Alexander Von Schlippenbach - "Monk's Casino The Complete Works of Thelonious Monk"

Lying alone in bed late at night, as a teenager, I was fascinated with "Thelonious in Action". Most nights, I fell asleep as "Light Blue" [first track on side A] was playing. I used to imagine New York and especially The Five Spot in 1958, as it must have looked in 1958 when Monk recorded this music. His sound was mesmerizing. His keying "errors" [as people thought of them then] and off-beat strokes were fascinating to listen to. Truly, this was music that had opened my ears to other worlds, other music I'd not known. Fast forward a number of decades to 2005. German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach has had a fascination with Monk's music for decades. [A favourite example of how radical his re-interpretations of Monk can get can be heard on his duo date with wife Aki Takase "Live in Berlin 93/94 - Piano Duets". This is where he reinvented four Monk standards into his own unique pieces. In fact, Aki guests on "A Merrier Christmas", where she plays the toy piano.] It's without any surprise that Alex decided to go ahead and tackle Monk's music one more time.

However, the new 3 CD set "Monk's Casino" is not just another Monk tribute. This is in fact a COMPLETE Monk songbook. Apparently, not one written Monk piece was missed. Recorded on two June nights in 2003 and two February nights 2004 at A-Trane in Berlin, this quintet interpreted the complete Monk songbook on each single night. More than three hours of music in one show. [What a bargain!] To be fair, this is really a shared effort between Schlippenbach and Die Enttäuschung quartet made up of the other members - who already cut their teeth on Monk material on their debut release. On the first few listens, what's shocking about this record is just how un-radical Schlippenbach's readings are. This is fairly straight-ahead jazz.

There are a few challenging passages that are worthy of mention. Rudi Mahall's stunning breathless, spittle-full bass clarinet solo on "Intro Bemsha Swing" is equally mesmerizing. Rudi repeats his stunning form on a too-brief solo on "Light Blue". The uneven, falling-off-the-ladder feel of "Evidence" - shifting chords that get lost somewhere between the cracks. Axel Dorner's trumpet blows reach high for the sky. This is the most straight-ahead record I'd heard him play. Rhythm section made up of bassist Jan Roder and drummer Uli Jennessen offer a sturdy backbone for the band to lay their foundation on. The deeper you dig into this release, the more you realize, you can't actually remember the last time you heard someone cover "Humph" or "Hornin' In" or dozen other lesser known selections from Monk's repertoire. Schlippenbach plays all of this music with such ease; it's almost as if he was born for this project. His strokes are so final and committed; you know his heart is in this material. He's the perfect man for this gig. There is no substitute. Group dynamic is so high and their interaction is so strong. More than two decades after his death, Monk's arrangements stand the test of time. Kudos goes to Intakt for seeing this project through to its fruition. In a world of uncertainties, it's good to have an absolute to go on. Sure enough, Schlippenbach is the premier Monk interpreter we have alive today.

Tom Sekowski

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