Venue 505, May 30
His music was like a religion, so it was right his name was Monk. Sometimes the piano was no longer sufficiently expressive, and he felt compelled to perform strange, shuffling dances, instead. These bore scant relationship to what was happening rhythmically, but in that regard they were perfect metaphors for his creativity, which seemed to alight on earth from a parallel universe, where every aspect of music had an inbuilt obverse. Flashing humour cohabited with disconcerting phrasing; thrilling melodies with unsettling dissonances. However far you shrink the list of jazz geniuses, Thelonious Monk will still make the cut.
In performing a concert he called MONKNOW Barney McAll was making point: Thelonious Monk’s startling originality has become no less neon-intense across 60 years. Monk was always ahead of his time as both composer and improviser, and his great gift to improvisers was to provide compositions crammed with melodic and rhythmic motifs that could be endlessly extrapolated against the harmonies, so the player is almost bullied into improvising with unique relevance to the piece.
The intriguing cross-fertilisation here was that McAll is by nature a creator of supple phrases and melodies – seemingly at odds with Monk’s penchant for stabs and jolts. Typically, however, McAll had not lightly engaged with Monk’s music, but dug deep into the wealth of possibilities it affords, and found ways to let the knots and gnarls unravel into a freer expression that is commensurate with Monk’s influence on such post-bebop luminaries as Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor and Eric Dolphy.
In what was very much a celebration rather than a tribute, McAll assembled a new band in which bassist Cameron Undy was joined (from a younger generation) by trumpeter Tom Avgenicos, tenor saxophonist Michael Avgenicos and drummer Alex Inman-Hislop. All embraced both the profundity and the zany playfulness; the necessity to make some phrases ring out like a hammer on an anvil, and others to melt like a marshmallow over a fire. This was as real as looking at an original painting, rather than a reproduction.