Monk Business: The Jazz Pianist Adds Some Swing to the Season


Stick your head into any jazz club on any night and chances are good that be it lick, riff, or tune itself, someone will be referencing Monk. More than Miles, more than Duke, Monk remains central to the modern bandleader’s book—the go-to guy when things become too serious. Credit the insouciance of his melodies and recognize his bedrock sense of swing.

Roswell Rudd has been smitten with Monk’s puckish demeanor for decades; the pianist’s canon has helped shape the sixtysomething trombonist’s own work over the years, and his Monksieland tribute ensemble refracts the master’s esprit as adroitly as it reconstructs his songs. A droll sense of instrumental banter is central to the group’s sound. Last time I caught ’em at Iridium a novice pal used the term wiseacres to describe the onstage action—even without knowing the tunes he could tell that piety was being deep-sixed.

Since then Rudd’s wry soprano partner Steve Lacy has passed (they had been knocking at Thelonious’s door since cutting Monk’s School Days in the ’60s). When Monksieland illuminate their hero, it’s with clarinet player Don Byron on board. The front line is rounded out by trumpeter Dave Douglas, who reminds that Rudd’s Dixieland roots help charge the delight that’s in the air when all three horns unite.

Stressing this group approach, Rudd cites “collective polyphony” as his tack. “A song like ‘Off Minor’ has a rhythm and spirit that’s very old-time—the swing is right inside it, and I always like all the musicians, as well as the audience, to feel that.”

So if you hear a little storm in the middle of “Bemsha Swing,” it’s just the process of Sharing. And If You’ve Got Any Pals Who Appreciate Wiseacres, Now’s The Time To Call ’em.