Writing music reviews is always fun. Not just for the music, which I'll get to shortly, but also for the press releases that come with the album. They usually mean well, but sometimes the copy can appear to be a bit pretentious. That unintentional aspect of it can be cringe-worthy, but I'd be lying if I said that some of it didn't make me chuckle.
Cue the ASA Trio from Iceland. They are guitarist Andres Thor, organist Agnar Magnusson and drummer Scott McLemore. I'm always excited to discover new music, and this is no exception. I’m reviewing their debut album "ASA Trio Plays the Music of Thelonious Monk" (Apple Lossless Digital).
I'm a huge Monk fan, so hearing his compositions in a trio setting that includes an organ and a guitar would be fresh. I envisioned Monk standards with Grant Green and Jimmy Smith at the helm, but I quickly got those thoughts out of my head. It would be unfair to the ASA Trio. They aren't those men and vice versa.
Comparing "new" musicians to the ones that have gone before them is a disservice to everyone involved. Besides, those can be big shoes to fill. At least I thought so. That is, until I read the first sentence of the ASA Trio's press release:
Well, that got my attention! I suppose that I wasn't so far off when I envisioned Jimmy Smith and Grant Green playing Monk songs after all. The members of the ASA Trio have confidence in spades, that's for sure. Let's see how the music measures up.
The album starts off with "Bemsha Swing", and they nailed it. The playing by Andres Thor in particular is impressive. All around, it’s a great opener. They tackle "San Francisco Holiday" next, and they do it with finesse. They handle all of the remaining tracks in much the same manner. The standouts to me are "Bemsha Swing", "Criss Cross" and one of my favorite Monk tunes "Green Chimneys".
Usually when musicians pay homage to Monk, they tend to remake his most popular tunes like ''Round Midnight'", "Ruby, My Dear", "Epistrophy", and "Well, You Needn't". Kudos to the ASA Trio for thinking outside the box. They didn't ignore Monk's more popular songs entirely, of course. "Straight, No Chaser" and the previously mentioned "Bemsha Swing" are included in the nine tracks on the album. I think they strike a balance between Monk's popular standards and his other equally stellar compositions.
Curiously, four of the nine tracks are from Monk's album "Underground". While it is a great album, I'm not so sure if selecting nearly half of the songs from one album alone is a judicious way to pay homage to someone as prolific as Monk. I would have preferred it if they had spread out their selections a bit more. Ultimately, this is only a small quibble. They have every right to choose what songs they wish to cover.
The ASA Trio should definitely be on your radar.
They can clearly swing. They offered a fresh take on Monk compositions that anyone can enjoy. I certainly did. That being said, I think the creative legacy of the trios led by Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Smith and Tony Williams can rest easy. They have nothing to worry about. Nevertheless, it's a solid album. I fully recommend it if you're a fan of jazz trios that incorporate the organ and guitar.
Versions available: You can order the CD or download the album via their bandcamp website. The download includes options for higher resolution files like FLAC and Apple Lossless. I can confirm that the Apple Lossless version sounds wonderful in terms of fidelity.