Sunday, June 21, 2020

Dan Willis accents Thelonious Monk's singularity with his own on "The Monk Project"

Dan Willis puts his idiosyncratic spin on the tunes of the godfather of jazz idiosyncrasy with the July 17 release of The Monk Project (Belle Avenue). The saxophonist/multi-reedist's fourth album with his ensemble Velvet Gentlemen -- guitarist Pete McCann, keyboardist Ron Oswanski, bassist Evan Gregor, and drummer John Mettam (with special guests bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Ian Froman) -- is an intriguing and highly exploratory set of performances that, like Thelonious Monk's compositions, could never be mistaken for the work of anyone else.

Though it follows up The Satie Project, Velvet Gentlemen's two-volume assaying of the French modernist composer, The Monk Project actually began life as a solo saxophone concept for Willis. Not far into it, however, he realized that his non-chordal instrument was insufficient to the task of Monk's ideas. "Monk plays orchestrationally," Willis explains. "On saxophone, I can only play one note at a time. There was no way I could play up to what Monk performed."

Bringing in the band let him account for the composer's multiple layers of melody and meaning. In the process, it expanded Willis's personal palette for the project: He plays three different saxophones (tenor, soprano, and baritone), along with two wind instruments from central Eurasia, the duduk and the zurna -- and, in several places, the electronic wind instrument (EWI).

If this sounds cerebral and highfalutin, however, it's anything but. Tunes like "Eronel" and "Criss Cross" take on a seamy, creeping funk, while "Crepuscule with Nellie," "Rhythm-a-Ning," and "Pannonica" capture the dark, earthy mystery of New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta, where jazz and blues came to be. "Our aim," says Willis, "became to get a lot more lowdown and dirty to fully capture the blues aspect of this music."
Velvet Gentlemen: Evan Gregor, Dan Willis, John Mettam, Pete McCann. 

Group effort though it became, The Monk Project still manages to be a tour de force for Willis himself. On "Epistrophy" alone, he masterfully wields three different axes, alternating tenor sax and EWI on the main theme before laying down a simmering solo on a distortion tenor saxophone. The EWI becomes the primary voice for the album-closing "Think of One" -- a tip of the hat to Michael Brecker. The instrument, Willis says, is particularly suited to Monk's "orchestrational" approach to composition: "You can play one note and make it sound like a large orchestra."

Dan Willis was born Daniel Wieloszynski in Fredonia, New York, on September 23, 1968. The scion of a large musical family that included his father, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Wieloszynski, Willis experimented with drums, piano, and trumpet before finally settling on saxophone. By the time he was 12, he was sitting in on jazz gigs in nearby Buffalo.

Following in his father's footsteps, Willis enrolled after high school in the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. There was no undergraduate jazz program at the time; however, while Willis formally majored in oboe (and was a featured soloist on English horn with the Eastman Philharmonia), he nonetheless studied jazz with eminent faculty members Bill Dobbins, Ramon Ricker, and Dave Liebman.
Upon graduation he embarked for Europe with a touring production of West Side Story, then settled in New Jersey to become a freelance musician and study with Bob Mintzer. He made his first recording, Dan Willis Quartet (1998), with a band featuring guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer John Hollenbeck. The following year's Hand to Mouth brought guitarist Pete McCann into Willis's orbit; pianist/keyboardist Ron Oswanski arrived in 2003 with Velvet Gentlemen, establishing Willis's primary musical vehicle that after nearly two decades is still thriving.

"The pandemic has touched our lives in such a profound way," says Willis. "Aside from the economic hardship of the disappearance of performance opportunities it has, for some, been a very difficult time where we hesitate to create for fear of an uncertain future. I think of 'what would my heroes do or say to me for advice?' I almost immediately began to wonder if this would be for me what it was like for Sonny Rollins and his almost two-year-long self-imposed isolation. Would I create my The Bridge [Rollins's 1962 masterpiece]? Ultimately, life is about the journey, not the destination." 

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