There was a size-able, enthusiastic crowd waiting for the Monk Liberation Front as they took to the Beacon’s foyer stage on Sunday. That was despite the best efforts of cyber-gremlins on the booking site erroneously declaring the gig sold out, for a day or so in advance. Those lucky enough to be there were even more enthusiastic by the end of an irrepressibly, rumbunctious, swerve through the music of Thelonious Monk. It was, as my neighbour in the stalls declared at the end, just joyful.
The quartet of Tony Kofi on alto, Jonathan Gee donning the sacred headgear at the piano, Ben Hazleton on bass and Rod Youngs have been playing this music for a long time. It showed in the ease with which they inhabited the music. Monk’s tunes are so distinctive and, as Kofi reminded us, many of been around since the 1940s. The band played them with feel and tempo as Monk might have performed them, but the freshness and energy was almost startling.
There was a fidelity in the interpretation, but occasional twisting of a form or effortless injection of rhythmic jousting spiced things up. They started by stitching together Thelonius and Brilliant Corners, the crackle and fizz of solos laying down a marker of what was to come. The interaction of Gee, Hazleton and Youngs was thrilling. Gee maintained a stream of stabs and percussive episodes from the piano carried through accompaniment and solos, while Youngs, a grin of pleasure flickering, complemented, anticipated hits and kicks or choosing just the right moments to settle into an understated, surging pulse. On Trinkle Tinkle Gee’s clusters of chords and fills, hectored and butted against Kofi who responded with a blistering solo, then the pianist seemed to just sink into the pulse, swinging infectiously and patiently building a dazzling solo.
They visited ballads, Kofi sliding, slurring and swooning into a glowing version of Ask Me Now, played the sleaziest heavy swing on Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are, injected Skippy with frenetic energy. Monk’s angular tunes are invariably memorable and hum-able. Some how the band contrived to make the infectious, rhythmic content equally memorable. Kofi, taking a breather during Skippy, couldn’t stop himself dancing at the back of the stage. They were having fun.
Monk Liberation Front were on blistering form and it was joyful to be there.