Monday, January 30, 2012

Jimmy Owens: The Monk Project

IPO Recordings
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: The Monk Project

Folks who know Jimmy Owens either go back a long way or are true jazz historians. He was born in 1943, began to play the trumpet at age 13 — taught by Donald Byrd — and subsequently performed with an almost endless list of jazz icons. He’s also a composer, arranger, lecturer and music education consultant.

Owens’ discography is extensive. He was an in-demand sideman with lesser-known bands during the mid 1960s, and a few years later recorded with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and Duke Ellington bands. Owens was a sideman under Billy Taylor for David Frost’s TV chat show in the early ’70s and, during that period, led and recorded with his own groups.

This album is the most recent in a series of all-star releases that Owens has delivered during the past decade. It features his arrangements of tunes composed by Thelonious Monk, considered by many to be one of the world’s premier jazz artists. I have many of Monk’s recordings: both those that feature him as a pianist, and numerous albums by other artists who covered his compositions.

That said, Owens’ album is different to the point that “everything old sounds new again.”

Owens, on trumpet, employed a septet here: trombone (Wycliffe Gordon), tenor sax (Marcus Strickland), baritone sax and tuba (Howard Johnson), piano (Kenny Barron), bass (Kenny Davis) and drums (Winard Harper). The presence of a tuba is quite unusual, but that isn’t the sole element that makes this group’s sound so great. Owens’ arrangements work: The melodic lines, tempos and phrasing are wonderful, and the interaction included between instruments adds even more to the interest of each chart.

“Bright Mississippi,” although a lesser-known Monk tune, is one of his best compositions. It’s tricky — almost to the point of being “cute” — and it swings like crazy. Listen for the great ensemble phrases that follow the first couple of choruses, and the use of the tuba.

The more familiar “Well You Needn’t” initially is done at a slow, waltz-like gait, which turns into grooving, double-time meters when you least expect them. “Blue Monk,” which has been recorded by just about everyone, is presented as a very slow (arms wrapped around your partner) and sexy love-dance.

Each of the remaining tunes is massaged in a similar manner: “Stuffy Turkey,” “Pannonica,” “Let’s Cool One,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Brilliant Corners,” “Reflections” and “Epistrophy” never had it so good!

As you can tell, I love this album!

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