Live Jazz: The John Beasley MONK-estra Upstairs at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

Studio City, CA.  John Beasley described the 18 piece ensemble he brought to Vitello’s Wednesday night as a MONK’estra.  He also called it “A Big Modern Jazz Band.”

Both labels were right on target for this performance.  First, the great majority of the program was dedicated to the music of Thelonious Monk.  Second, Beasley’s arrangements, combined with superb individual soloing from virtually every musician, resulted in a definitive display of “Big,” “Modern” and “Jazz Band.”

The John Beasley MONK-estra

The Monk pieces – including such classics as “Epistrophy,” “Little Rootie Tootie,” “Skippy” and “Ask Me Now” – were at their best when Beasley conceived big band settings enhancing, expanding and elaborating on the Monk originals. Often he captured Monk’s unique quirkiness, the offbeat accents, punchy dissonances and surprisingly soaring melodies.  And he did so with stunningly atmospheric ensemble textures, powerfully driven by the propulsive rhythm team of bassist Ricky Minor, drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr., and Beasley’s own melodica playing.

Justo Almario, Ricky Minor, John Beasley

Justo Almario, Ricky Minor, John Beasley

The performance occasionally recalled a famous 1959 concert at New York’s Town Hall, in which Monk performed with a tentet, playing arrangements of his music written by Hall Overton.  But the presence of Monk in the ensemble — along with Overton’s occasional arrangements of previously recorded Monk solos for the horns — was very different from the scope of Beasley’s big band charts.

With maximum-sized horn sections – five trumpets, five doubling saxophones and four trombones – Beasley’s arranging moved into expansive, orchestral textures reaching well beyond both the Overton arrangements and familiar big band riffing.  Like Bill Holman, he worked within his own musical dialect.  Even in the pieces based on Monk works, he found intriguing ways to apply his imaginative perspectives to Monk’s music.

The saxophone section players —  Bob Sheppard, Jeff Driskill, Justo Almario, Tom Luer and Bob Carr – were often called to double on clarinets (including a pair of bass clarinets), bringing a lush, fluid sound to many passages.  Adding more timbral contrast, the trombonists —  Francisco Torres, Wendell Kelly, Andy Martin and Steve Hughes – as well as the powerful trumpet team (Bijon Watson, Jamie Hovorka, Ray Monteiro, Brian Swartz and Gabe Johnson) were frequently asked to play with various mutes.

Interestingly, one of the many appealing products of Beasley’s envelope-stretching arrangements was some equally imaginative soloing from players who clearly seemed stimulated by their musical environment.  The net result was some of the most mesmerizing big band music – individually and collectively – of recent memory.

The only reservation about this remarkable evening was the thought that Beasley’s choice of the title “MONK-estra,” along with the decision to focus so strongly on Monk’s music, had too narrowly delineated his obviously extraordinary orchestrating abilities.  The few pieces that were not based on Monk’s works revealed Beasley’s capacity to deliver the broader, more expansive definition of what he also calls his
”Big Modern Jazz Band.”  It will be fascinating to see what he can do if he moves more convincingly in that distinctive, more personally expressive direction.

Photos by Bobby Colomby.

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