MONK’estra concerts @ Ronnie Scotts + North Sea Jazz Festival
Beasley’s MONK’estra Takes Thelonious’ Tunes on Wild Ride By Dan Ouellette I Jul 24, 2017
From the Afro-Cuban re-imagining of “Epistrophy” to a lively rap version of “Brake’s Sake,” Thelonious Monk’s classic tunes were taken for a wild ride by pianist-bandleader John Beasley’s 15-piece MONK’estra big band at the opening night of the North Sea Jazz Festival. It was the first of a rare two-night stand at the jazz party (like last year’s doubleheader of Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra).
A packed house at the Hudson stage heard Beasley and company 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 as well as new arrangements on MONK’estra, Vol. 2, scheduled for release Sept. 1.
The band delivered the rhythmically charged ”Gallop’s Gallop,” featuring drummer Peter Erskine, and introduced a rousing version of “Criss-Cross.” But a sure highlight of the evening was a romp through “Skippy,” which Beasley said was the “hardest” tune of the set because “it goes in a lot of different places.” And that it did, with atmospheric trombones, kicking rhythms and feisty sax solos.
Talking between shows, Beasley noted that the tune itself is relatively simple. “Monk used to play [a solo version of] ‘Tea For Two,’ then he recorded it by re-harmonizing 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 on 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 (for Carrie Underwood in 2003 and lead arranger thereafter for over 10 years).
“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 tune and others. After playing the music for a couple years under the name MONK’estra, he invited Monk’s son, T.S. Monk, to come hear the band and give it his blessing.
“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 the step that my dad wanted for his music. He told me that he wrote his music to be vehicles for self-expression.’”
So, with Beasley’s 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.”
Next up is Vol. 2, with new music and guest spots by Kamasi Washington, Regina Carter and Dianne Reeves, who sings “Ruby, My Dear” (she also guested in MONK’estra’s second show at North Sea, giving voice to the lyrical, moody “Ask Me Now,” to which Beasley had written lyrics). And the shows just keep on coming, including the Detroit International Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend; the Monterey Jazz Festival on Sept. 17; and a Monk centennial celebration at the Jazz Standard Oct. 12–14. DB
Financial Times by Mike Hobart
John Beasley Presents MONK’estra, Ronnie Scott’s, London — incident-packed
Jazz pianist Thelonious Monk’s compositions were brought thrillingly to life by the 15-piece ensemble
The angles and spaces that populate the Thelonious Monk aesthetic are challenge enough for most jazz soloists, let alone an arranger leading a 15-piece band. But for keyboardist John Beasley, reconfiguring Monk’s legacy with the rich sonorities and punch of orchestral brass is just the start. Beasley’s scores reference a century of jazz and make Monk’s already tricky timings even trickier.
At this incident-packed second-house gig, the West Coast-based MONK’estra brought the project thrillingly to life with their razor-sharp ensemble work and rhythmic authenticity. Svelte ballroom swing was juxtaposed with lean hip-hop beats, and a whisper of clarinets might resolve in a fanfare of brass. There was much to absorb but, with each solo making its mark, narrative drive was sustained and always gripped. The performance began with orchestrated fragments of “Criss Cross” scattered over a judder of bass guitar. The melody, delivered by sour-toned soprano sax, was then looped as support for closely articulated tenor. The floaty “Light Blue” followed, the melody played dreamily by Bob Sheppard on vibrato-laden alto. Here the voicings were Ellingtonian, but the rhythms alternated hi-hat swing with a sparse contemporary prowl. A lot happened before Beasley ended the piece with a chorus of organ-sampled keyboard as the ensemble re-stated the theme.
As the evening unfolded, each rearranged Monk composition provided a fresh soundscape. The rarely performed “Brake’s Sake” started as a slow burn over body-popping bass guitar, featured a spiky solo and expertly articulated rap from trumpeter Dontae Winslow, and added Kansas City riffs into the mix — “from prohibition to heroin addiction” began the second verse. In contrast, “Ask Me Now” began with a lovely bass clarinet duet, a closely arranged “Evidence” exploded into free jazz and “Ugly Beauty” and “Pannonica” were combined as a moving ballad featuring Francisco Torres on trombone.
The finale, “Gallop’s Gallop”, opened with bass clarinet ruminating through breaths of trombone before the band set off at a furious pace, and featured two star turns. Bijon Watson, who led the trumpet section throughout, hit stratospheric heights with room-shaking power, and drummer Peter Erskine, whose grasp of rhythm and pulse had been outstanding all night, whizzed melodically from side drum to snare while keeping four to the bar on his bass drum. The piece ended with a muted wah-wah of sensuous brass. Monk had never sounded like this before.
