Ellis Marsalis Quartet, An Open Letter to Thelonious (ELM)

Thelonious Monk compositions are like Egyptian tombs, each with its own unique curse for those unworthy to open them. Monk himself had little patience for those who didn’t understand how important it was to play his compositions exactly the way he wanted them to sound, which is why he chose his band members so carefully. It’s also why so many big names in the jazz business have made fools of themselves attempting to impose their own musical personality on Monk’s.

The genius of Monk’s work is in what is hardly apparent to most listeners—the soul underlying its seeming simplicity. The compositions are sound poetry, melodies so expressive they practically laugh and weep as they relate their tales of wit, awe and woe, harmonies at once warm and startling, offering an alchemist’s glimpse into the spirit of their maker. In the wrong hands, the fragility of these constructs eviscerates into dust, or worse, just another boring theme-and-solos bop exercise.

Few have fucked with Monk and survived the curse, causing the sage Orrin Keepnews to note well here that many “get hung up on being too respectful.” But this outstanding performance from a quartet led by Ellis Marsalis makes its way through the elaborate labyrinth of 11 Monk compositions without losing its way. Marsalis keeps his team disciplined in its attention to the detail of Monk’s plan throughout, and even where they take some daring liberties they manage to return to the heart of Monk’s music.

The record’s finest moments are when Ellis is on his own, stroking out the lambent themes of “Crepescule with Nellie,” “Monk’s Mood” and “‘Round Midnight” and summoning the sense of darkling beauty and whimsical sadness that suffused much of Monk’s work. The touch required for these performances is nothing less than that of the perfect master, the hero who has made the trip to hell and back in order to translate such a vision to the rest of us. Ellis’ profound admission in the liner notes that “Monk’s music was an anomaly to me for many years” speaks volumes about what it took to get him to understand where Monk was coming from, a journey few have made so successfully. Ellis seems to pull his bandmates into Monk’s world by the sheer force of his leadership. Derek Douget’s tenor and soprano saxophone playing is superb, nuanced exactly to the contour of the melody at the appropriate moments and flying away from the path only when someone else is holding down the appropriate part. The way he and Ellis break up the head on “Jackie-ing” would almost certainly have brought a smile to Monk’s lips. Throughout the record, Douget demonstrates a full understanding of the approach taken by two of Monk’s greatest interpreters, Steve Lacy and Charlie Rouse. He hits an amazing mark with his reading of “Ruby, My Dear,” a ballad performance of classic proportions.

Rhythms are central to Monk’s conceptions, with all pieces of the group playing crucial melodic and rhythmic parts at all times. Drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Jason Stewart weave outstanding flow into the mix. The rolling exchange between piano, bass and drum at the final break in “Epistrophy” is a revelation so profound it almost seems like Douget is never coming back with the final theme statement. And the bass accented drum solo on “Teo” is a work of genius, one of several examples on the record of Jason’s remarkable ability to play articulated melodies on his drum kit.

The fact is that very few jazz albums and even fewer Monk tributes climb the heights reached on this gem of a listening experience, what I would say is Jason Marsalis’ finest hour as a drummer (when you take on Art Blakey at his most creative you are making it happen) and certainly one of the high points of Ellis Marsalis’ distinguished career.