Saxophonist Teodross Avery Explores Monk on ‘Harlem Stories: The Music of Thelonious Monk’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Soprano and tenor saxophonist Teodross Avery with his ninth release as a leader, continues in his tradition of honoring jazz giants. Using two different quartets; the bandleader is joined by pianists Anthony Wonsey and DD Jackson, bassist Corcoran Holt, drummers Willie Jones III (president of WJ3 Records) and Marvin “Bugalu” Smith and percussionist Allakoi Peete. Much like his widely-acclaimed 2019 release, After the Rain: A Night for John Coltrane, Harlem Stories: The Music of Thelonious Monk is a deep study of the music – hence the term ‘explores’ in the above headline.  To showcase these interpretations Avery chose artists who understood Monk’s concept of rhythm entirely on their own terms. As we begin, we are indebted for the historical Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, who wrote the liners.

Avery’s studies of Monk began long ago: “When I was 15 years old, I used to listen to Monk’s album, Monk’s Dream, with the volume on 10 on my dad’s huge speakers. I began to hear how important the swing rhythm was to Thelonious Monk’s music. It became clear to me that Monk wanted his complex melodies and harmonies to affect the musicians and the listeners alike with non-stop swing rhythms. This was his method. He wanted that swing beat to just permeate the sound while he delivered his unique sound on top.” In 1991, as an eighteen-year-old freshman at the Berklee College of Music, Avery was invited by guitarist Rick Peckham to join the Thelonious Monk Ensemble where they played pieces than spanned Monk’s storied career from Blue Note to The Five Spot, to Prestige. For this date, Avery emphasizes swinging melody and rhythm, choosing songs of that ilk to include “Monk’s Dream,” “In Walked Bud,” and “Teo” as well as ones with unique rhythmic and melodic personality such as “Boo Boo’s Birthday,” “Trinkle Tinkle,” and “Pannonica.” Yes, the material is familiar, but Avery and his bandmates turn some of these tunes and others from the Monk catalog inside out and then back again.

Choosing the quartet format for which Monk was known is itself a bold move as it invites comparisons with the iconic bands featuring Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Rouse, and of course, Coltrane. But Avery, one of the most exciting and self-assured players of his generation, raised the stakes by putting together two different quartets: while bassist Corcoran Holt plays on all tunes, tracks 1-5 feature Anthony Wonsey on piano and Willie Jones III on drums, with tracks 6-10 featuring pianist D. D. Jackson and drummer Marvin “Bugalu” Smith. In addition, percussionist Allakoi Peete joins the first band.

The pairing of Anthony Wonsey and Willie Jones III gives the first band a more classic, hard bop feel. The group kicks off with a reimagined take on “Teo,” Monk’s homage to tenor saxophonist and longtime producer Teo Macero based loosely on the Eddie Durham tune “Topsy,” a jam session favorite at Minton’s Playhouse when Monk was the house pianist there. On “Monk’s Dream,” Wonsey and Holt’s solos are impeccably balanced, never straying from the song’s essence without sounding “Monkish”, while Avery’s powerful solo exploits the full range of the horn, bringing in Trane’s sense of vertical harmony. “Ruby, My Dear” – perhaps Monk’s best-known ballad is treated with an arrangement that reflects a cha-cha rhythm and finds Avery and Wonsey playing sentimentally and melodically.

“Evidence” and “Rhythm-a-ning” are jam session standards. “Evidence,” a particular favorite among drummers presents the opportunity for Willie Jones III to shine while “Rhythm-a-ning” is brought back to its origins, before Monk could claim it as his own. The melody first appeared as a horn riff in Mary Lou Williams’s 1936 arrangement of “Walking and Swinging,” and then it became Charlie Christian’s riff on “I Got Rhythm” which he called “Meet Dr. Christian.”

The second band gets more experimental and edgy. Whereas the first band operates as a tight ensemble, this band feels more conversational, spirited and cacophonous, ready to go wherever the dialogue takes them. “In Walked Bud,” Monk’s homage to his friend and mentee Bud Powell, begins with Jackson’s funky, angular, virtuosic introduction, launching the band on a journey in which each measure feels like new territory. On “Ugly Beauty,” Monk’s only composed waltz and “Pannonica,” Monk’s paean for his friend, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, Avery switches to soprano sax and what begins as a gentle ballad soon has Avery in free flight followed by an equally inventive from Jackson. “Trinkle Tinkle” is not for the faint-hearted. Monk composed it in honor of the great “ticklers” of Harlem stride piano owing to its treacherous melody. His first recording of it in 1952 secured his place in that rarefied circle along with Willie “the Lion” Smith, Thomas “Fats” Waller, and James P. Johnson, one the recordings that earned Monk his first label signing with Blue Note. However, it was Coltrane’s mastery of “Trinkle Tinkle,” setting the bar so high that few musicians were willing to tackle it. Avery, however, matches Coltrane note for note without ever compromising his singular voice. Listen in amazement to Avery’s last few notes on the tenor. The band closes quite appropriately with “Boo Boo’s Birthday,” written for his daughter Barbara’s fourteenth birthday (she was born September 5, 1953). Jackson’s rubato solo piano introduction captures Boo Boo’s childhood personality—elegant and refined, sweet and spirited.

Avery understands that while Monk’s music is universal, timeless, and knows no boundaries, its roots are planted firmly in New York. For Avery it meant Harlem: “I wanted to make sure that we brought the feeling and the spirit of Harlem into the music. Harlem has always been the center of Black American urban culture since the 1920s and I just wanted to capture that feeling in the music. At different times the music is quick, soulful, complex, ugly and beautiful. I hope those feelings come through to the listener.”

Monk’s music is timeless, yet it’s rarely been delivered with this much spirit and freshness.

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