In October 2017, the month of the centenary of Thelonious Monk's birth, Tum released two contrasting albums by Wadada Leo Smith on the same day, Najwa which pays homage to four late greats — Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Ronald Shannon Jackson and Billie Holiday — and Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk which does everything its title says. Apart from their dedicatees, the major difference between the two is that Najwa features seven other musicians alongside Smith, including four guitarists, whereas the first word of the Monk tribute's title is vital — it is totally solo, making it Smith's first unaccompanied recording for sixteen years.
In recent years, Smith has increasingly produced impressive epic suites such as 2012's Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform) and 2014's The Great Lakes Suites (Tum) which showcase his skills as a composer, so it is no surprise that this album intersperses four Monk compositions — "Ruby, My Dear", "Reflections", "Crepuscule with Nellie" and "'Round Midnight" — with four of Smith's own. The trumpeter's sleeve notes reveal his affinity to Monk: "Most people would never realize that I am closer to Thelonious Monk than to any other artist. What connects us is a vision of composition and its forms..."
Studio-recorded in Helsinki in November 2014 and August 2015, the sound is excellent throughout, capturing every subtlety and nuance of Smith's playing which means that he is constantly under the microscope. Naturally, he gives a bravura display of his skills as a player and interpreter. Straight from the opening notes of "Ruby My Dear", the music is equal parts Smith and Monk, with the boundaries between their compositions being virtually indistinguishable; so, the transition from "Ruby My Dear" into Smith's "Monk and His Five Point Ring at the Five Spot Café" (a typical Smith title) is seamless. Smith makes the Monk pieces sound like his own, at every opportunity wringing the emotion from them through his combination of tone and phrasing. Just beautiful. The standard is so consistently high that it is impossible to pick a standout track. As a result, this album is surely one of Smith's very best. Before it, Steve Lacy and Alexander von Schlippenbach stood head and shoulders above other interpreters of Monk; with this album a new name has joined the pantheon.
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