Dan Ouellette


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Dan Ouellette on John Beasley:

Pianist/bandleader John Beasley is a stalwart jazz figure in the L.A. area as well as increasingly internationally. His big claim to fame in recent years is his 15-piece MONK’estra big band taking free flight in celebration of the centennial of Thelonious Monk’s birthday with freshly arranged tunes from MONK’estra, Vol.1 on Mack Avenue as well as new arrangements on MONK’estra, Vol. 2.. At the North Sea Jazz Festival a couple of years ago, Beasley’s band delivered the rhythmically charged ”Gallop’s Gallop,” featuring drummer Peter Erskine, and introduced a rousing version of “Criss-Cross.” But a sure highlight of the evening was a romp through “Skippy,” which Beasley said was the “hardest” tune of the set because “it goes in a lot of different places.” And that it did, with atmospheric trombones, kicking rhythms and feisty sax solos. Talking between shows, Beasley noted that the tune itself is relatively simple. “Monk used to play [a solo version of] ‘Tea For Two,’ then he recorded it by re-harmonizing the melody and finally wrote another melody over that to make it ‘Skippy,’” he said. “Then I took it from there with my arrangement.” Beasley talked about the project, noting that he had played Monk before in different settings, including on bassist Buell Neidlinger’s Thelonious album in 1987 and in a duo recording with guitarist Steve Cardenas on 1994’s 10/10 Tribute To Thelonious Monk. The big band setting almost came as an accident after the arranger found a new toy: the Sibelius music notation software that he was using while serving as the associate music director of the TV show American Idol (for Carrie Underwood in 2003 and lead arranger thereafter for over 10 years). “After the season ended, I decided to do a 20th-century big band chart using Monk’s ‘Epistrophy,’” he said. “I quickly found out that I could stretch Monk’s form, make stops and starts. I realized how pliable his music was and how open he was to interpretation. Arranging is improvisation, so I went from there.” This year, Beasley is serving as musical director for the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz International Guitar Competition and All-Star Gala Concert at Kennedy Center (Dec. 3).

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