Pianist Laura Caviani and vocalist Karrin Allyson are best buddies, their lasting friendship forged from an abiding love and talent for jazz.
The two met watching pianist Ahmad Jamal play the Dakota Jazz Club in the late ’80s, back when the venue was located at Bandana Square in St. Paul and each woman was still finding her footing as a musical performer.
Not long afterward, the pair attended a screening of “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser,” a documentary about the legendary bebop pianist. It was Caviani’s first real exposure to Monk and his music.
“Monk pretty much changed my life in music,” Caviani said. “I was raised to play Brahms and Debussy. When I heard Monk, the sky opened up.”
More than a quarter-century later, Caviani is set to unveil her sixth album as a bandleader: a Monk tribute titled “Mysterious Thelonious.” As part of the celebration, she will perform with her trio Saturday at the Hopkins Center for the Arts — and with Allyson, a five-time Grammy nominee, flying in from New York as a special guest star.
It’s hardly Caviani’s first foray into Monk’s glorious catalog. She used to perform an annual Monk concert, usually around his October birthday. (Despite writing fewer than 80 songs, Monk is the second-most-recorded jazz composer, behind only Duke Ellington.) After letting the ritual lapse in recent years, Caviani knew she wanted to do something special in 2017, the centennial of Monk’s birth.
After many years of using various personnel, she asked bassist Chris Bates and drummer Dave Schmalenberger to commit to a stable trio. They performed together for several months before heading into the studio this summer to record “Mysterious Thelonious.”
The disc features a masterful blend of Caviani’s strengths as a mainstream jazz stylist: the chordal complexity, the innate sense of swing, the desire to live up to Monk’s intrepid spirit. Four of the 10 songs appear on Monk’s 1963 live album “Thelonious Monk in Italy,” which Caviani played constantly in the mid-1990s while commuting to Ann Arbor, Mich., for graduate school.
The disc also includes a New Orleans-tinged arrangement of Monk’s “Bright Mississippi” (based on Louis Armstrong’s chord changes for “Sweet Georgia Brown”) by Caviani’s grad school friend and mentor, saxophonist Andrew Bishop.
Freedom and flexibility
Caviani chose Bates and Schmalenberger for their “freedom and flexibility,” strengths they frequently exhibited during the recording process. “We were playing ‘Rhythm-a-ning’ as fast as possible,” remembered Caviani of her sidemen, “and then we tried a slow tempo that was really cool and totally their idea.”
It’s a trio of synergistic skills. “Laura is sort of like Kenny Barron,” Schmalenberger said, referring to a veteran jazz pianist with immaculate taste and touch.
Sometimes Caviani deliberately pushed the envelope, though. She arranged “Monk’s Mood” (originally from Monk’s 1957 album “Thelonious Himself”) in a new meter specifically to take advantage of Bates’ sense of adventure while playing in tandem.
Then there are such moments as Caviani’s version of Monk’s classic “Epistrophy,” which she aptly describes as “Dave takes the first solo and launches a rocket ship to the stars.”
“I have never put anything out like this,” said Caviani of the song.
The lone Caviani original on “Mysterious Thelonious” is titled “Active Measures,” partly based on Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t.” The song was also inspired by a magazine article detailing “all the shenanigans by Russia” in attempting to manipulate the U.S. election, Caviani said. Along with protesting such intrusions, Caviani’s title refers to the music itself.
“I thought, ‘How intense can I make the changes on “Well, You Needn’t” and how dense can I make each measure?’ My goal was to make it hard for myself, based on the augmented scale, so I had to force myself to keep practicing.”
Allyson is sure to add even more spice to the Hopkins show. A superb stylist equally adept at singing lyrics and scat-vocalese, she has performed many Monk tunes on her own discs and even commissioned Caviani to write a Monk medley for her 1996 disc, “Collage.” It doesn’t hurt that Allyson’s four-year Twin Cities stay (1986-90) made her a favorite with local audiences.
The friends plan to perform “Ruby, My Dear,” one of Allyson’s favorite Monk tunes. “I haven’t sung ‘Ruby’ out loud before,” Allyson confessed via e-mail. “In fact I haven’t done several of the songs we’ll be doing.”
As with the album, Caviani hopes the concert strikes a healthy tension between discipline and freedom. “Monk makes you laugh; he lifts you up,” Caviani explained. “To me, he is about freedom in so many ways, including the freedom to play any note with conviction and abandon. He is worth celebrating, especially today in these crazy times.”
Britt Robson is a Minneapolis freelance writer.