Ben Goldberg, Adam Levy, and Smith Dobson: Worry Later
BAG Production Records

Worry Later is hardly the first album-length collection of Thelonious Monk compositions to have found its way into the world, though it's probably the only one to date featuring a guitar-clarinet-and-drums line-up. In this case, guitarist Adam Levy, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and drummer Smith Dobson convened earlier this year on January 2 and 3 to lay down the ten tracks in San Francisco.

It's nice, first off, to see the trio eschew the more familiar Monk material—“‘Round Midnight” the obvious example—for pieces less commonly covered such as “Shuffle Boil,” “San Francisco Holiday (Worry Later),” and “Trinkle Tinkle.” There's also a loose feel to the playing that's not often present where Monk's compositions are concerned; the intricate structure of a piece such as “Brilliant Corners,” for instance, typically induces musicians to hew tightly to Monk's work. But the trio's relatively relaxed approach shows once again how easily his material accommodates itself to different approaches and instrumental configurations. And having only three voices involved on the forty-seven-minute set gives each player lots of room to maneuver.

Monk's melodies are sometimes handled allusively more than voiced straight-on, with the three freely circling around the material and threading Monk's melodies into the framework in teasing manner. In such cases, the composition's identifying details are present as more undercurrent than anything else, with the primary focal point the free-form interaction. The impression quickly forms that the tunes are so comfortably a part of the musicians' life-blood that they were able to approach the sessions with confidence and ease as opposed to trepidation.

The trio's playing style often calls to mind Paul Motian's trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, the key difference obviously being the substitution of clarinet for tenor sax. In fact, there are moments where one could easily mistake Dobson's cymbal splashes and rolls for Motian's (and Levy's guitar twang for Frisell's also, most noticeably during “Shuffle Boil”), but one seemingly hears Dobson channeling Ed Blackwell's spirit, too, in a few places on the recording.

The trio's versions won't challenge Monk's original performances for supremacy—is there a cover treatment that could possibly top Monk's own “Brilliant Corners” with Sonny Rollins (recorded in late 1956)?—but they're a credible collection nonetheless. At the very least, the recording attests to the ongoing vitality of Monk's songbook as an endlessly fertile resource for contemporary jazz musicians to draw upon. And what jazz player wouldn't jump at the chance to tackle swinging tunes like “Criss Cross” or “Little Rootie Tootie”?

June 2014