments Beasley. “I mean, yes, we’ve come a long way, but have we really?” Answers on a postcard…

John is not trying to recreate the earlier versions of the legendary Monk’s work because they’ve already been done, and who could better them really? He aims to “put my own personality into the mix”.

We hear handclaps and finger snaps beneath Regina Carter, on Beasley’s homage-to-Ellington treatment of “Crepuscule for Nellie.” Tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s guttural attack is on fire on “Evidence,” where Terreon Gully’s drums and Ben Shepherd’s bass punctuate the freely improvised group section, inspired by Coltrane’s “Ascension”.

New Orleans syncopation launches “I Mean You,”. Beasley’s organ swirls under the romantic harmonization of “Light Blue”. Dianne Reeves enacts “Dear Ruby” with lyrics written by Sally Swishr, originally recorded by Carmen McRae.

This album and its predecessor, Vol 1, are works of art. Beasley is a trader of the lost art; the art of paying tribute to a hero, but at the same time, pushing the envelope further and making it not just retro but very relevant.  In doing so, hopefully turning younger music fans on to the original works by the master Monk, and thus keeping his great music alive and in demand some 35 years after his premature demise.

Get it out of your head that this is simply Monk’s compositions transferred across to be played by a big band. Not so. Not at all.  If it were that simple, they’d all be doing it, eh? No, this is far more “ambitious”, “brave” and “brutally honest”. Grammy nod number three coming up?


By Simon Redley




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