Orrin Keepnews, the legendary jazz producer who died last month just shy of his 92nd birthday, often used to describe Thelonious Monk as a sort of guru. Keepnews, who spent the second half of his life in the Bay Area, didn’t mean this in any mystical sense.
As a studio novice in the mid-1950s, he jump-started Monk’s stalled career with a series of classic albums for his label Riverside, and on those early recording sessions Keepnews said that contending with Monk’s trickster nature provided an invaluable education in the studio.
Monk’s ingenious compositions have long served a similar function for musicians, like The Lost Trio, a collective ensemble featuring saxophonist Phillip Greenlief, bassist Dan Seamans, and drummer Tom Hassett. Over the past two decades, they’re turned songs from a vast array of artists into vehicles for gruff improvisation, from Beck and Hank Williams to PJ Harvey and Juana Molina. Every Lost Trio album has included a tune by Monk, and the band’s latest release "MonkWork" (Evander Music) is dedicated exclusive to his knotty, off-balance tunes.
Sometimes The Lost Trio tackles Monk straight, like a loping midtempo jaunt through “Blues Five Spot” and a slalom over the rarely tackled “Work,” a coruscating melody that Monk recorded only once. But they’ve found a fresh approach by constructing a series of medleys, each linking three tunes together.
Their canny choices create a canny inter-Monk dialogue, like when the insistently repetitive blues “Misterioso” segues into the sublime ballad “Ask Me Now.”
The absence of a piano gives the music a transparent quality, offering a fascinating glimpse at the architecture of Monk’s rhythms and melodies. If The Lost Trio strips Monk down to the studs, Spanish-born pianist Alex Conde exposes his Gypsy soul on "Descarga for Monk" (ZOHO Music). A protege of the great Andalusian pianist Chano Dominguez, Conde is a rising star at 33, and he’s found an ideal cast of collaborators on this revelatory quartet session with bassist Jeff Chambers, drummer Jon Arkin and percussion master John Santos.
The album opens with Monk’s “Played Twice,” interpreted as a flamenco tour de force complete with intricate hand and foot percussion supplied by Amparo Conde and Carman Carrasco. Monk was all about rhythm, and musicians who take a wrong turn interpreting his tunes often steamroller the essential pauses and accents that energize his grooves. That’s not a problem here.
While the uptempo pieces provide the thrills on Conde’s album, I keep coming back to the ballads. Monk wrote some of the most striking melodies in American music. Conde, the son of a great flamenco singer, taps into Monk’s intense but dreamy lyricism, like on Monk’s rarely played waltz, “Ugly Beauty.”
I never got a chance to ask Orrin Keepnews for his thoughts about "MonkWork" (Evander Music) and Alex Conde's "Descarga for Monk." But we did talk about "Monk’s Mood" (EMusic), the Grammy-nominated 2000 album by Oakland drummer Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra that he co-produced. No composer has ever possessed a more identifiable voice, and Monk’s compositions shine through on the arrangements for traditional Asian instruments and jazz horns. I think you can hear a similar process playing out on "MonkWork" and "Descarga For Monk."
More than three decades after his death in 1982, Monk still provides new paths for musical self-discovery, inspiration that has led the Lost Trio and Alex Conde deeper into their own musical identities.