In some ways, contemporary bluegrass and the music of Thelonious Monk couldn't be farther apart. While bluegrass often dons the facade of finesse and polish (exemplified by seemingly endless outpouring of melismatic figures), Thelonious Monk is somewhat 'quirkier' with work characterized by familiar yet often disorienting melodic contour, harmonic complexity and disjointed rhythmic patterns. Despite their differences, Ellery Marshall's Marshall on Monk serves as a unique point of merger between these two worlds.
Upon first listen, it is apparent that this is definitely a bluegrass record, albeit progressive. Marshall's distinct background as a jazz drummer turned bluegrass banjo player radiates in these performances which including many of Monk's most popular compositions, ranging from "Blue Monk" to the winding and tapering "Trinkle, Tinkle" or the lush harmonic double fiddled "Ruby, My Dear" (A personal favorite second only to "Pannonica", another ballad). Given Marshall's musical past, it's no surprise that this record's strongest feats are it's incredible groove and stunning arrangements.
What this recording lacks in jazz voice leading (often outlined by walking bass lines) it compensates for with beautifully articulated 'heads' (melodies) and thoughtful solos that merge bluegrass melodic language with Monk's harmonic progressions. In this way, there is an incredible honesty to these recordings- while all of these musicians are incredibly capable, Marshall on Monk bears witness to a group respectfully appropriating the music of a compositional genius. Further, Marshall's group highlights the another commonality- the sense of playfulness that is inherent to the communal music of rural america as well as that of traditional jazz. Thelonious Monk is often remembered for his buoyant personality, and even for taking dance breaks while other members of the band were soloing.
Perhaps the thing I enjoyed the most about this recording was how Marshall used orchestration to offer insight into Monk's compositions. By voicing lines across instruments of such diverse texture and timber, Marshall's band is capable of expressing multiple contrapuntal lines to support the melody. Further, Monk's weaving melodies played with the swing of Scruggs-style banjo seems like a match made in heaven. It only takes one pass of the band's version of "In Walked Bud" to understand what this record is really about- rhythm.
Marshall on Monk is a must listen, especially for those with a mutual love of both bluegrass and jazz. Download the album from Ellery's bandcamp page below:
Ellery Marshall: Banjo
Alex Hargreaves: Fiddle
David Grier: Guitar
Eric Robertson: Mandolin
Dave Speranza: Bass
Jeff Picker: Bass ("Trinkle, Tinkle" only)
Mike Barnett: Fiddle ("Ruby, My Dear" only)
All compositions by Thelonious Monk
Recorded by Tony Maimone at Studio G Brooklyn, NY
and Jason Borisoff at Sheriff's Studio, NYC
Mixed by Jim Robeson at Bias Studios, Springfield, VA
Mastered by Toby Mountain at Northeastern Digital,
Produced by Jason Borisoff
Cover art by Joseph Albers