Regular readers probably know by now that Bird & Beckett Books and Records not only provides for the sale of an impressive diversity of both books and records but also uses the store as a venue for public performances. With the advent of the general cancellation of public performances this past March due to COVID-19, Bird & Beckett decided that these events would continue; but they would be streamed through Facebook Live, after which the content of each event would be archived for subsequent viewing. The entire archive can be browsed through the Videos section that can be accessed through the Bird & Beckett Facebook home page.
from the Bandcamp Web page of Phillip Greenlief’s album of music by Thelonious Monk
Having just written about a Bird & Beckett gig that will be live-streamed this coming Sunday, I decided it was time for me to examine this archive. I settled on of Monk, a survey of the music of Thelonious Monk played entirely on solo tenor saxophone by Phillip Greenlief over the course of about two hours. That interval of time was divided into two sets of approximately equal duration with separate videos captured for the first set and the second set. For the most part, the second set was devoted to the album MONKWORK, performed by The Lost Trio, in which Greenlief’s tenor work was given rhythm support from Dan Seamans on bass and Tom Hassett of drums. (Like all of Greenlief’s recordings, MONKWORK is distributed through Bandcamp.) On the other hand much of Greenlief’s first set involved lesser-known Monk compositions. Indeed, were it not for Frank Kimbrough’s project to have his quartet record the complete works of Monk (enough to fill six CDs), those pieces would have been entirely unknown to me.
Monk himself was, of course, a pianist; and there exists a moderately generous number of solo recordings, most of which are devoted to his own compositions. As Greenlief himself observed, giving a monophonic account of music conceived polyphonically at a piano keyboard was no easy matter. Thus, his objective was not so much to “channel” Monk and his techniques as it was to provide a new perspective through his own techniques as a soloist. Those techniques are, to say the least, impressive, as were the settings in which Greenlief deployed them.
The most easily recognized of those techniques could be found in Greenlief’s approach to “Pannonica.” This piece is familiar to most Monk admirers, all of whom probably know that the title is taken from the name of Monk’s patron, Pannonica de Koenigswarter (whose full name was Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter née Rothschild). Her first name was given after a species of Lepidoptera (the order of butterflies and moths) discovered by her father, Charles Rothschild. As a result Greenlief summoned up an impressive diversity of “fluttering” sonorities, combining flutter tonguing with trills and extended runs.
“Pannonica” is one of the tracks on the MONKWORK recording. However, this particular performance makes it clear that watching the performer at work can be just as engaging as listening to the music, if not more so. Indeed, both sets are rich with adventurous undertakings that result in unexpected (if not unconventional) sonorities; and the ability to observe how Greenlief summons those sonorities simply makes the experience all the richer. Nevertheless, the tunes themselves are never short-changed. Thus, listeners that have favorite “Monk standards” will have no trouble recognizing those standards while also enjoying the personal turns that Greenlief gives to them.