has shared stages with some of the most important names in jazz during
his three-decade career. From his days as a member of Freddie Hubbard's
quintet and one of Miles Davis' last touring bands to his role as Music
Director for Jazz Day galas for the Thelonious Monk Institute, Beasley
has had a first-hand involvement with the genre's never-ending
Monk is a Mount Rushmore figure in the creation of modern jazz. As the
centennial of his birth rapidly approaches, Beasley--pianist, conductor
and arranger--has grappled with the complex composer's legacy with his
versatile big band riffing on the wit and unmistakable architecture of
the Monk songbook with irrepressible energy and swinging abandon on presentsMONK'estra, Volume 1, available August 19 on Mack Avenue Records.
The album and band have
its roots in a commission from Los Angeles's Luckman Jazz Orchestra.
When the gig was over, Beasley felt inspired to search deeper and
continued to write more arrangements long after the performance,
eventually assembling some of the finest musicians in Los Angeles to
bring the charts to life in a musician's union rehearsal room.
enough arrangements and developing a signature feel, he took the band
public at Los Angeles's jazz incubator, the Blue Whale, to sold-out
crowds. With a fifteen-piece ensemble, which includes first-call horns
like Bob Sheppard, Bijon Watson, Rashawn Ross,
Beasley conducted the band with an improviser's eye--free flowing and
open to solos that add to the narrative. Since that casual debut in
2013, the band has become a fixture on the scene, performing at Disney
Hall, Jazz Standard, Ford Amphitheatre, SFJAZZ twice and most recently
at the Playboy Jazz Festival held at the world famous Hollywood Bowl.
Photo Credit: Raj Naik
don't play a lot of piano in the band," Beasley says about his role.
"The band is my piano. It gives me the opportunity to change the music
on the spot by conducting. I can cut everybody out and have myself play
or I could change the order of the solos. Whoever is hot that night, I
can keep throwing it their way."
a lens influenced by Thad Jones, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock and Aaron
Copland, Beasley found a compositional openness in Monk's music that
encouraged him to discover the right combination of freedom and
restraint, coaxing the very best from the ensemble.
Heath once told me that all the good stuff is already built into Monk.
The tunes are built to swing. The sound he got out of the piano, the way
he played the piano, the voicings he used, the wild intervals. His
groove was so strong." And Beasley is no stranger to strong grooves.
"The sign of a great composer--like Gershwin, Ellington, Wayne Shorter,
or Stevie Wonder--is that you can play their tunes at any tempo and
change the structure if you like. Bach sounds incredible at any tempo.
So does Monk. His tunes are a living and breathing organism."
track "Epistrophy" was Beasley's first attempt at a large-scale Monk
arrangement and he tackles the angular tune with an elongated sense of
time, controlling each breath with unwavering patience. Vibraphonist Gary Burton shines during a shimmering guest spot. "What a virtuoso," says Beasley. "One take, boom! He just nailed it."
pulls from two very different worlds for "Skippy" simultaneously
evoking the Jaco Pastorius and Jimmie Lunceford big bands. Sheppard is
in top form on the twisting chart, unfurling a crisp soprano saxophone
over the controlled chaos of riffs and handclaps. Beasley infuses a
literal electricity for "Oska T" and a trio version of "'Round Midnight." The band conjures a sinister swagger, generating a buzzing hive for trumpeters Gabriel Johnson and Brian Swartz to cut loose while the trio embraces the pliability of Monk's greatest known composition with a contemporary bend.
a visit to New Orleans, Beasley was inspired to fuse multiple Monk
riffs to create "Monk's Processional," a brief second-line celebration
imbued with southern charm and spirit. A crowd favorite, the performance
strikes just the right tone of playful reverence.
On the densely shifting moves on "Ask Me Now," harmonica player Grégoire Maret guests with support from Tom Peterson and Tom Luer's
spooky bass clarinet duo. The unusual instrumentation helps to push the
languid stroll into another world. Two tunes embrace the footwork
essential to Monk's greatest ideas. Beasley envisions a soft-shoe
routine for a bouncing "Gallop's Gallop." "Little Rootie Tootie" picks
up a partner, embracing the cha-cha amid the funky refrains and growling
support of the brass. The band closes out with "Coming on the Hudson,"
making deliberate steps amid the arrangements delicate flourishes and
steady push from the endlessly creative drummer Terreon Gully.
the name of the album implies, this is only the beginning for Beasley's
large-scale exploration of the High Priest of Bebop. The band's
introduction is an undeniable statement from a great new voice in big
band arranging and a testament to the timelessness of Monk's music.
all know that Monk's music is strong on his own," says Beasley. "What's
even more amazing is how much room there is to keep his music alive.
The songs are a living and breathing organism. It can keep changing with
the times. Maybe we're even catching up to his time."
Photo Credit: Raj Naik
About John Beasley:
in Louisiana, Beasley started writing arrangements in junior high
school, which sparked the attention of Jimmy Lyons--the founder of the
Monterey Jazz Festival--who recommended him for a scholarship at the
Stan Kenton summer jazz camp. The pianist cut his teeth with Miles Davis
and Freddie Hubbard in the 1980s and has since performed and recorded
with a who's who of artists including James Brown, Marcus Miller, Chaka
Khan, Christian McBride, Steely Dan, Dianne Reeves, Sergio Mendes, Carly
Simon, John Patitucci, Al Jarreau, Kelly Clarkson, George Duke, John
Legend, Chick Corea, Destiny's Child and Queen Latifah, among others.
in Hollywood, Beasley juggled a touring musician's schedule while
working in studios composing for award-winning television sitcoms and
commercials including Cheers, Family Ties, Star Trek and Fame,
to name a few. He has worked with multiple Oscar-nominated film
composer Thomas Newman for three decades on credits including James Bond
Spectre and Skyfall, Get On Up: James Brown, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel I & II, Finding Nemo & Finding Dory, Wall-E, Shawshank Redemption and more.
While touring with Miles Davis, Beasley was inspired to make his first of eleven recordings, Cauldron--which was produced by Walter Becker of Steely Dan-and went on to earn a GRAMMY® Award-nomination for his 2011 release Positootly.
He has since served as musical director for the Monk Institute's gala
concerts since 2011, guiding legends and the next generation of jazz
greats through all-star tributes to Quincy Jones, Bill Clinton, George
Duke and Aretha Franklin. He has also served this role for International
Jazz Day since 2012, notably at the White House's 2016 blowout bash.
Under the global eye, he seamlessly shaped the televised concert
featuring Aretha Franklin, Wayne Shorter, Joey Alexander and Sting
through a night of swing and celebration. Since 2005, Beasley has worked
as Lead Arranger for American Idol until its final season in
2016, and ushered the twelve female finalists of 2005 (including Carrie
Underwood) by coaching and rehearsing them as well as selecting and