The Times by Clive Davis
Jazz review: MONK’estra at Ronnie Scott’s ★★★★☆
No other band tackles Thelonious Monk’s classic material with as much flair and mischief, highlighting the wit at the heart of his music
There was a time during his career when Thelonious Monk was something of a neglected figure, an otherworldly eccentric on the margins of bebop. Not so today. His tangled compositions are everywhere, although they are often played with a degree of straitlaced, great composer reverence that misses the impishness and wit at the heart of his music.
That criticism could not be made of the American pianist John Beasley’s extraordinary big band, MONK’estra, the outfit responsible for the most exciting jazz album of last year (a second instalment is due out this autumn). In his other lives, Beasley has worked on James Bond soundtracks and toured with Steely Dan and AR Rahman. But this group, you sense, are his labour of love.
A vivacious opening night, kicking off with Epistrophy, brought back memories of residencies by another swaggering set of outlaws, the Mingus Big Band. With Peter Erskine presiding over the drum kit, there was never going to be any shortage of power from the engine room. True, the arrangements were sometimes cartoonishly hyperactive; as with that manic British orchestra Loose Tubes, the music could be drawn to embellishment for its own sake. Yet if the rap interlude stumbled through social protest clichés, the rest of the programme soared.
No other band tackle this classic material with as much flair and mischief. When you hear the cascading chromatic runs on Skippy you are carried on a journey through decades of jazz history, bebop virtuosity blended with modern funk and the exuberance of a New Orleans street parade. The ghost of the arch-romantic Johnny Hodges suddenly descended on the hustling rhythms of Criss-Cross.
Monk’s writing was full of eccentric intervals and abrupt pauses; Beasley cranked those attributes up to another level on Evidence, and throughout the evening he created his own distinct palette, bass clarinets bubbling away beside the more conventional reeds. What an intoxicating brew.
The Guardian by John Fordham – Wednesday 12 July 2017
Thelonious Monk’s surreally strange and spartan genius gets its due
The legendary pianist’s centenary was celebrated and his music vibrantly updated by John Beasley and his remarkable MONK’estra
Just for his name alone, the presence of Thelonious Monk on the planet between 1917 and 1982 has probably registered with more people who know little and care less about jazz than almost any other of its legends. To have been fortunate enough to have actually heard and seen the piano-playing and composing genius from Rocky Mount, Carolina on stage feels like the jazz equivalent of watching Picasso paint.
In performance, Monk was a taciturn, preoccupied figure, with a predilection for goatee beards and headgear from fedoras to fezes that gave him the air of the quintessential hipster, but his approach to a piano, with his inelegant splayed-finger manner of striking the keyboard, was his alone. His feet appeared to operate independently to the rest of his anatomy, flapping wildly to the summons of his bumpy rhythms, sometimes bearing him away from the piano stool and across the stage in halting rhythmic staggers and shuffles, while his companions played on.
Monk’s improvisations were not graceful or conventionally virtuosic, but they were gems of concision and unexpected phrasing. In their jagged shapes and jarring dissonances, they sometimes sounded more like avant-garde classical music than jazz, but the impression was misleading – Monk’s music was rooted in African-American forms and the variations took wing only from his wayward imagination.
His compositions echoed early-jazz piano styles that looked back to ragtime, hymnal harmonies (he was a church pianist early on) or were peppered with zigzagging bebop themes that resolved in startled, dissonant hoots. His tunes often slammed to sudden halts, or would unfold in slow dirges hanging across chasms of mysterious silences. But however surreally strange Monk’s music could be, his knotty themes always exhibited a kind of spartan beauty, and his piano-playing as an improviser was of a piece with a composing sensibility that still fascinates and influences musicians today.
This centenary year of Monk’s birth has already seen the Monkathon – a nine-day multi-artist recital of all his compositions, a festival in New York’s Lincoln Center, and, in October, the Thelonious Monk Insitute of Jazz hosts a special edition of its world-famous jazz competition for rising stars.
But one of the most intriguing bands dedicated to the late composer’s work is the 15-piece MONK’estra big band from Los Angeles, led by the 56-year-old pianist, composer and arranger John Beasley, in London to celebrate the centenary with two shows at Ronnie Scott’s this week. Beasley, whose CV embraces work with Rihanna and Slumdog Millionaire composer AR Rahman as well as jazz celebrities including Miles Davis and Dianne Reeves, draws on a wealth of references from across contemporary music. He fervently wants the landmarks of jazz history to make sense for today’s audiences, particularly young ones – but he’s also a dedicated and technically erudite Monk fan to the tips of his fingertips – which was incandescently evident on Monday’s show.
Beasley approach is to thread Monk’s famous and lesser-known tunes into new orchestral settings while leaving Monk’s tightly edited original themes strictly alone. He changes the harmonies and the instrumental textures as if holding them up to constantly changing angles of light, stretching the rhythms with hip-hop beats and funk, presenting the results in more audience-friendly ways than Monk would ever have done.
