CD Review: Eric Reed - The Adventurous Monk

Eric Reed - The Adventurous Monk
(Savant SCD 2132. CD Review by Andy Boeckstaens)

Philadelphia-born pianist Eric Reed gained exposure as a teenager with Wynton Marsalis, and has since worked with stars as diverse as Benny Carter and Cassandra Wilson. Now – at 43 – he is a well-established soloist with over a dozen recordings as a leader under his belt.

The Adventurous Monk is Reed’s third Thelonious Monk-related CD. 2011 saw the release of “The Dancing Monk”, and “The Baddest Monk” followed a year later. The most recent album is dedicated to the life and legacy of Cedar Walton - who died shortly before its recording – and is the first of the three not to feature at least one “original” by Reed.

Thelonious sets off at a blistering pace, and the leader, accompanied by bassist Ben Williams and Gregory Hutchinson at the drums, typically approaches the tune from an oblique angle. Seamus Blake enters slyly on tenor saxophone, like he’s inveigled his way onto the stage to sit in on someone else’s gig. He produces a blustery solo, after which there seems to be a few moments’ indecision followed by a passage for bass and drums. Then it just finishes without a conclusion; very strange.

Blake is much more trenchant and coherent on the next track, Work, but he appears on only one other piece, the rarely-heard Gallop’s Gallop (which is even better, due to Hutchinson’s razor-sharp contribution). Despite the saxophonist’s technical mastery and occasional nods to Charlie Rouse, he sounds out of place and the tracks without him are generally more successful.

Seven of the ten pieces are under five minutes long. This encourages focus, but the incisive pianist is not above quotations and throws in bits of “Isotope”, “On the Street Where You Live” and Monk’s own “Misterioso” along the way.

If something new is to be brought to such an iconic body of work, one wonders how it might be achieved without tinkering and introducing gimmicks. Reed does both of those things to a degree, and some attempts are more successful than others. On the whole, the melodies and harmonies are retained, and the alterations are to the rhythms. Much of the jagged weight of Evidence is lost, but the straight-time sections in the middle are so magnificent that you’d forgive anything. Nutty is given a loose Latin feel, and Pannonica is turned into a kind of rumba. It takes a bit of getting used to, but, with perseverance, works well.

Reed has included ‘Round Midnight – perhaps the most frequently-played of all Monk compositions - on all three related albums. The theme is shared by piano and bass, which is a nice idea, and the carefully-chosen notes skirt around the chords. Dear Ruby - the vocal version of Ruby, My Dear, with lyrics by Sally Swisher - is sung with deep feeling and accuracy by Charenee Wade.

The closing Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-Are starts with terrific drum work over a walking bass. The tune’s only hinted at during a great piano solo, but the very ending – after the melody is finally stated - is marred by unnecessary fiddling that would have benefited from the editor’s knife.

Regardless of its quirks and mis-fires, The Adventurous Monk is extremely good without being particularly adventurous. Reed’s playing is shot through with conviction and dynamism, and you feel as if he’d be happy playing nothing but this material for the rest of his life.

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