Since the passing of Steve Lacy in 2004, no one’s been able to blend an intimate knowledge of the music of Thelonious Monk with dedication and confident creativity like Eric Reed. The Baddest Monk takes up almost literally where last year’s The Dancing Monk left off, with Reed retaining the more carefree, florid approach he deployed on Dancing‘s final track, transforming the opener on Baddest, the “Rhythm-A-Ning,” into an immediate highlight. The track demonstrates how Reed chooses to revel in the music rather than be cowed by the legacy of Monk, to season Monk’s classic melody and rhythm with a dollop of funk that nods to his Horace Silver influence while remaining thoroughly Reed — and Monk. The flair continues with Reed’s reharmonizing and slight deconstruction of “Epistrophy,” the zip and caffeination of “Green Chimneys,” the Spanish tinge gently applied to the ballad, “Monk’s Mood,” and the odd 7/4 time-signature on “Bright Mississippi.”
Reed is joined by saxophonist Seamus Blake and trumpeter Etienne Charles on four cuts (the lead two, 7 and 8), performs solo on his own title composition (which seems only tenuously connected to Monk) and is joined by vocalist Jose James on a straightforwardly soulful “Round Midnight,” the only duplication with the material on The Dancing Monk. Otherwise, he plays with the disc’s core trio with bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Henry Cole, heard to best advantage on a fabulously spry ensemble reading of “Evidence.” In addition to “The Baddest Monk,” the blues-drenched “Monk Beurre Rouge” is a Reed original.
Reed departed from all his previous projects by performing with musicians with whom, except for Blake, he hadn’t worked with much before. As he put it in the liner notes, the idea was to create something “untamed.” While The Baddest Monk could hardly be described as wild and woolly, it lets imaginations dance during the course of this music, which is consonant with Monk inimitable muse.