Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Monk’s “Complete Works” from Frank Kimbrough

Rufus Reid, Scott Robinson, Frank Kimbrough, and Billy Drummond (courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz)

This Friday Sunnyside will release a six-CD set entitled Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk. These recordings were the result of a project that originated in 2017 by the Jazz Standard club in New York. Monk was born on October 10, 1917, and the club wanted to honor the centennial of his birth with contemporary performances of his music. Jazz pianist Frank Kimbrough was approached to put together a quartet to serve this need.

To this end Kimbrough assembled multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson as leading voice, along with Rufus Reid on bass and Billy Drummond on drums for rhythm. The group gave its first performance on October 17, 2017, after which Kimbrough’s friend Matt Jones suggested that the group should commit itself to making a “complete works” recording. About half a year later, the group reassembled at Maggie’s Farm, the studio run by Matt Balitsaris. The result was enough material to fill six CDs with one disc’s worth of material recorded on each of six days beginning around 11 a.m. and running no later than 6 p.m. The album was then formed from those recordings; and, as usual, it is currently available for pre-order from

How complete is the collection? I believe that the only way I can give a fair answer to this question is by first explaining my methods. I took as my primary reference the “Original Compositions by Thelonious Monk” list found near the end of Robin D. G. Kelley’s book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, which I continue to consult as the most reliable and authoritative source on all things Monk. Bearing in mind that some of the entries are alternate titles for other entries, Kelley’s list consists of 74 distinct compositions, 70 of which can be found among the six CDs recorded by Kimbrough and his quartet members.

Of the remaining four, the one least worthy of neglect is probably “Round Lights,” which Kelley describes as “a slow, twelve-bar blues for solo piano.” Kelley says nothing about whether Monk ever wrote out the tune, The only additional information he provides is that it was recorded in San Francisco on October 21, 1959 and released by Riverside. If I did not have The Complete Riverside Recordings album, I probably would know nothing about this piece; but, brief as it is, I do not think it should have been overlooked.

That leaves three to take into account. “Chordially” is explicitly named as an improvisation on its Black Lion recording and was probably never committed to any marks on paper. “Harlem Is Awful Messy” was composed jointly with Oran “Hot Lips” Page and Joe Guy and was copyrighted. However, the original lead sheet has been lost; and there is no evidence that the piece was ever recorded.

That leaves another piano solo, “Dreamland.” According to Kelley, “Monk never copyrighted it, rarely performed it, and only recorded it once in the studio.” Monk was so dissatisfied with the recording that he refused to allow Riverside to release it. As a result, that recording only came out on Milestone after Monk’s death, produced by Orrin Keepnews (who had been Monk’s producer for the Riverside recordings). So, is Kimbrough’s collection complete? As the stale old joke goes, it’s close enough for jazz!

Bear in mind, however, that all of these Sunnyside recordings are based on Monk’s “book,” not his performances. Anyone as obsessed with Monk recordings as I am will know that he recorded many of his pieces in studio several times (not to mention recordings taken from performances before an audience); and he always seemed to be exploring new ways of playing them and improvising around them. By way of contrast, each Kimbrough track begins with a clear statement of the tune followed by the same sort of improvisation his quartet might do with any other jazz tune.

To be fair, however, these are all perfectly interesting and engaging takes on the respective source tunes. Furthermore, it does not take long to appreciate how much diversity is involved in calling Robinson a “multi-instrumentalist.” Not only is he equally at home with either a tenor saxophone or a trumpet but also he is skilled enough to draw upon other instruments when they help make a case for how unconventional Monk’s own ideas could be. Thus, over the course of the entire collection, Robinson also plays a now-obsolete echo cornet (with a second bell attached to an echo chamber) and three low-register winds, a bass saxophone, a bass clarinet, and a contrabass sarrusophone. The effects evoked by these instruments run the gamut from kooky to spooky.

As far as my own taste is concerned, there will never be an adequate substitute for the sounds of Monk finding his own way through his keyboard work. Nevertheless, for those trying to figure out where the tune itself is, Monk’s style is as likely to obfuscate as to enlighten. It would thus be fair to say that Kimbrough and his quartet have released a collection of recordings that give a clear and authoritative account of “what is in the book.” They also demonstrate richly how they can take pages from that book and come up with their own imaginative approaches to invention.

As a result, while Monk may remain my primary source, I suspect that I shall not be letting this new release gather dust on my shelf.

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