Local piano-less trio Plays Monk shouldn't be taken literally; in this context "play" means "play off" rather than "play the notes," since bassist Devin Hoff, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and drummer Scott Amendola are less concerned with reproducing Monk's oeuvre than with inhabiting his mind-set. The idea, apparently, is to take everything that made Monk humorous and unpredictable — the wrong notes, altered changes, train whistle sounds, syncopated rhythms, and autistic-looking dance moves — and try to capture the groove, albeit with a completely different setup.
And granted, the trio's instrumentation is pretty unorthodox, since Plays Monk has a woodwind playing those clankety stride piano lines. But Goldberg isn't all squiggly phrases and well-oiled vibrato: On "Work" and "Four in One," his quickly unspooling melodies sometimes pause mid-sentence, or end with a high-pitched squawk. Besides, the group's egalitarian structure has Goldberg constantly yielding to Hoff and Amendola, whose loose, shifting rhythms are often the best part of a song — the bass and drum carry on a furtive conversation during "Little Rootie Tootie" that completely transforms the tune. Best of all, these guys work so well in unison that they're able to dispense with the head-verse-head structure and just jam on each other's ideas. On "Green Chimneys," they find that weird, dissonant "it" factor that eluded guitarist Charlie Hunter. What seems risky at first glance actually yields wonderful results, thanks to a lot of imagination and careful listening. Monk would have approved.
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