REVIEW: Jon Beasley's Monk'estra Septet and Alice Zawadzki Quartet at Ronnie Scott's



John Beasley's Monk'estra
(Ronnie Scott's. 21 July 2018. Second night, first house. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

The Monk'estra project really does have the wind in its sails. There have been two volumes of John Beasley's large ensemble re-workings of Thelonious Monk, and both have been nominated twice in the Grammys, each time in both the "Jazz – Large ensemble" category and again for "Best Arrangement – Instrumental or A Cappella". John Beasley received plaudits when he brought his West Coast big band to Ronnie Scott's last year (there also seems to be an East Coast band). Beasley himself also has one of the really high profile gigs, as Music Director for the Thelonious Monk Institute’s International Jazz Day concerts each year.

This year Ronnie Scott's has welcomed a lower-key version of Monk'estra, a septet of mostly European players. For me, the stand-out musician at the early set on Saturday night was Terreon Gully, who is one of the drummers on the albums, where he shares the duties with other luminaries such as Peter Erskine and Kendrick Scott. At Ronnie's he seemed to be connected to a really powerful energy source; everything he did carried conviction, heft and momentum.

That said, I found myself wondering quite why the set didn't build in the way I would have hoped. There was no question that the top-notch players involved were up to the demands of the intricate arrangements, but I found myself in the end impressed rather than either moved or enlivened. Were they holding back to give everything for the last set? Were the sheer demands of these pieces with all their switchbacks and chicanes (the chart for Evidence, in particular, seemed like a ninja-level orienteering course) absorbing all of their attention? Was it that the group, described as a "United Nations", were not yet familiar enough with each other? The genuine answer is that I don't know. Yes, it is an impressive project, particularly on record, but this iteration of it left this listener wanting more flow, more freedom, and more feeling.

There seemed to be fewer doubts in the room about the support act, singer/violinist Alice Zawadzki's quartet with Rob Luft, Misha Mullov-Abbado and Fred Thomas; they were clearly in the process of acquiring new friends as their set progressed. Fred Thomas was mostly playing drums (he has appeared at Ronnie's before as both pianist and bassist as well), and then switched to piano where his exquisite touch and balancing of voicings (as he shows on his recent Bach album for Odradek - try Track 9) were to the fore on an exquisitely hushed Leaving of Limerick.

LINK: John Beasley's website

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