Prophet Receives Respect from Prodigy: The Dancing Monk by Eric Reed with Ben Wolfe and McClenty Hunter

By Daniel Garrett

Eric Reed, The Dancing Monk
Engineered and mastered by Katherine Miller
Produced by Eric Reed
Executive Producer Joe Fields
Savant Records, 2011

Is there a word that can replace beauty?  Is there a word that can be used to describe musical instruments played not only with expertise but with care fine and deep enough to be called tenderness?  Is there a word that can describe shapes made in the air, ethereal but perceptible?  Is there a word to describe a sound that comes as both solace and surprise, inspiring surrender?  If there is, then that is the word that I want for Eric Reed’s The Dancing Monk, his performance with Ben Wolfe and McClenty Hunter of the compositions of the great musician Thelonious Monk.  How else to make sense of “Ask Me Now,” which approaches but does not enter the blues?  Or “Eronel,” full of detail, of rhythms, of patterned drumming and low throbs on the bass and piano runs, with shifts in patterns, tones, and volumes, with abrupt but appropriate stops?  The composition “Reflections” delivers what is promised—speculation in the form of music and silence, with a suggestion of sad gentleness.  Whatever word that can be used to replace beauty can be used to describe that.

Sometimes beauty is not enough.  It may be one of  the ironies of human experience that when a person begins life as a stranger, he is likely to end life that way too, no matter what happens—whether celebration or success—in between.  There are moments of talk, of explanation and understanding, but they are only moments.  If one is liked and respected apart from any explanation, one will remain so; if not, the power of the explanation will not last.  The experience of a person is what counts, for most people.  The African-American music known as jazz is one of collective play, of improvisation and interpretation and syncopation, and it allows musicians to be together while remaining individuals.  A man can be strange but have a purpose that others can access, find use for, and know with pleasure—and Thelonious Monk, a composer and pianist, was sometimes thought of, and described, as strange.  It is a strangeness that pianist Eric Reed respects, what he thinks must be accepted and utilized when interpreting Monk’s music.  “Monk’s playing and writing are essentially one and the same.  Without a thorough cognizance of Thelonious Monk the player, Thelonious Monk the composer remains a mystery,” Eric Reed declares in the liner notes for The Dancing Monk.  Reed, who thinks Monk’s dedication and defiance in the face of sabotage and slander is saintly, asserts, “We are wholly blessed to have been able to witness genius poured out from the very soul of someone for whom life was quite unkind in large part.  Despite being beset by the weight of mental instability, racism, trying to make a living, supporting a family, stomaching the music business and the ignorance of know-nothings, Mr. Monk gave us no dearth of masterpieces by means of his pencil and recordings.”

There is a discernible humor, a sense of fun, in the opening high-low rhythms of “Light Blue.”  Eric Reed’s piano gets into something murkier; and there is a blend of the playful and the serious.  “Ruby, My Dear” sounds more thoughtful than romantic; and “Pannonica” is fast, joyful, with the piano and drums prominent (the bass is easier to hear in the interlude).  A melody emerges in “Ugly Beauty” after a play of rhythms.  The one original composition, Reed’s song “The Dancing Monk,” is a small explosion, its flames coming in waves.  “’Round Midnight” does not have the heaviness of some interpretations, and “Blue Monk” is jaunty.

TheDancingMonk is a satisfying, significant, and splendid work from the Philadelphia-born Eric Reed, a minister’s gifted musical prodigy who played church music before being drawn to jazz by musicians such as Art Blakey and Ramsey Lewis and Horace Silver.  Eric Reed listened and studied and practiced, first in Philadelphia then in Los Angeles, where he moved with his family as a boy, playing with musicians years older than himself.  While at college, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis invited Reed to tour, leading to work with a panoply of performers—not only Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson, but also Wayne Shorter, Natalie Cole, Edwin Hawkins, Patti Labelle, Jessye Norman, and Quincy Jones.  Reed has toured the world, earning recognition.

The piano notes of Eric Reed dance, declare, glide, insist, rumble, soothe, splash, and whisper, but he is not satisfied with being a distinguished performer or an able composer; and he has taken the responsibility of being a conservator, someone who protects a great trust.  He understands that his own work will mean nothing if the tradition is neglected.  In TheDancingMonk, by Eric Reed, Ben Wolfe, and McClenty Hunter, there is both art and life.  People who think it is easy to keep up with this music are not paying attention; and that is their loss, but it does not have to be ours.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett, who likes jazz, independent rock, and world music, originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.”  He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.  Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or