Wunderkind Joey Alexander delivers a satisfying live tribute to Thelonious Monk with solid rhythm section.
October marked the centennial of Thelonious Monk’s birth so the past few months have seen numerous tributes. Live celebrations were held with a rotating cast of best in class musicians at Duke University’s Monk@100 festival and at Jazz at Lincoln Center (one of JALC’s performances spaces is actually named after another jazz luminary who had a centennial this October, Dizzy Gillespie, yet had more Monk related programming, a testament to Monk’s outsize standing among musicians today). New music was released including a second volume of big band treatments of Monk’s music by John Beasley and a well timed release of some long lost tapes from 1959 Monk himself originally recorded to accompany the French film Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but which are only now seeing the light of day. Thelonious Monk tributes graced the pages of the New York Times and the New Yorker. Of all the Monk tributes that I encountered last month, however, Joey Alexander’s might well be my favourite.
It makes sense that the 14 year old wunderkind’s first live recording would be an album of Monk ‘s music. It was playing Monk that Joey first came to many people’s attention three years ago; with a beautiful rendition of “’Round Midnight” at Jazz at Lincoln Center, or romping through “I Mean You”. On this, his third release, he plays Monk tunes exclusively, solo or in trio with a top notch rhythm section of Scott Colley on bass and Willie Jones III on drums. The music was recorded early in the summer at JALC’s Appel Room and announced by surprise a week or two prior to its release.
Joey Alexander isn’t the first young prodigy to generate press in the jazz world and not the first rising star to wow with technical ability; in some ways it’s almost expected of young musicians to be able to thread complex chord changes like those on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” at tempo. Piano great Tommy Flanagan famously struggled with the changes on the original recording of “Giant Steps”, but nowadays it’s a common rite of passage for up and coming musicians to tackle the song, Alexander included on his first album. Joey Alexander sets himself apart, however, with an uncommonly strong sense of rhythm and time, something many young prodigies don’t seem to have developed (I suffered through a painful show by Eldar Djangirov ten years ago in which he seemed to always be playing five clicks faster than the rest of his band). The Monk compositions are an excellent showcase for Alexander’s strong feel. The trio buoyantly swings through a song like “Rhythm-a-ning” and Alexander maintains a stately composure through the solo rendition of “Pannonica” which ends the album.
Probably owing something to Monk’s influence, Alexander has a wry, playful tone as an improviser. The album’s arrangements of the Monk originals are also satisfying. A challenge with working with tunes as iconic, and as embedded in the repertoire, as Monk’s is to stand out in a crowded field of renditions without being so adventurous as to be unrecognizable. Alexander’s arrangements here are distinctive but true to the originals. Recognizable melodies are introduced through opening tags and songs shift from solo features to full trio work. A piano interlude separates the introduction of “Epistrophy” from the double time solo sections. The band doesn’t so much play the head of “Straight No Chaser” as play around with fragments of the melody as they romp through the blues, stating the melody in full only at the end before dissolving into a grooving outro vamp straight out of the Jackson 5 song “ABC”.
Everything clicks on Joey.Monk.Live!. Five stars.