On this week’s Rhythm Planet show, I catch up with the multi-talented pianist/conductor/arranger John Beasley. Beasley and his big band, MONK’estra, have gained widespread renown and two Grammy nominations for their creative re-imagining of the music of Thelonious Sphere Monk in John Beasley Presents MONK’estra Vol. 1. As it happens, October 2017 marks the centennial of Monk’s birth and it seemed the perfect time to bring John back into the studio to talk about the success of the project and the recently released John Beasley Presents MONK’estra Vol. 2.
On volume 2, Beasley again leads a 16-piece big band of crack jazz musicians playing Monk’s classic song with a twist. Not content to just use only the original Monk charts, he reimagines them with new arrangements and clever improvisations, filled with humor. The sound of this band is totally fresh. Beasley’s reinterpretations stay true to the originals, yet explore new vistas that Monk would have loved. It’s close to the bone of the Monk classics, and it presents a new and complex musical tapestry. This time they’re also joined by guest artists like Dontae Winslow, Regina Carter, Kamasi Washington, and Dianne Reeves, adding to the diversity of sound and influences on the album.
Monk’s son, drummer T.S. Monk, told Beasley, “My father would have approved your arrangements for MONK’estra because he wrote these compositions for musicians to take it and improvise on them. You’ve kept his compositional integrity. You’re carrying on his tradition. Anybody that has a love for my father’s music and has put in time like you have with his music has my admiration.”
We start the music with “Brake’s Sake,” a song about Monk and the world he lived in, a racist America against which he struggled. On this track, trumpeter Dontae Winslow adds a rap commentary on current events and movements such as Black Lives Matter. Another track we hear called “Dear Ruby” features the elegant poise of Dianne Reeves, with Beasely on piano. Guest percussionist Pedrito Martinez supplies the Afro-Cuban beat on “Criss Cross.” Songs like “Light Blue” echo Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges. The final cut on the album, simply called “Work,” echoes Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain.
I could say more about John Beasley and his brilliant work on the two volumes of MONK’estra, but Quincy Jones said it better:
“Thelonious Monk was one of a kind, and so is John Beasley. He hears things in Monk’s music that no one imagined! And he can make an orchestra sing like an uncaged bird.”
A septet version of the MONK’estra is about to embark on an international tour, heading for Japan, Berlin, Belgium, Austria, then back to the U.S. They perform at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on March 9, 2018. See the full tour schedule here.
Check out the group performing “Evidence” earlier this year:
Rhythm Planet Playlist for 10/27/17
- John Beasley’s MONK’estra / “Brake’s Sake” /MONK’estra Vol. 2 / Mack Ave Records
- John Beasley’s MONK’estra / “Evidence” / MONK’estra Vol. 2 / Mack Ave Records
- John Beasley’s MONK’estra / “Dear Ruby” / MONK’estra Vol. 2 / Mack Ave Records
- John Beasley’s MONK’estra / “Criss Cross” / MONK’estra Vol. 2 / Mack Ave Records