In 1974, trumpeter Jimmy Owens helped prepare and played in a Carnegie Hall concert of the Thelonius Monk's music. On the night in question, the orchestra had a surprise soloist, Monk himself. It was one of the pianist's last public performances. Thirty-eight years later, Owens has just been honored as a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts, and he has a new album of Monk compositions arranged for seven players. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has our review.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Trumpeter Jimmy Owens on Thelonius Monk's facelift of "Sweet Georgia Brown" called "Bright Mississippi. It's from Owens' new album "The Monk Project." In Monk's lifetime, his pieces weren't played so very often, and interpreters often smoothed away their idiosyncrasies.

After Monk's death in 1982, jazzers started paying more attention to his tune's specific quirks, to the point where musicians jamming on them might simply mimic their counterparts in Monk's band. Something like that happens here, a little. Tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland sounds like he's been heeding Monk's last great tenor, Charlie Rouse.


WHITEHEAD: Jimmy Owens' septet epitomizes one modern approach to Monk, not too straight, not too quirky. He doesn't ape Monk's sound, but instead honors his method. Keep the melody in mind at all times, leave plenty of space so the music can breathe, and make it sound old and new at once, rooted in the masters, but freshly shuffled.

Owens knows Monk's tunes swing all by themselves, if you play them right. His funny timing catapults the music forward. When Monk recorded "Brilliant Corners," a tricky tune even for him, he doubled the tempo every other time through the melody - a weird move, but good show business. Owens puts "Brilliant Corners" through different rhythmic variations, leading to a slow conversation for four horns - avant-garde Dixieland.


WHITEHEAD: That's about as loose as it gets. Jimmy Owens mostly dresses Monk's tunes for uptown wear - Monk the Harlem jam-session swinger. The four-horn voicings, with Howard Johnson on either tuba or baritone sax, grease the tunes for cooking. The ace rhythm section is Kenny Barron on piano, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Winard Harper. On trombone is the versatile Wycliffe Gordon, a wizard with a plunger mute. He brings some Ellingtonian earthiness to blue Monk.


WHITEHEAD: There are a few rough spots in Jimmy Owens' own trumpet and flugelhorn solos on "The Monk Project," a good sign in a way. It suggests he's more concerned with showcasing the music and the ensemble than making himself look good. This midsize band jells so well, they might think of regrouping for some encores. "The Monk Project" makes me daydream about other composers the band could spotlight, like Tadd Dameron or Andrew Hill, or whoever Owens may have in mind already.


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for emusic.com and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "The Monk Project" by trumpeter Jimmy Owens on the IPO label. Coming up, David Edelstein on the new film "Albert Nobbs."

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