I’ve got friends who are always on the trail of the new and I’ve been accused of it myself but sometimes I get an itch that’ll only be scratched by a shot of cortisone. Wait, that’s not right. Classicism. A shot of classicism. And I scratched that itch pretty successfully on Wednesday January 8 at Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza seeing Mark Flugge’s Quartet do two sets of Thelonious Monk tunes (and one original very heavily inspired by Monk).
Monk might be my favorite short-form composer ever and Flugge’s time in academia as well as paying his dues playing to a handful of people in every conceivable context (along with some huge festival gigs) made him probably the perfect keys player in town to tackle a whole Monk night. And he assembled a crack quartet of Dave DeWitt on bass, Aaron Scott on drums, and Randy Mather on tenor.
Everything was played in the spirit of the original. It’s never an easy task to get out of your own way and channel the composer’s intent but they did it again and again. The second tune, “Pannonica”, was the most gorgeous I’ve ever heard it played live – a ballad about beauty flowering into knives. A Burroughsian cutup of every love song half-remembered from your past, sly quoting given the full weight of finding an old piece of clothing that still smells like that person you tried to put out of your mind and with the suspense of a lump in your throat and your blood gone cold. All given the appropriate weight and lightness, Flugge’s spiky piano and DeWitt’s shadow melody limned by Scott’s cymbal work, the moment when Mather’s molten saxophone rises out of the mist is the reason I go out on a weeknight.
The other ballad, “Ask Me Now”, was given a similarly lush reading, letting the rhythm section stretch and breathe and some of Mather’s finest melodic invention. But the band seemed most engaged and together on the more uptempo numbers. “Little Rootie Tootie” had a momentum not unlike R&B shouters of the era of its composition, Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris, even echoing back to Fats Waller and James P Johnson on a righteous solo by Flugge; all the bounding joy and chaos of a child showed up here, appropriately for a piece dedicated to Monk’s son. “Rhythm-a-ning” was played with an uncanny fire, particularly from Scott and Flugge trading choruses, finding some new slivers of light in the cracking standard. But for the faster tunes, my favorite was the rarity “Work” played as a trio like Monk recorded it, and the shadows of the original rhythm section Percy Heath and Art Blakey (has there ever been a better bass and drum duo behind a piano?) lit a fire under all three, as close as this show got to ecstatic abandon.
Summing up, a damn fine night that cleared my head and has me ready and excited for whatever show I see next. Setting the tone for another good year of live music. And I know I’ve said it before but Natalie’s might be the perfect venue for any show with a listening room vibe. They’ve taken the City Winery model and infused it with a dose of Midwestern aw-shucks charm, good cocktails and beer, and damn fine food and made a place any musician I’ve talked to loves to play and cultivated a healthy audience excited to go there. As evidenced by a sold out jazz show on a Wednesday night.