Ellis Marsalis Quartet
"An Open Letter to Thelonious"

(ELM Records)

Ellis Marsalis Quartet  An Open Letter to Thelonious

Review by Brad Walseth

The Marsalis family patriarch takes on the work of the revolutionary pianist Thelonious Monk on this new release. Marsalis admits that he was an Oscar Peterson disciple, who favored the more traditional work of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie over Monk's highly irregular composition style. However, Marsalis says the work of Monk grew on him over the years, to where he has gained respect and appreciation for the artist.

Rather than trying to mimic Monk, Marsalis has approached the works from his own direction, and has used his background in more traditional jazz styles to color his presentation, and it is a happy meeting of methods. As a result, the music swings more, seems happier and more colorful than the often dark tones Monk radiated. Case in point: the humorous interjection of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" into "Jackie-ing." Backed by son, Jason on drums, young saxophone star Derek Douget and bassist Jason Stewart, Marsalis imbues the songs with a brighter and less quirky feel, while filling them with bushels of life energy and a sense of peace and joy that perhaps was denied the composer in his lifetime.

Songs covered include the well-known like "Crepuscule with Nellie," "Epistrophy," "Straight, No Chaser" "Ruby, My Dear" and "'Round Midnight," as well as some lesser known choices, like "Jackie-ing," "Light Bue" and the wonderful "Teo" an especially appropriate song, given the recent passing of Monk producer Teo Macero. The two Jasons form a solid rhythm section and Douget is always a treat. Meanwhile, Marsalis sounds at times a bit like he is a more traditional, Oscar Peterson-influenced player playing Monk, and there's nothing wrong with that. His more traditionally-minded take on Monk's work may offend some purist, but I take it as an artist from a different school admitting to discovering the genius in a style he may have previously not accepted fully. Meanwhile, Marsalis takes Monk's angularity and adds a more melodic element that will have Monk fans admitting they may not have known was there.

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