Marsalis Plays Monk: Standard Time, Vol. 4

COMPOSERS: Monk
LABELS: Sony Columbia
PERFORMER: Wynton Marsalis (t), Walter Blanding, Victor Goines (ts), Wessell Anderson (as), Wycliffe Gordon (tb), Eric Reed (p), Ben Wolfe, Reginald Veal (b), Herlin Riley (d)
CATALOGUE NO: CK 67503

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Wynton Marsalis’s prodigious musical output continues with this simultaneous release of a jazz album recorded in 1994 and two totally composed classical albums recorded in 1998. His jazz offering is a dynamic exploration of Monk’s music with an octet, most of whom have been associated with Marsalis since the Eighties.

Monk’s unique compositions arose exclusively from the jazz tradition, and Marsalis had the great idea of drawing on that same tradition, adapting the devices of Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton in their Twenties music – strange introductions and codas, instrumental breaks, long solos, very short ones, surprises, drama all the way – to get inside Monk’s music.

Marsalis and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon created the arrangements and succeeded brilliantly in projecting the spirit of Monk’s music and its emotional resonances. From the dramatic introduction to the opening ‘Thelonious’, the band embodies the essence of the piece, its insistent theme and effortless swing. All 13 Monk pieces are given imaginative and appropriate readings, by this octet of terrifically focused virtuosi.

The introduction to the fiendishly tricky ‘Four in One’ is, impudently, even trickier than Monk’s theme with its swirling sheets of sound, which the octet takes in its stride. Marsalis plays a three-chorus solo, the first considered and beautifully paced with variations on the melody of the middle eight bars, but in his second and third choruses he mirrors Monk’s swirling theme with an awesome display of virtuosity – dazzling lines of semiquavers interrupted only occasionally by bluesy, reassuring phrases – even Monk himself might have been intimidated.

Marsalis’s own mellow and glowing tribute, ‘In Walked Monk’, is the 14th piece. Other high spots are Wycliffe Gordon’s glorious trombone solo on ‘Let’s Cool One’, and pianist Eric Reed’s superlative performance in his feature, ‘Brilliant Corners’.

At the Octoroon Balls, Marsalis’s first string quartet, is an extremely impressive debut. He has avoided the usual classical formality of an opus number, and even given titles to the seven movements, and the music has a thrilling urgency and power.

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His invention never flags and this thoroughly 20th-century Orion Quartet can swing and boogie with the best. Marsalis has enlarged the soundscape of the string quartet and its emotional scope. Similar qualities of wit, subtlety, humour and irony inform his A Fiddler’s Tale Suite, which was inspired by Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale.