Saturday, March 26, 2011

ASA Trio

ASA Trio (group; formed 2005)
Plays The Music of Thelonious Monk (self produced; 2011)
Anders Thor (guitar)
Scott McLemore (drums)
Agnar Mar Magnusson (organ)

It's a funky kind of weekend. I thought it might be appropriate to wait till now to spring this killer new record on everybody. I'm really glad the group and I stumbled upon each other in cyberspace here. I got a copy of ASA Trio's latest album, Plays The Music Of Thelonious Monk and was very intrigued by the idea of an organ based trio doing Monk tunes. I have fallen in love with this Icelandic band over the last few weeks and I think everybody seriously needs to check them out.

Now dedicated organ trios are nothing new in the jazz history. What makes ASA Trio standout is they stick to what makes organ trios so satisfying--a deep attention to and understanding of basic instrumentation, blues, funk and jazz harmonics.

ASA Trio are led by Agnar Mar Magnusson (organ) - who's style resembles the great Larry Young -  Anders Thor (guitar), and Scott McLemore (drums). The band started almost by accident. During the Reykjavik Jazz Festival in 2005 there was a band cancellation and this thrust Anders into the spotlight to create a band to perform that day. His two bandmates had performed only briefly in separate incarnations but this performance went off supremely well. And shortly after the band become ASA Trio. The group have recorded two digital only albums previously - A live album, and what is becoming an underground classic, a complete recording of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Both albums are available on the band's website and you must check them out. But today our focus is on Plays The Music Of Thelonious Monk.

While there have been plenty of artists that have done Monk inspired albums (Fred Hersch, Wynton Marsalis, Anthony Braxton, Paul Motian, E.S.T., Alexander von Schlippenbach) I don't think any of them would have envisioned a whole album performed by an organ dominated group. Nor would you or they have envisioned it being this exciting, inventive, well played and all around a pleasure to listen to again and again. With most albums of this nature you will see the usual Monk standards "Well You Needn't," "Nutty," and "Epistrophy". But Asa Trio have decided to go in a slightly different direction with minimal Monk standards "Bemsha Swing" and "Straight No Chaser" mixed in with many lesser covered Monk gems.

"Bemsha Swings" opens the album (this was also one of the tracks they first performed at the festival in 2005) beautifully, showing a group that plays within the groove as well as demonstrating a consistent unity among the three. You can feel each instrument throughout this piece. Magnusson's organ never overwhelms the others. This is a hard bop trio utilizing its ability to groove but also staying within tradition. "Raise Four" is both bluesy and funky. Thor's melody is smokin' and free-wheeling like Grant Green or early George Benson. McLemore shows the versatility of a young Billy Higgins throughout this session. His ability to shift in time and rhythm adds an element of surprise with each track.

On "Green Chimneys" Thor picks up Charlie Rouse's chords masterfully. It's not as striking as you would think and the patterns blend harmonically with Magnusson playing the Monk extremely subtle allowing the focus clearing on Thor and McLemore. It's a great example of this collectives creativity in re imagining what could well be a difficult piece. McLemore's solo is bit more fierce than Ben Riely's original but it clearly suites this highly imaginative version.

The beauty of such Monk ballads as "Ugly Beauty" and "Ask Me Know" illustrate another aspect of ASA Trio that I love--they are constantly challenging themselves throughout this recording. It's hard enough to tackle Monk compositions that others don't usually look to work with. It's another thing to challenge yourself with both his uptempo, multi-layered pieces and his intricate ballad material. "Ugly Beauty" in particular, while staying in line with Monk's original intent, shows Magnusson applying delicate pressure on the Hammond which in turn give the piece a bit more emotional punch.

I guess you really couldn't close this session with an unknown Monk piece but what better way to do it than with the universal "Straight No Chaser". Thor really dominates as a replacement for the sax (which would have been Sahib Shihab on the original). Magnusson delivers a pulsating solo that you could imagine Keith Jarrett doing early in his career. Great stuff.

ASA Trio have carved a nice niche for themselves in their native Iceland but I think soon the rest of the world will definitely start talking about this trio. With Plays The Music Of Thelonious Monk, ASA Trio have delivered a document that is all together absorbing, challenging, fun and different than some of the material that's out at the moment. In addition, to the Monk album you should also check out their Live At Domo and A Love Supreme: Live At Cafe Cultura digital only album. Highly Recommended stuff. Enjoy.

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