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Eric Reed with the KJO at the Square Room

North Carolina native Thelonious Monk died 30 years ago after a premature retirement due to mental illness. He played piano in a style that was his own, offbeat in several literal and figurative senses of the term. He's written about today than he was during his lifetime, and Eric Reed, perhaps the premiere interpreter of the work of the legendary Thelonious Monk--his new record is called The Baddest Monk--flew in from Los Angeles, where he'd performed the night before, to give a quick lecture at UT and play to a packed house at the Square Room.

For more than two hours Reed and the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, led by trumpeter Vance Thompson, kept the interest of an audience that, on average, may have had a decade or two on the 42-year-old Reed. I looked around; you rarely see that many people paying so close attention.
 
Reed, affable and suave, was gracious with the audience and with the KJO, which he frequently applauded. He said he rarely plays with a big band, which isn't surprising, considering that Monk's work is most associated with very small combos, when the groundbreaking pianist allowed an accompanist to participate at all. It's a challenge, because Monk's music is so idiosyncratic and lonesome, and the message of any Big Band seems to be c'mon, everybody, it's a party, you're not alone, and if that sound's too jagged for you, we can smooth this out a little, just watch.
 
Meanwhile Monk himself keeps saying, You're alone. Like me a little bit maybe, but alone, and love is disappointing, and life is dissonant. It has sharp edges that'll hurt you. And the trombones come in and smooth it all out and say, aw, get off it, man, it's a party, it's a smooth, swingin' party.

They do have one thing in common. Monk's "Rhythm-a-Ning" is one of the KJO's old theme tunes, and it appears on Eric Reed's new album. Monday night they played it twice, two different versions.
 
The horns were all ably arranged, harmonious and adept, and that's not something anybody can do, especially with just half an hour of rehearsal with a guy whose flight arrived around noon. But some Monk fans who prefer his message pure might have been most grateful for the long breaks, when it was just Eric Reed, playing the role of Monk, and Rusty Holloway on bass and Keith Brown on drums, guys who often play in small combos, with occasionally with a sax or trumpet (Thompson himself was a standout), venturing in from the waiting ranks of the KJO. Thompson made a surprise confession, toward the end of the show; due to the shifty schedules, and to Reed's commitment to teach at UT, they performed without a proper rehearsal. "If you ever want to know what a KJO rehearsal sounds like," Thompson quipped, "This is it."

Almost all the evening was pure Monk, with classics like "Straight, No Chaser" and "Little Rootie Tootie." At one point just after the intermission, Thompson called out local piano hero Donald Brown, who many of us hadn't noticed was standing quietly in the back of the room, as he introduced the only non-Monk composition of the evening, Brown's homage, "Waltz for Monk." Brown rarely plays it, and is said to consider it his least-favorite composition. "If you didn't like it, you shouldn't have written it," Thompson said, grinning, as Reed, who seems to respect this elder, launched into his own rendition of it, with the band. The audience response suggested maybe Donald should like it better than he does.

The evening's most ethereal moments were when it was just Mr. Eric Reed playing the grand piano by himself, in a big suddenly dark room under a single spot: "Round Midnight" and, later, for an encore, "Ruby, My Dear," two of the greatest odes to melancholy ever written. In a quiet string quartet in a room with several hundred people, you expect someone to cough. When Reed played, no one coughed.
 
Monk, and Reed's, piano playing sounds like bluebirds flying around the notes, in patterns hinted at but unexplainable. Reed, a virtuoso player, plays Monk, but doesn't impersonate him. In films, Monk always seemed possessed, as if playing piano were a compulsion, something he didn't choose to do, but had to. Reed is relaxed, grinning, personable. He seems to enjoy this music perhaps more than Monk did.

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