The music of Thelonious Monk has been a source of endless fascination and with good reason. Monk’s universe has its own laws. Beautifully constructed and quirky, soulful but also paced by brushstrokes of humor, his music seems open to an endless variety of readings.
In his MONK’estra project, pianist, conductor and arranger John Beasley, whose long list of credits includes performing and recording with Miles Davis, Steely Dan, Chaka Khan and James Brown, set out to re-imagine Monk’s music in a big band setting, not as a repertory exercise but as fresh interpretations done in Monk’s spirit.
His arrangements of even some of Monk’s iconic pieces, captured in two Grammy-nominated volumes, take the music to unexpected places. “Epistrophy” hints at a rumba; the nocturnal mysteries of “‘Round Midnight” get reframed by a modern soul groove; “Little Rootie Tootie” opens with, of all choices, a cha cha cha, and Monk’s lesser known “Brake’s Sake” (which opens MONK’estra Vol. 2) is reborn with a muscular backbeat and a rap intervention.
Beasley will present MONK’estra in concert with the University of Miami’s Frost Concert Jazz Band, at UM’s Maurice Gusman Hall, Wednesday, April 4 at 7:30 p.m. If you are in South Florida, check it out. Beasley spoke from his home in Los Angeles.
Q: You work with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, did this project came from that affiliation?
John Beasley: I do master classes with them; I’m the musical director for their gala after the competition and I am the musical director for International Jazz Day, which they produce, but this had nothing to do with the institute. It was just my love of Monk and then realizing that with the big band I could put my personality into [his music] in a different way than playing the piano.
Q: In fact, you had done some Monk projects before and you mentioned that you actually didn’t plan to start the MONK’estra project. It happened.
John Beasley: I had just gotten the Sibelius [music notation software] and I wanted to practice. I hadn’t done anything with a big band in a while, so I decided to do a big band arrangement of “Epistrophy.” And after that, I ended up getting a commission to do [another Monk composition] “Ask me now.” So I had two charts and I called up a bunch of friends and we met and rehearsed them and read them down and everybody had fun so I just decided to keep writing. After a while, we had enough for one set so we got booked at a small club here in L.A. and a lot of people came out […] and it just kind of grew naturally from there. That was four years ago, and here we are, two records and four Grammy nominations later. Last year we did 30 concerts all over the world.
Q: In preparing this music, did you did you listen to Hall Overton or Oliver Nelson’s arrangements of Monk for large ensemble or chose to stay away from that?
John Beasley: Well, I was familiar with them from way before and I’m sure some of it seeped in, but I didn’t really listen to it because I wanted to come up with my own interpretation. Those recordings are cool, but it’s not my favorite Monk. I prefer what he did with small groups.
Beasley conducting the MONK’estra at the Angel City Festival, 2015
Q: How did you pick up the songs? Some are obvious choices, but definitely not all.
John Beasley: I just picked songs that were sticking in my head, songs that spoke to me. I wasn’t trying to plan it all out. In the beginning, I just chose songs that I had ideas for. But then, of course, once you are about halfway through the record you realize you need this kind of song for this or that other song for that, to make the arc of the story. Then you go back to the drawing board and try to make it interesting and personal.
Q: How did you approach the arranging of these pieces? Was there an overall idea?
John Beasley: The songs have lots of open sections for the band to stretch a little bit, but also accompany] like a piano player, or the horn players can make up riffs like in the old days of Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie. I’ve tried to approach it like a small group in that it doesn’t have to be that bass line every time, it doesn’t have to be that drum groove every time.
Q: So after two discs and many presentations later, this reimagining of Monk continues to evolve?
John Beasley: Oh yes. It’s really interesting is that the core band that made the records and does most of the work is here in Los Angeles. But I have a New York band — and they have a whole different take on it. And in Europe, bands like the Frankfurt Radio Big Band in Germany, or the Blue House Jazz Orchestra in Sweden, or the Brussels Jazz Orchestra, in Belgium, each one has a whole take on it.
And what I really like is what I’m doing in Miami with the [ University of Miami Frost School of Music] students. They have a whole other generational spin on it, which I totally encourage. The first day of rehearsal I always say: ‘OK. You guys have been rehearsing this music, so now you know it. Let’s open it up. I want to hear what you have to say with it. I want you to express yourself. I want to make this music yours.
Certain things [in the arrangements] are locked in. But that’s only the inspiration to go somewhere else. This is jazz. I usually say “We’re going to play jazz and we’re going to improvise off this. This is not classical music. If you guys hear something, let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, who cares? If it works, great!”
Sometimes young musicians want to learn [the music] just like [it sounds on] the record, and to me, that’s not playing jazz, jazz is […] about what you feel at that moment. It’s social music. It’s a conversation. So, of course, it’s going to change all the time. That’s what I love about it, that’s what Monk wanted. If you listen to all his versions they’re always different. He encourages people to be themselves — within the framework of his music.
An edited version of this piece was posted by Artburst Miami, April 2018.