I'm not a big fan of Thelonious Monk tribute albums. Heck, I'm not even keen on other musicians including his songs on their albums. No matter how accomplished the artist, Monk's music played by others always feels like those paint-by-the-numbers coloring books from when I was a kid. Only Monk can bring the soul and turmoil to his music credibly. It's a highly personal sound that requires his hand, his breathing and his mood. Everything else feels like a nice try. [Photo above of Mike Neer courtesy of Mike Neer]
As with any rule, there are exceptions. In 2012, I praised Greg Lewis's Organ Monk: Uwo in the Black—an album featuring Greg Lewis on Hammond organ backed by Reginald Woods (ts), Ron Jackson (g) and Nasheet Waits (d). It's a completely out-of-sight album that takes Monk's music to another galaxy of excitement. [Photo of Thelonious Monk courtesy of Herb Snitzer]
Now I want to hip you to another Monk tribute album that has blown my mind. It's Mike Neer's Steelonious, which was just released a couple of weeks ago. Neer plays lap steel guitar and he's backed by Matt King (p,org), Andrew Hall (b), Diego Voglino (d,perc) and Tom Beckham (vib, on tracks 4 and 9).
The beautiful thing about this album is that Neer retains a distinctly Western feel on the lap steel guitar but is completely immersed in the jazz idiom, along with King, who is extraordinary here on piano. On songs like 'Round Midnight, Neer even brings a feel akin to Santo & Johnny's 1959 hit Sleep Walk. So inventive and smart. Best of all, Neer's album feels contemporary, thanks to his exceptional arrangements.
What I love about Steelonious is how much Neer adores and gets Monk's music. He pulls every nuance and sensual feel out of the Monk works and grafts them onto the lap steel guitar, adding to Monk's already hypnotic and haunting sound, not merely mirroring it.
This album is so good that each time I tried to isolate the best songs to write about, I came to the conclusion that such singling out tracks was impossible. There are 12 Monk songs on this album and every one of them is better than the last. If I were forced to point to three, they would be 'Round Midnight, Bemsha Swing and Ask Me Now.
Neer clearly knows his music—from swing of Alvino Rey in the 1940s and the country and western players of the early 1950s to the rockabilly greats mid-decade, surf-rock players of the late 1950s and the Nashville greats of the 1950s and '60s. Neer's own heroes include Sol Hoʻopiʻi (above) and Speedy West.
What's even more surprising is how Neer takes the country feel and swings it under Monk's compositions without ever upending the pianist's original intent or feel. Like John Scofield's new jazz-country fusion album, Country for Old Men, reviewed in an earlier post, Steelonious travels in the other direction—from country to jazz—and the results are just as exciting.
Jazz isn't dead. You just have to look a little harder to find the real excitement and innovation. As Neer (and Sco) proves, jazz is just over that hill yonder.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Mike Neer's Steelonious here.
JazzWax clips: Here's 'Round Midnight...
And here's Bemsha Swing...