Monday’s set opened with the 1941 Monk classic Epistrophy – originally a steadily repeated rising and falling phrase with a punchily contrasting rhythmic swagger to the countermelody, reworked almost as a piece of modern minimalism, building out of intertwining woodwind lines and hip-hop and Latin grooves morphing into sleazy brass hooks and torchy slow glides. The lyrical Ask Me Now was a delectable purr of flugelhorns and bass clarinets into which the leader stroked the tender melody on the melodica, and the lesser-known Brake’s Sake was an assertive rap vehicle, touching on aspects of Monk’s life, for dreadlocked trumpeter Dontae Winslow.
One of the composer’s most delightfully headlong melodies, the manically spiralling Skippy, slyly opened as an austerely abstract free-improv trombone overture, before turning funky and then swinging under soprano saxophonist Bob Sheppard’s eloquent break, while Beasley steered the crowd’s hand-clapping through the treacherous groove shifts. The show wound up on Monk’s best-known theme, ’Round Midnight – here with added soul-horn hooks and hip-hop backbeat. But in the leader’s quiet reminders of the famous melody as a piano undertow to drifting clouds of trombone and flute harmonies punctuated by trumpet flares, it caught the original’s mood of bluesily soulful late-night melancholy uncannily well.
The trick to a Monk update is to make it sound like Monk – rather than a set of urban grooves with a few generically jazz-hip inflections tacked on that aren’t specific to the identity of one of the 20th century’s most remarkable composers. John Beasley and his MONK’estra pull off that tough task with devotion, vision and awesome technique.
NPR Music – A Supreme Blog
Meet The Man Who Assembles The World’s Biggest Jazz Concert
by HOWARD MANDEL
April, 30, 2013
Beasley’s envelope-stretching arrangements, his extraordinary orchestrating abilities, imaginative soloing from players: a net result of some of the most mesmerizing big band music –individually and collectively– of recent memory.
– Don Heckman, International Review of Music
Five Stars: Spectacular! The ultra-hip, ultra-cool, ultra-swinging John Beasley’s MONK’estra rocked the house at Vitellos.’ Supersize figure in the jazz music world, Beasley led a dazzling assemblage of players.
– Cynthia Lum, Examiner.com
Beasley is a real genius. His imaginative, modern arrangements are artistic charts colored outside the lines of traditional big band music arrangements.
– Paul Edelstein, Sounds of Timeless Jazz
Beasley, the one-time keyboardist for Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis, reflects a variety of generational influences, incorporating the emphatic chordal clusters of Herbie Hancock, the rhythmic quirkiness of Monk and the lush intelligence of Art Tatum into a highly refined personal voice.
– Los Angeles Times, Bill Kohlhaase
John is truly an amazing pianist, imaginative composer, creative improviser and arranger. And with Positootly he created an album that people will look back as one of the first Jazz classic albums of the 21th century.
– Skip Norris,The Music Hall for the Performing Arts Center (Amazon.com customer review)Letter to Herbie CD Reviews:
Beasley is also a singular pianist who is chirpy and breaks up his dazzling melodic runs with staccato perfunctory harmonic statements that then bend the music in another surprising direction. Thus he is never predictable and always makes a new surprise flow through the tips of his fingers that take the keyboard to task every once and awhile.
– LatinJazz.net, Raul da Gama
John Beasley is one of the best pianists and improvisers on the jazz scene today. Beasley is a master musician, with total command of the jazz language, and his playing is always intense in both emotion and technique.
– All About Jazz, Wilbert Sostre
Beasley opted for an all out tribute with an all star cast including Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, Christian McBride and Roy Hargrove. In the true jazz tradition, Beasley has brilliantly interpreted Hancock’s music, transforming ‘4AM’ from its original funk into a swinging uptempo affair and juxtaposing ‘Tell Me A Bedtime Story’ and ‘Maiden Voyage’ into ‘Bedtime Voyage’. Herbie’s reply must surely be ‘You’ve done me proud’. Brent Keefe, Drummer UK
Clever arrangements. Hancock never wrote a song called ‘Bedtime Voyage,’ but Beasley does a ‘mash-up’ of ‘Maiden Voyage’ and ‘Tell Me A Bedtime Story,’ two of Herbie’s finest compositions. This mash is a real banger, and I would go back for second helpings. Beasley is quite effective, especially as a rhythm section pianist, and has mastered a number of Hancock’s signature devices. This is a strong performance and a notch above your typical tribute project. – Jazz.com, Ted Gioia 4 stars
February 2011 — Los Angeles, Walt Disney Concert Hall
John Beasley with Los Angeles Philharmonic: “Jazz and the Orchestra”