John Beasley only took forty years to be an overnight success—when his big band MONK’estra started gathering press and Grammy nominations, his name (and background) may have been unfamiliar to a lot of music fans, but he goes way back! When he was a teenager, he was digging the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Band and won an arranging scholarship to a Stan Kenton Band Camp. He went pro right out of high school and turned down a Juilliard scholarship (on oboe) to learn on the bandstand in L.A. Although proficient on a number of other instruments, he paid his dues as pianist with Sergio Mendes, Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis—you can hear him on Davis’ posthumously released recording Heard Around the World and a bootleg of a Miles 1989 US tour. He worked as arranger, producer and musical director for a wide variety of artists—Steely Dan (Walter Becker produced Beasley’s debut album), Dianne Reeves, his boyhood friend John Pattitucci, Kip Hanrahan—and was eventually tapped to be musical director of the Herbie Hancock Institute organizing and directing International Jazz Day Concerts, including the 2016 Obama White House Gala which was featured in a Emmy-nominated broadcast. When you add in the studio session work for projects from Cheers to Star Trek TNG to James Bond Skyfall, you know this guy’s been around the block!
Even before MONK’estra Beasley was no stranger to Monk’s music, having taken the piano chair in a quartet with Buell Nedlinger and Marty Krystall back in the 80s and returning to different pieces over the decades since. When Beasley started thinking about how to express Monk’s music and concepts through a large ensemble, he was intrigued by all the possibilities. Monk’s music has been interpreted and feted by many people over the years but Beasley’s Monk-derived inspiration goes beyond the compositions to the sense of adventure and fearlessness that Monk brought to his music without losing sight of the structure and logic that Monk injected into all of his work.
Listen to how the Epistrophy theme gradually sneaks up on you from the first MONK’estra recording:
Quite famously, the earliest orchestrations of Monk’s music by Hall Overton for the 1959 Town Hall concert used Monk’s own piano solos as the starting point and they served as blowing vehicles for the great soloists in that band. Beasley brings the whole orchestral palette of sounds to bear on some of the same compositions incorporating innovations of Gil Evans and Thad Jones. But he still leaves room for some great solos, like this version of a tune that Monk first recorded with Gigi Gryce and only returned to once afterwards. Trumpeter and rapper Dontae Winslow stretches out on this hip-hop flavoured Brake’s Sake:
The third MONK’estra recording released last year covers more territory than Monk’s compositions including some of Beasley’s own pieces. One of my faves is this tribute that he did to a film industry colleague in which Beasley’s piano plays a prominent role, Steve-O:
But after Grammy nominations for all three MONK’estra recordings, Beasley won earlier this year for an arrangement of a Miles Davis tune (that’s also been attributed to Charlie Parker) Donna Lee:
John Beasley and MONK’estra is quite simply the state of the art in Big Band musicbut don’t let the academic stuff scare you, this music is a helluva lot of fun!