For jazz lovers, there are many phrases that come to mind upon hearing the name Thelonious Monk — musical giant, trailblazing pianist, one-of-a-kind composer. "Latin jazz" is probably not one them. Yet that's exactly the term the Charleston Jazz Orchestra is applying to their Monk, No Chaser Latin night this weekend.
CJO Artistic Director and Conductor Charlton Singleton says the title is a nod to Monk's classic tune "Straight, No Chaser," and the show kicks off the organization's 2015-16 season. Over two performances at the Charleston Music Hall, the CJO will take classic compositions by the legendary pianist and composer out dancing.
"Thelonious Monk was, as we all know, one of the greatest jazz musicians who's ever lived," Singleton says. "Behind Duke Ellington, he is the most-recorded jazz composer, even though he didn't write a lot of tunes. Thelonious was a genius when it came to theory. Some of the voicings that he used, people still don't really understand them today. That's the genius of him."
And Singleton says that it's that genius, along with the ingenuity of the CJO's arrangers, which will be on display.
"It's not necessarily playing Monk songs that are Latin. We're going to create the Latin style for these tunes," explains Singleton. "We're going to take a lot of his popular songs and some of his lesser known ones, and we are going to arrange all of these songs so that they fit the Latin Night theme. So we can play his song 'Criss-Cross' and arrange it to sound like a salsa, a cha-cha, or a bolero."
Thelonious Monk's catalog, which also contains classics like "Ruby, My Dear," "Well, You Needn't," "Misterioso," "Epistrophy," and "Crepuscle With Nellie," has certain songs that were easier for the CJO to re-arrange than others, but Singleton says he was fortunate enough to be able to rely on an array of talented arrangers to re-envision the songs. "We have about 15 different arrangers locally who have contributed to the music library that we've built up," says Singleton. "I can call on a number of people in town and say, 'I need an arrangement that's never been heard before on this familiar song. Can you do that?' And they come up with it and it's awesome." For instance, "Round Midnight" got a bossa nova spin from arranger and CJO saxophonist Jack Pettit while Charlton himself arranged "Straight, No Chaser" into a salsa.
Singleton says that the CJO's Latin Night has been one of their most popular performances. Each year the musicians try to give their audience something a little different. "Last year we did 'Buena Vista,' where we focused on the Cuban side of Latin jazz," says Singleton. "One year we had trumpeter and composer Etienne Charles from Trinidad, so we did more a Caribbean/calypso kind of thing, where we focused on the similarities between Latin jazz and the Lowcountry Gullah tradition that we have."
Part of the excitement for Singleton is the idea of seeing the CJO's loyal audience get into the show, whether they know Monk's music or not. "We're going to get everybody dancing like we usually do," he says. "The good part about it is that we have a number of people in our audience who are very familiar with Monk's tunes, so they'll get it when we play it a new way. And there are others who might not be familiar, but know that we're going to be playing it in a different way. We've done performances in the past where we let everybody know that you may know the song one way, but you've never heard it this way because it was arranged by someone locally who had a different take on it. You will experience the arranger putting their own spin on it."