Eric Reed has recorded nine albums with the avenging traditionalist Wynton Marsalis, a few more with Wynton's other like-minded sidemen, and has taught the music of Monk in the New York public schools for two years in the late 90's. So you know he's neither going to parrot nor parody Monk's unimpeachable canon. But tackling Monk over the course of an entire record is still a formidable litmus test on a pianist's ability to synergize integrity and imagination — which makes Reed's thoroughgoing panache on The Dancing Monk a heartening triumph.
Working in a trio with bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer McClenty Hunter, Reed is comfortable being more sumptuous than Monk's classically impassive, spare approach, often clustering and extending his single-note runs. But he retains the unique structure — the wry melodies and incisive, feint-and-probe rhythms — of Monk's compositions. When the pace is accelerated, it is often in service of a more robust swing, as on "Eronel" and "Pannonica." But it's telling that the three longest cuts are slower and more ballad-oriented — Reed wants time and space enough on the canvas to get it right. His treatment of "Ruby My Dear" is an excellent example of how an homage can succeed: The tone and sentiment acknowledge Monk's exacting nuance, but the patient improvisations are Reed's own contribution.
The lone original, Reed's "The Dancing Monk," is almost too beholden to Monk's compositional precepts. The tempo, the key changes, the way an aside to the melody becomes integral to it, and then refractive, all reflect great scholarship on Reed's part, but so much so that Hunter's spirited solo provides a welcome respite. Saving two of Monk's more iconic songs for last, Reed loosens the reins a bit, going sight-seeing — or, better put, phrase-feeling — with ivory quips, quotes and, inevitably, nicely milked late-night ambiance on "'Round Midnight." The closer, "Blue Monk," is buoyant and adventurous, with some two-handed chords and a treatment of the sturdy melodic refrain akin to shaking out a rug during spring cleaning. It feels like an encore, a bonus for band and audience alike after a job well done.