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â€œMike Kocourâ€™s careful yet fearless choice of notes and intervals come from the deepest grotto of his heart, and his extraordinary ability enables him to give life to things that had no prior existence. Mike's playing is a breath of fresh air in an asphyxiating world. Listen to him â€”as I do.â€
More than 50 years after their innovations first entered the bloodstream of jazz, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell still cast long shadows. Their styles are widely imitated, their compositions performed worldwide, their music dissected in classrooms and musicology journals. Just as Picasso and Matisse remain an inexhaustible reservoir of ideas for painters, Monk and Powell offer pianists a potent distillation of the fundamentals of modern jazz â€“ bebop â€“ while pointing toward future possibilities. Their influence remains inescapable.
â€œMonk and Bud were truly inspired,â€ says pianist Mike Kocour, who tackles a dozen of their signature compositions here. â€œThereâ€™s a spirit that lights those guys up on record. Thatâ€™s what I mean by â€˜Speaking in Tongues.â€™ The joy of Bud Powellâ€™s playing and the sense of purpose in Monkâ€™s playing â€“ Monk showing you something wonderful that no one else could imagine, and Budâ€™s ebullience and energy thatâ€™s explosive but also poetic.â€
This program would overwhelm a less inventive or secure pianist, but at age 43, Kocour strikes a mature balance between respecting the legacy of Monk and Powell while italicizing his own identity. Whether playing solo piano or working with his first-rate Phoenix trio with bassist Dwight Kilian and drummer Dom Moio, Kocour crafts performances rich with melodic integrity, trenchant details, nuance, swing and expression.
A native of suburban Chicago, Kocour was a vital member of the Chicago scene for 20 years, teaching at Northwestern University by day and working with visiting stars like James Moody and Benny Golson at night. For a while he played organ in a trio dedicated to Monkâ€™s music, and he recorded in a variety of contexts, including â€œHigh Standardsâ€ with his Chicago trio with bassist Kelly Sill and drummer Joel Spencer. Since 2004 Kocour has directed the jazz program at Arizona State University.
Of course, Monk and Powell were part of the small cadre of revolutionaries including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke that forged modern jazz in the 1940s. Cursory history pitches the pianists as aesthetic opposites because Monkâ€™s technique seems awkward and elementary next to Powellâ€™s dazzling fluency. But Monk and Powell were each one half of the same heartbeat. If Monk was a composer-pianist who wrote puzzle-box compositions of angular beauty, he also invented a piano technique perfectly suited to his idiosyncratic sound world. If Powell was a pianist-composer whose acrobatic improvisations left contrails of demonic intensity in their wake, his compositions remain subtle treasures of formal complexity.
Monk was a key mentor to Powell and wrote â€œIn Walked Budâ€ in his honor. Powell appeared on the first recording of Monkâ€™s anthem â€œRound Midnightâ€ with Cootie Williams in 1944 and played Monkâ€™s music when others regarded it as impossibly eccentric. They share a similar vocabulary of deliciously astringent harmony and unsentimental lyricism, especially on ballads. Monk and Powell each created a unique body of piano music profoundly tied to the technical and expressive possibilities of the keyboard. You have to look to Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Ravel and Scriabin to find music for the piano as fully realized.
Kocourâ€™s interpretations refuse gimmicks that might obscure the unique character and mood of each composition. Still, there are delightful wrinkles. The trio girds Monkâ€™s â€œThink of Oneâ€ with an infectious, loping back beat and bass line. The cubist melody of Monkâ€™s â€œFour in Oneâ€ gives way to a witty unison chorus for bass and Kocourâ€™s left hand; note how Kocour tastefully integrates Monk-like trills, intervals and allusions to the melody during his solo while still maintaining a fresh flow of ideas.
Powellâ€™s landmark recording of â€œUn Poco Locoâ€ in 1951 revealed frightening energy, structural implications and altered tonalities (Lydian) that were years ahead of its time. The trio emphasizes the tuneâ€™s prescient modernity by eventually shedding the original Latin vamp in favor of some burning 4/4 post-bop modal swing. Kocour plays a dynamic solo full of bright, deftly articulated lines and chords that ride the rhythm. In his exquisite unaccompanied performances, Kocour plays with a pearly touch, relaxed carriage and melodic grace that owes much to Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan. Powellâ€™s â€œOblivionâ€ opens with pointillistic dabs that gradually coalesce into serpentine strands ornamented with ardent pirouettes of bebop rhythm and song; the swiftness of the tempo barely registers because Kocour remains so poised. The closer, â€œDusk in Sandi,â€ is one of Powellâ€™s most beguiling creations: an interior monologue in which time stands still in a reverie of love, beauty, dreams and delirium. Kocour plays two spellbinding choruses, improvising sparingly and channeling Powellâ€™s spirit as if to the manner born. Speaking in tongues, indeed.
Detroit Free Press, Nov. 2006