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.