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The Monk Project

On November 23, 2018, Sunnyside will release a six-CD set of the complete works of Thelonious Sphere Monk played by Frank Kimbrough, Scott Robinson, Rufus Reid and Billy Drummond, and produced by Maitland Jones and Dorothy Lieberman.

For Rebecca Busselle’s video of the recording session, click here.

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Here is MJ’s essay on the origins of this project, which appears in the release booklet:

Two dates are important to this project, one imprecise and long ago, the other recent and pinned down almost to the minute.  Sometime, probably in the fall of 1957, when I was an undergraduate in New Haven, I found myself traveling to New York on weekends to hear jazz. Jazz was a recent passion, but one that has persisted for well over half a century. It has brightend my life immeasurably. Many of those New York evenings have faded from memory, but one surely has not: Monk at the Five Spot in Cooper Square. I can’t pin the times down perfectly, but I know that at least once I heard him with Coltrane, and I know that the bassist was Ahmed Abdul-Malik, who replaced Wilbur Ware in August of 1957. So, at least some of my visits were in the fall of 1957.

I was too musically unsophisticated to know what I was hearing – the stuff of legends now. I did not see – or hear – Monk for the genius he was. I suspect that I bought into the stereotypal and unfair view of Monk as the weird, eccentric “high priest of bebop.” He did always wear a hat, he did dance at the edge of the piano when others were soloing, and he did wander into the kitchen on occasion to return later – or not. I have learned more about Monk and jazz over the years and if there is one thing I could redo in my life, it would be, even at the high price of being 20 again, to relive those visits, to pay real attention and to better experience those magical nights.

Over the ensuing 50 or 60 years, I have become one of the “regulars” in the ever-changing set of New York jazz clubs, which leads to the second of those two dates – October 17, 2017 at the Jazz Standard. There Frank Kimbrough, Rufus Reid, Scott Robinson, and Billy Drummond were doing an evening of Monk tunes in honor of what would have been Monk’s 100th birthday, exactly a week earlier.  Not surprisingly, the music was spectacular - Monk-like but fresh, respectful of history, but in the current moment. I knew all these gentlemen because each had each played in a series of jazz concerts held in my house in New Jersey. In particular, Frank had graced those evenings many times.  So, after the first set, I screwed up my courage (if not now, when?) and asked Frank whether he would consider recording all 70 of Monk’s tunes. Somewhat to my surprise, his response was not, “Are you crazy?” but, something like, “Well, let’s think about it.” So we did, and here it is!

A project of this magnitude doesn’t happen all by itself. Of course the major credit goes to the musicians, who, to my ear, have remained true to the brilliance of Monk while injecting not only the current times, but remarkable innovations. I’d bet that Reflections has never been played on a bass saxophone before – and it is perfect for the tune. And a sarrusaphone on Straight, no Chaser? Not in Monk’s days, but here? Just right. These four musicians do the famous up-tempo Monk tunes with panache, bring new insight to the lesser-known tunes, and do Monk’s great ballads with special intensity and emotional insight. Certainly as a group, no one has done the slow tunes as well.  Touches of humor abound, and I think Monk would have loved that. Two other people deserve special mention, for they are equally responsible for this project. Dr. Dorothy Lieberman, another jazz head, and another regular on the club scene, has also supported this project, and Matt Balitsaris, genius engineer and Czar of Maggie’s Farm, has not only contributed technical skill “beyond” but supported this project in many other ways.  We would not be here without him.

This project has been exciting for all of us involved. I am sure you will feel that excitement as you work through these gorgeous 70 tunes, each dreamed up by a true American genius.