The brilliant German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach opens his new album Schlippenbach Plays Monk (Intakt) with a glassy, introspective free improvisation called "Reverence." Schlippenbach enhances the selection of Thelonious Monk compositions with a series of brief improvised interludes and an epilogue that tie together or link his interpretations (if not let us hear his musical thinking between interpretations), while "Reverence" seems to set the tone from the outset. One might not expect a musician of Schlippenbach's vaunted stature—he's a key architect of and dominant presence in the history of European free jazz—and radical musicality to genuflect before another pianist, but Monk has long been a touchstone for his music; unlike latter waves of European free jazz players, this pianist was rooted in the music's traditional roots, especially bebop.
The new record isn't the first time Schlippenbach has saluted Monk. In 2007 he famously released a three-CD set called Monk's Casino, where, joined by the powerful German quartet Die Enttäuschung, he recorded all 68 extant Monk tunes—some simply as terse theme statements, others as freewheeling departures. (I was fortunate enough to have witnessed the group's debut performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 2002, where they played all 68 pieces over the course of three dynamic sets.) On this new outing the pianist isn't concerned with comprehensiveness or only the most indelible tunes; he tackles warhorses like "Epistrophy" and "Reflections," but he also performs "Coming on the Hudson" and "Played Twice." And despite the name of the opening piece, Schlippenbach doesn't treat the music conservatively.
As the album unfolds it becomes obvious that Schlippenbach has lived most of his life with this music, something vividly demonstrated by two very different takes on "Introspection" that follow one another. The first version veers closer to the feel and melodic shapes of the recordings made by Monk himself, with the tart, pensive melody interrupted by all manner of jagged, sidelong asides and a rhythmically knotted flow, while the second take drifts a bit, bringing resonance to the piece's title—he feels lost in thought at moments. A lengthy reading of "Brilliant Corners" roams through numerous shifts in tempo, mood, and attack, with touches of stride inflecting the performance (a la Monk himself), while "Locomotive" plays up the trudging feel, with the piece pushing onward stolidly, reflecting not the power of the titular engine, but it's numb drive.
The treatments don't swing like they did when the composer played them, but why should they? If we want versions exactly like the originals, then why not go straight to the source? That stuff is readily available. Instead these performances naturally filter Schlippenbach's distinctly European sensibilities, which impart the gravitas of his classical training and his harmonic freedom. The cover art plays off of the design of the 1954 album Monk. Below you can listen to his somewhat mournful spin on "Pannonica."