Sam Newsome certainly is an excellent soprano saxophonist, but his take on some of Thelonious Monk's more known compositions, also is more than a little ambitious. Ambitious in the sense that it's already a challenge in itself to fill an entire album with unaccompanied sax, but to use this restriction to bring a tribute to Monk, is setting not only limitations, but also adding real high hurdles. And Newsome has technical skills, and they're a real pleasure to listen to, but to me it just doesn't always mix with Monk's music, which is all about melody, harmony and rhythm pushed into a unique envelope, rich and soulful, which once transformed by Newsome's sax sound too distant, cerebral and cold, with too much focus on the instrument instead of the music itself. Despite the music's intrinsic qualities, like musical drive, playfulness, even fun and joy, nothing much of it transpires here (listen to Ben Goldberg's tribute to notice the difference). Sure, there are some fun things, as his tongue-slapping percussive alternation with the more melodic blowing of the tune in "Rhytm-a-ning". And his "Misterioso" is great too, with circular breathing, percussive sounds and even classical flights. On the other hand, he does not give us the richness and creative angle of other solo saxophonists like Evan Parker or Steve Lacy, because the focus is too much on the skills, often too self-conscously. The technique is all there, and for sax-players there will be a lot to enjoy and learn, yet the musical project suffers from it, with a few exceptions, like the real winner of the album, "Ugly Beauty", which gets a tentative, deeply emotional rendition. If the whole record had been like this song, it would have been a major success.
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