Jazz Notes: Visionary Arranger John Beasley Brings His Tribute to Thelonious Monk with His MONKestra Big Band at Jazz Standard
By Dan Ouellette, ZEALnyc Senior Editor, October 2, 2017
At the opening night of the North Sea Jazz Festival in July, from the opening angular piano notes followed by clarinets and bass clarinets taking the main melody line on the Afro-Cuban-inflected re-envision of “Epistrophy” through a dancing rap piece fueled by “Brake’s Sake,” Thelonious Monk’s classic tunes were taken for a wild ride by arranger/conductor/pianist John Beasley’s 15-piece big band MONK’estra.
It was the first of a rare two-night stand at the jazz party. A packed house at the Hudson stage heard Beasley and co. take free flight in celebration of the centennial of Monk’s birthday with freshly arranged tunes from last year’s MONK’estra, Vol.1 on Mack Avenue Records as well as new arrangements on MONK’estra, Vol. 2, that was released in early September.
The band delivered the rhythmically charged ”Gallop’s Gallop,” featuring drummer Peter Erskine, introduced a rousing version of “Criss-Cross” and scored one of the highlights of the evening with a romp through “Skippy,” which Beasley commented on as the “hardest tune to play” in the set because “it goes in a lot of different places.” And that it did, with atmospheric trombones, kicking rhythm and sax solos.
Talking between shows, Beasley noted that the tune itself is relatively simple. “Monk used to play ‘Tea For Two’ solo, then he reharmonized the melody and finally wrote another melody over that to make it ‘Skippy,’” he said. “Then I took it from there with my arrangement.”
Beasley talked about the project, noting that he had played Monk before in different settings, including on bassist Buell Neidlinger’s Thelonious album in 1987 and in a duo recording with guitarist Steve Cardenas in 1994’s 10/10 Tribute to Thelonious Monk.
The big band setting almost came as an accident after the arranger found a new toy: the Sibelius music notation software that he was using while serving as the associate music director of the TV show American Idol where he had to write several scores a day. “After the season ended, I decided to do a 20th century big band chart using Monk’s ‘Epistrophy,’” he said. ”I quickly found out that I could stretch Monk’s form, make stops and starts. I realized how pliable his music was and how open he was to interpretation. Arranging is improvisation so I went from there.”
He assembled a band of friends to perform this and others. After playing the music for a couple of years under the name MONK’estra, he invited Monk’s son, drummer T.S. Monk, to come hear the band. “T.S. is always protective of his father but he was totally cool with what we were doing,” he said. “He said, I give you my blessing because the band is doing what my dad wanted for his music. He told me that he wrote his music to be vehicles for self-expression.”
So, with Beasley’s modern interpretations of Monk’s unique quirkiness, offbeat actions and punchy dissonances, has he received any detractors? “I was fully expecting to hear people complaining about ‘Round Midnight,’ the way I made it electric with a Glasper-esque vibe but no one has said a thing,” he said. “I think they approve. Really, I think we’re just now catching up with what Monk was doing harmonically. It takes people time to get into different kinds of composing.”
Beasley’s view also includes a social perspective. “You start thinking of Thelonious and his era, of what it took just to be a jazz musician during that time. I wanted to push the story out there that maybe some jazz fans had forgotten about,” he said. “The deeply rooted struggles these musicians went through while following their human impulse to create music and how our current culture is still reminiscent of those times.”
About his MONK’estra project, Beasley discussed its relevance in today’s landscape. “While this is a Monk tribute, it expresses ideas about the human experience at his time and at our time—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,” he said, then added, “I mean, yes, we’ve come a long way, but have we really?”
Beasely and co. have been in demand with their Monk feast. Since North Sea, highlights have included the Detroit International Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend and the Monterey Jazz Festival on September 16.
Beasley is constantly amazed by the brilliance of the composer. “Monk’s music is very pliable like any great composer like playing Bach at any tempo,” he said. “I discovered that because Monk’s music was so sophisticated that I could elongate forms and voice things in a nontraditional big band way. Monk’s music is hyper-rhythmic so you can change grooves, and those memorable melodies they just stick with you. In one word, Monk’s music is intriguing. He perks up your ears and your curiosity. He draws you in. It’s so different yet it’s also so intoxicating. His music is so full of life, of humor, the street. It’s funky. You can hear New York City in his music.”
New York is in Beasley’s scope for three evenings at the Jazz Standard, October 12-14, bringing Thelonious back to the city. Monk lives on, Beasley said, “and we’re now just catching up to his uniqueness.”
Cover: John Beasley; courtesy of the artist.