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Mostly Monk (Milestone)
The Riverside Reunion Band

Thelonius Monk's compositions — organic designs of exquisite beauty — are like curious inventions, otherworldly creations that no one knows for sure how to properly use. Perhaps only Monk, with his haphazard version of technique (fingers often rod-straight, incidental notes played truly incidentally) could properly work his songs. When other musicians play Monk, the results vary from mainstream flattening of the quirks to totally "out" exploration of Monk's most progressive concepts.

Musicians who supposedly carry the mark of Monk — be they rockers, folkies, jazzers or spoon players — only seem to latch on to one aspect of his genius. One hears a so-called disciple and pegs the celebrated Monk-like quality, then the rest of the music is a whitewashed support system for this sacred trait. Players intent on Monk's angularity and dissonant punchlines seemingly cast a blind eye to his bluesy, stride piano roots. Likewise, more traditional musicians gloss over the peculiarities.

So going into Orrin Keepnews' tribute to Monk played by the Riverside Reunion Band (cornetist Nat Adderley, saxophonist Jimmy Heath, vibist Buddy Montgomery, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath), I was apprehensive. These were Monk's labelmates on Riverside, colleagues who truly knew how Monk liked his compositions played. But please tell me that Harris wasn't going to imitate Monk's idiosyncratic playing, or that the overall effect wouldn't be that of a cheeseburger platter — fries, pickles, a garnish of parsley — without the cheeseburger. Monk deserves better than that.

Thankfully, Mostly Monk IS better than that. The tone is respectful, loose and in-the-know. It starts with the first cut, "Bemsha Swing," certainly one of the most manic in Monk's repertoire. Here, the song's iconoclastic, oddly rhythmed stomp yields to a Harris piano solo that aptly suggests the playfulness and sparseness of Monk's improvising mind. And Carter may be a bassist well suited for Monk tunes; his solo's simplicity gets to the bottom of things like a clam bullishly burrowing in the ocean floor.

Appropriately, the pinnacle of Mostly Monk is one of the legendary pianist's most accessible songs, "Ruby, My Dear." Played sure-footedly with only soprano sax and piano, it creates the disc's most beautiful moments, sparkling in the sun like antique, cut crystal.

Casual Monk fans can cling dearly to "'Round Midnight," which here strikes a balance between the composer's bouncier execution and the rest of the jazz world's moody interpretation. It is here that one realizes the commercial potential of this album — just complex enough to engage the ear, just easy enough to calm the souls of non-jazz fans. Maybe it's Buddy Montgomery's vibes that make it so smooth, especially when he blends with Adderley's muted cornet. The righteous "In Walked Bud," boasting a melody you may never shake from your head, and the truly classic "Well, You Needn't" round out the Monk selections.

Buddy Montgomery is here because of his ties to brother Wes, who is also honored on this disc along with sax great Cannonball Adderley (thus the presence of brother Nat Adderley). Both of the Heaths boasted strong ties with Wes Montgomery too. That explains why the version of "West Coast Blues" shows empathy similar to that lavished on the Monk material. "Four on Six" visits the guitarist again.

From the Cannonball Adderley side of things, "Gemini," a regular in Cannonball's sets, succeeds as well. The saxophonist's memory is most grandly toasted in the dramatic, epic-like "Work Song," here imbued with drama and hope in scale with slavery's tragic history.

An analysis of Mostly Monk reveals an interesting idea blossomed into an intriguing project. A casual listen is rewarded with a jazz album that gives jazz a good name, marked by some of the most uniquely structured compositions in the music's history.

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