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Celebrating the centennial of the great Thelonious Monk


Joey Alexander, "Joey. Monk. Live!" (Motema); John Beasley, "Presents Monk 'estra Vol. 2" (Mack Avenue).

What a stupendous year for jazz royalty 1917 was. Two of the towering jazz giants were born in that year within days of each other and less than 200 miles apart. Thelonious Monk was born on Oct. 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, N.C. On Oct. 21, 1917, Dizzy Gillespie was born in Cheraw, S.C. 181 miles away. That their jazz centennials should both be celebrated joyously this year is more than a little ironic.

Once upon a time, that wouldn't have been so. They would have been celebrated at least equally, if not more in  favor of Dizzy, the co-inventor of bebop with Charlie Parker. But the primacy of Gillespie has long since given way in jazz thought to the quantum leap over the past 25 years in the reputation of Thelonious Monk, one of the greatest composers in the history of jazz and one of the most original -- and weirdly influential -- jazz pianists.

Here, in honor of the Monk centennial upon us Tuesday are two unusual and very good Monk tribute records. The best--and by far the most surprising--is by Joey Alexander, the jazz wunderkind who is all of 14 years old. Before the live disc recorded by Alexander in Jazz at Lincoln Center's Appel Room is over, Alexander has been joined by bassist Scott Colley and drummer Willie Jones on a marvelous 21st tribute to Monk. Listen, right at the beginning, to Alexander's solo piano version of the most famous Monk tune, "Round Midnight" and you're in completely original territory. If you were to play it in a blindfold test for either Monk or Gillespie, the last thing either would guess is that the radically creative pianist is 14.

Less original sadly is the second volume of John Beasley's Monk tribute band, the Monk 'estra. The creativity here is mostly rhythmic which is announced right at the beginning with a backbeat rhythm to Monk's seldom played "Brake's Sake" which eventually sprouts a rap about Monk from Dontae Winslow. The creativity here is neither harmonic or formal, as it is with Alexander, but rhythmic. If it weren't for guest appearances by Kamasi Washington, Regina Carter and Diane Reeves to keep it interesting, it would be much less. It's the 14-year old piano prodigy who, I think, would have struck both Monk and Dizzy as a fascinating major departure in how to think about one of the greatest bodies of compositions in all of jazz.

3 stars (out of four) for Beasley's Monk'estra

3 1/2 stars (out of four) for Alexander


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