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Not every Monk cover is made equal.
If you had to put money on it, it'd be a safe bet that Thelonious Monk is the most played composer in jazz today. An unsubstantiated claim, sure — no one has actually sifted through hard data on this one. But these days, every jazz-inclined musician worth his or her salt learns Monk, and probably extensively. Experimental composer Anthony Braxton, Andy Summers of The Police, the progressive chamber ensemble Kronos Quartet and a synthesizer duo called Thelonious Moog: They've all recorded entire albums' worth of Monk's music. One tribute project brought out Peter Frampton, Dr. John and John Zorn on the same disc.
Everyone knows (or ought to know) that the pianist was a special talent, what with all the spastic bounding, the extreme-yet-economical syncopation, the Monk Dance, and so on. It's just that so many Monk covers, supposedly inspired in some way by the eccentric genius himself, wind up sounding lame. Rather than hearing fresh re-imaginings of Monk's idiosyncrasies, we're usually stuck with run-of-the-mill facsimiles of an inimitable stylist. Jazz fans hear Monk's tunes so often misapprehended — so flattened of their innate, disjointed glee — that sometimes it's easy to wonder: Why bother?
But seeing as how Thelonious Monk would have turned 91 on Thursday, it would be a shame if some of the more enjoyable interpretations of his music didn't get the shine they deserve. For the sake of convenience, let's narrow the pool from the thousands of discs containing Monk tunes (!) to the mere scores of albums dedicated to Monk and Monk alone (eyebrows still raised). Here are five Thelonious Monk tribute records which are actually, well, good. (And do post the ones that didn't make the cut — there are more good ones — in the comments below.)
For more entries in NPR Music's weekly Take Five: A Weekly Jazz Sampler series, click here.