Matt Lavelle/John Pietaro

Harmolodic Monk
Unseen Rain UR 9953

By Ken Waxman

Searching for an individual method with which to frame 10 familiar Thelonious Monk standards, Matt Lavelle and John Pietaro strip the tunes down to their essence(s), before enhancing the themes with their multi-instrumental skills. Still in part Monk resembles a rote Hollywood thriller. It builds up slowly to pounding excitement and eventually reinvigorates the tunes so that the program finishes strongly. But like many action pics, it loses focus and sags in the middle.

Progressive activists as well as members in good standing of NYC’s free music underground, Lavelle, who plays cornet, flugelhorn and alto clarinet here, plus Pietaro who uses vibraphone, bodhrán (frame drum), congas and all manner of percussion, aim to undercover the folkloric and humanist underpinning of Monk’s music via Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic strategies. Theories aside, these sparse treatments lack the distinctive voicing Monk was able to give to his small group performances to bolster the sound to aural Technicolor. But to make up for that, this duo’s symbolic black & white treatments sharpen the aural images as if they were scenes in a classic ‘40s Film Noir.

Note the way in which near-standards such as “Pannonica” and “Green Chimneys” are handled. On the first Lavelle outlines high-pitched theme variants on clarinet, followed by Pietaro bringing out the un-prepossessing beauty of the head with shimmering vibes, until both players tease the variations still further. “Green Chimneys” is first invested with a marching-band-like rhythm which Monk never imagined, including bass-drum pops and chiming bells, until cornet flutter tonguing, clanging cymbals and press rolls double the excitement quotient.

Bolstering the too listless middle section back to the staccato drama of the CD’s colorful opening sequences are the later “Blue Monk” and the climatic “Monk’s Mood”. Backed by kettle drum strokes of Herculean proportions on the latter, Lavelle demonstrates musical role playing of Lon Chaney proportions. Moving between clarinet and cornet, he smears and spits out personalized variations from each as if taking different roles in sequence, harmonizes each instrument’s output at points, and finally moves each from foreground to background and vice versa. The perfect finale foreshadowing “Blue Monk” captures the duo’s versatility, reinterpreting the melody with subtle bell clangs and echoing grace notes so that its rhythmic heft is as obvious as its balladic underpinning.

Harmolodic Monk is a noteworthy session as much for what it attempts as for how much it succeeds. It confirms the players’ skills as it offers a new variant of Monk’s music.

Tracks: Epistrophy; Pannonica; Green Chimneys; Round Midnight; Crepecule With Nellie; Ruby My Dear; Let’s Cool One; Blue Monk; Monk’s Mood; In Walked Bud

Personnel: Matt Lavelle: cornet, flugelhorn, alto clarinet; John Pietaro: vibraphone, bodhrán, congas, percussion

—For The New York City Jazz Record June 2015