John Beasley has shared stages with some of the most important names in jazz during his three-decade career. From his days as a member of Freddie Hubbard’s quintet and one of Miles Davis’ last touring bands to his role as Music Director for Jazz Day galas for the Thelonious Monk Institute, Beasley has had a first-hand involvement with the genre's never-ending evolution.
Thelonious Monk is a Mount Rushmore figure in the creation of modern jazz. As the centennial of his birth rapidly approaches, Beasley—pianist, conductor and arranger—has grappled with the complex composer’s legacy with his versatile big band riffing on the wit and unmistakable architecture of the Monk songbook with irrepressible energy and swinging abandon on MONK’estra, Volume 1, available August 19 on Mack Avenue Records.
MONK’estra, Volume 1 has its roots in a commission from Los Angeles’s Luckman Jazz Orchestra. When the gig was over, Beasley felt inspired to search deeper and continued to write more arrangements long after the performance, eventually assembling some of the finest musicians in Los Angeles to bring the charts to life in a musician’s union rehearsal room.
Amassing enough arrangements and developing a signature feel, he took the band public at Los Angeles’s jazz incubator, the Blue Whale, to sold-out crowds. With a fifteen-piece ensemble, which includes first-call horns like Bob Sheppard, Bijon Watson, Rashawn Ross, Beasley conducted the band with an improviser’s eye—free flowing and open to solos that add to the narrative. Since that casual debut in 2013, the band has become a fixture on the scene, performing at Disney Hall, Jazz Standard, Ford Amphitheatre, SFJAZZ twice and most recently at the Playboy Jazz Festival held at the world famous Hollywood Bowl.
“I don’t play a lot of piano in the band,” Beasley says about his role. “The band is my piano. It gives me the opportunity to change the music on the spot by conducting. I can cut everybody out and have myself play or I could change the order of the solos. Whoever is hot that night, I can keep throwing it their way.”
Through a lens influenced by Thad Jones, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock and Aaron Copland, Beasley found a compositional openness in Monk’s music that encouraged him to discover the right combination of freedom and restraint, coaxing the very best from the ensemble.
“Jimmy Heath once told me that all the good stuff is already built into Monk. The tunes are built to swing. The sound he got out of the piano, the way he played the piano, the voicings he used, the wild intervals. His groove was so strong.” And Beasley is no stranger to strong grooves. “The sign of a great composer—like Gershwin, Ellington, Wayne Shorter, or Stevie Wonder—is that you can play their tunes at any tempo and change the structure if you like. Bach sounds incredible at any tempo. So does Monk. His tunes are a living and breathing organism.”
Opening track “Epistrophy” was Beasley’s first attempt at a large-scale Monk arrangement and he tackles the angular tune with an elongated sense of time, controlling each breath with unwavering patience. Vibraphonist Gary Burton shines during a shimmering guest spot. “What a virtuoso,” says Beasley. “One take, boom! He just nailed it.”
Beasley pulls from two very different worlds for “Skippy” simultaneously evoking the Jaco Pastorius and Jimmie Lunceford big bands. Sheppard is in top form on the twisting chart, unfurling a crisp soprano saxophone over the controlled chaos of riffs and handclaps. Beasley infuses a literal electricity for “Oska T” and a trio version of “’Round Midnight.” The band conjures a sinister swagger, generating a buzzing hive for trumpeters Gabriel Johnson and Brian Swartz to cut loose while the trio embraces the pliability of Monk’s greatest known composition with a contemporary bend.
During a visit to New Orleans, Beasley was inspired to fuse multiple Monk riffs to create “Monk’s Processional,” a brief second-line celebration imbued with southern charm and spirit. A crowd favorite, the performance strikes just the right tone of playful reverence.
On the densely shifting moves on “Ask Me Now,” harmonica player Grégoire Maret guests with support from Tom Peterson and Tom Luer’s spooky bass clarinet duo. The unusual instrumentation helps to push the languid stroll into another world. Two tunes embrace the footwork essential to Monk’s greatest ideas. Beasley envisions a soft-shoe routine for a bouncing “Gallop’s Gallop.” “Little Rootie Tootie” picks up a partner, embracing the cha-cha amid the funky refrains and growling support of the brass. The band closes out with “Coming on the Hudson,” making deliberate steps amid the arrangements delicate flourishes and steady push from the endlessly creative drummer Terreon Gully.
As the name of the album implies, this is only the beginning for Beasley’s large-scale exploration of the High Priest of Bebop. The band’s introduction is an undeniable statement from a great new voice in big band arranging and a testament to the timelessness of Monk’s music.
“We all know that Monk’s music is strong on his own,” says Beasley. “What’s even more amazing is how much room there is to keep his music living. The songs are a living and breathing organism. It can keep changing with the times. Maybe we’re even catching up to his time.”
My best of Jazz List for 2016:
Another year has passed and many would say 2016 was a very tough year for music, especially with the loss of so many influential musicians this past year. The music has always been remarkably resilient and this year is no exception, with many fine new artists having fabulous debut albums
Most important, he hires the best band possible. “You have to hire people that have experience; you can’t hire people that are going to be prima donnas on the road,” John Beasley says. “So lesson number one in being an MD: Hire people you know who are totally professional and will have your back.”
The Kind World podcast from WBUR is sure to make your day a little brighter. The podcast tells stories about people who have been affected in a positive way by others. John Beasley orchestrates a 15-piece big band of Los Angeles’s finest jazz musicians. MONK’estra, Vol. 1 is, as the man himself might say, a gas.
There is so much hep stuff happening in these new big band arrangements of tunes by Thelonious Monk that I was transported to another realm, one where the car seems capable of driving itself.
Keyboard Magazine's 2016 Top 10 Music Lists featuring Mack Avenue artists John Beasley and Yellowjackets. Our hope is that the releases below will lead you to artists you haven't heard (or remind you of some you may have missed or forgotten).
Host Bonnie Johnson continues her "Sounds of Summer" series with pianist, composer, and arranger John Beasley about his new release MONK’estra, Volume 1 (Mack Avenue Records). The GRAMMY® and Emmy Award-nominated bandleader will take his 15-piece big band out on a European tour in anticipation of Thelonious Monk's imminent centennial in 2017.
John Beasley’s MONK’estra performed their empathetic, swinging and sometimes hiphop-tinged revisions of Thelonious Monk tunes at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Lincoln Centre on Thursday night, in front of a window with a view of Trump Tower. And, as Beasley reminded us, Monk himself had grown up literally only a stone’s throw away, on West 63rd Street.
Grammy-nominated jazz musician John Beasley, who has collaborated with many famous artists such as Miles Davis, Sergio Mendes, Fourplay, Al Jearreau, Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand and James Brown, was invited as the main guest of the festival and will lead five jazz sessions during the event.
On Monk’estra Vol. 1 (Mack Avenue), L.A. keyboardist-composer-arranger John Beasley brings that same kind of boundless energy and fresh vision to the music of Thelonious Monk.
Jazz pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader John Beasley began his career in the early 1980s, around the time jazz’s Young Men in Suits proclaimed that bebop was the one true way of life. They spoke solemnly about “keeping the flame,” “honoring the tradition” and other such homilies. Record companies, clubs and festivals got out their checkbooks and rewarded these young firebrands, many of whom would have been rated as just OK in the eras they sought to reconstitute.
"Last year, Justo Almario played saxophone with pianist and composer John Beasley and his big band on the album “MONK’estra, Vol. 1,” which is currently nominated for a 2017 Grammy Award in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album category."