Aug 27, 2020
When bandleader/composer/arranger John Beasley began to reimagine the music of Thelonious through the vehicle of his inventive, versatile MONK’estra, it might have been easy to assume that he had created a continuing homage to one of jazz’s singular talents. Perhaps it would morph into something like the Mingus Big Band?
But if that is what you thought, you would have been wrong.
While both MONK’estra, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 garnered a pair of Grammy Award nominations apiece alongside widespread critical acclaim, the MONK’estra veers off in new directions on newest release, MONK’estra Plays John Beasley, on Mack Avenue Records. As the title implies, this time out the band shifts focus to its fearless leader’s own compositions and piano playing, alongside a quartet of Monk classics and a tune apiece by Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker.
MONK’estra Plays John Beasley brings the keyboardist full circle in more ways than one. While the two preceding albums focused more on Beasley’s arranging talent, he’s featured playing the piano on every track. Additionally, besides casting the lens of his brilliant ensemble on his own music for the first time, the album also reunites Beasley with several now-formidable artists with whom he performed with in his formative years nearly three decades ago.
Reconfiguring the MONK’estra into a number of smaller combinations, Beasley brings together such peers and mentors as bassist John Patitucci and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, his bandmates in the early 90s quartet Audio Mind and Patitucci’s bands; organ great Joey DeFrancesco, whose footsteps he followed into the Miles Davis band in 1989; and legendary flutist Hubert Laws, who hired a 20-year old Beasley and Patitucci to play Carnegie Hall.
MONK’estra Plays John Beasley is the latest reinvention in a career full of them. Beasley worked with iconic trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis while still in his 20s and has gone on to play with such greats as Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau, Steely Dan, Chaka Khan and Christian McBride. He serves as Music Director for the Herbie Hancock institute’s globe-spanning International Jazz Day concerts while touring the world with the MONK’estra. Along the way, Beasley has garnered five Grammy Award nominations and an Emmy Award.
Podcast 761 is my conversation with John Beasley, as we discuss the flexible nature of the MONK’estra and its players; the inspiration for several of the Beasley compositions they recorded, and how the recent pandemic has allowed him to rethink his place in the universe. He also talks about the importance of Charlie Parker, as Beasley was to have been instrumental in Centennial concerts to celebrate Bird’s birthday. Musical selections from Monk'estra Plays John Beasley include the Monk compositions "Rhythmn-A-Ning/Evidence," and two Beasley originals, "Five Spot" and "Masekela."