Like any pianist and composer in the jazz idiom, John Beasley owes a substantial debt to Thelonious Monk. Unlike most, he chooses to express that influence in large-canvas terms.
Several years ago he formed the MONK’estra, a Los Angeles-based big band, in order to play Monk’s music with contemporary flair.
MONK’estra, Vol. 1 was released on Mack Avenue last year, garnering two Grammy nominations and critical acclaim. In the wake of that release, Beasley took the band on tour, before returning to the studio to make MONK’estra, Vol. 2. That album will be released on Sept. 1, weeks before what would have been Monk’s 100th birthday.
The album represents not only a franchise sequel but also an expansion of Beasley’s mission with the project. “You start thinking of Thelonious and his era, of what it took just to be a jazz musician during that time,” he mused, in a press statement. “I wanted to push the story out there that maybe some jazz fans had forgotten about.”
That impulse finds traction right out of the gate, on a version of “Brake’s Sake” with some socially charged rapping by trumpeter Dontae Winslow. (“We went from Prohibition to heroin addiction / From lynching to life in prison...”)
Beasley is an accomplished composer for film and television, and he has been the musical director for every International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert. He brings coolheaded insight to his orchestrations, drawing on a big-band syntax refined by the likes of Quincy Jones.
With MONK’estra, Vol. 2, Beasley also welcomes a handful of marquee guest soloists, like violinist Regina Carter (on “Crepuscule with Nellie”), percussionist Pedrido Martínez (“Criss Cross”) and singer Dianne Reeves (“Dear Ruby,” a reinvention of “Ruby, My Dear”). An exuberant arrangement of “Evidence” features two swing-for-the-fences solos, by the questing tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington and the erudite trombonist Conrad Herwig.
Beasley had different hands on deck when the MONK’estra recently gave “Evidence” a spin at the Blue Whale in Los Angeles. In the video below, which has its premiere here, Beasley sets up the tune with an impressionistic prelude on piano, before some knockabout improvising by alto saxophonist Danny Janklow and trumpeter Brian Swartz. (On drums, and a strong candidate for MVP of the clip, is Gene Coye, a Chicago native who works with Larry Carlton.)