Pianist Adrean Farrugia won't be wearing a beret or sunglasses when he steps onto the stage at Brookstreet Hotel's Options Jazz Lounge this weekend. That's not how he wants to pay tribute to Thelonious Monk.

Adrean Farrugia at the Montreal Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Adrean Farrugia at the Montreal Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Monk was a hugely influential pianist and composer who helped redefine jazz in the 50s and 60s and wrote many of jazz's most enduring compositions, like “'Round Midnight” and “Ruby, My Dear”. And he had a strongly individual musical style, recognizable in only a few notes – and a similarly idiosyncratic personal look in suits, hats, and glasses.

And while that musical style can be honoured – as Farrugia will do with three Ottawa musicians on Friday and Saturday nights playing Monk's compositions – it can't be copied.

See OttawaJazzScene.ca's linked interview with Michel Delage about his jazz tribute series at Brookstreet.

It's just not possible, Farrugia said, because Monk's sound was “so unique. It's almost too obvious that you're doing Monk if you sound like that. For me it's not so much the substance of what he's playing but the spirit of what he's playing, that I can get really caught up in.”

“There's this amazing patience in his playing where he just sits there and he listens to what's going on around him until he'll just find the perfect sound and just slam it down on the piano. His sense of melody and harmony are just so unique. But for me it's the spirit of how he plays. I don't know how he does it, but he almost has this, even though he's an undeniable genius, he almost has this childlike quality when he plays, something that almost sounds like a child discovering sounds for the first time.”

Rather than Monk's actual chord voicings or scales, Farrugia said, it's the process of trying to interpret Monk's mind space as he was playing that he finds really inspiring.

Farrugia, who teaches jazz piano and improvisation at Mohawk College in Hamilton and at York University in Toronto, is well-known in the Toronto jazz scene, performing with notable musicians like Phil Dwyer , Barry Romberg, Jim Vivian, and Joel Frahm. He's most recently been seen in Ottawa performing with vocalist Amy Cervini, in her brother Ernesto Cervini's band, and with Tim Shia's Worst Pop Band Ever.

He was invited to play in this weekend's show by Ottawa drummer Michel Delage, who organized the show as the second in a monthly series of jazz tributes at Brookstreet. Also playing will be bassist Alex Bilodeau and saxophonist Richard Page.

"Work" is a tough little tune; it's wacky. And again it's one of those ones that goes in so many interesting places. That's one I'm definitely going to have to sit down and work on for the gig.
– Adrean Farrugia

They will perform music from throughout Monk's career, both frequently-played pieces like “Blue Monk” and “Misterioso”, and his lesser-known and often challenging pieces. Delage said they had a list of 23 tunes to play over the two nights, with three one-hour sets a night, but “depending on how long we stretch out the tunes, we'll definitely have some spares that we won't play on both nights.”

“There's a lot of tunes that you don't really hear people play, like 'Criss-Cross' is one of them.” Delage said. “ 'Brilliant Corners', which is one ridiculous tune. There's another tune I don't know if we'll be tackling it but I want to, it's called 'Trinkle, tinkle'. It's really, really, really hard, and you know it's hard because when you listen to the recording like even the musicians on that recording aren't really getting it. So we'll see how we are once we make it to the date of the concert.”

Farrugia said he was working hard to capture one tune called “Work”, from Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. “It's a tough little tune; it's wacky. And again it's one of those ones that goes in so many interesting places. That's one I'm definitely going to have to sit down and work on for the gig.”

“And 'Pannonica', which is one of his really beautiful ballads. I think we're doing one called 'Eronel' [from Criss-Cross]. That's almost to me a less Monk-ish sounding tune than a lot of his other ones. It doesn't have that angular quality. It almost sounds like it could be a pretty old standard. I think we're doing 'Epistrophy', which is another one of his classics; 'Evidence', which he wrote over the standard 'Just You, Just Me'; and I think I saw one called 'Light Blue' [from Thelonious in Action: Recorded at the Five Spot Café] on the list which I've actually never played, so that's another one I'm going to have to look at.”

Michel Delage at Avant-Garde ©2013 Brett Delmage
Michel Delage at Avant-Garde ©2013 Brett Delmage
Delage said the group is inspired by the quartets Monk recorded with in the 1960s, with Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, John Ore or Larry Gales on bass, and Frankie Dunlop or Ben Riley on drums.

“The thing that I really like about Monk is that more or less saving the odd change in drummer or bass player, he kept to the same group of musicians for a lot of his early career. He had Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone usually. He had Frankie Dunlop – I love Frankie Dunlop's playing. Of all the drummers I've heard play with Monk, I think he gels with Monk the most. He toured with him a lot, but unfortunately he's only on two recordings – but those were Monk's Dream and Criss-Cross, and I just adore those records. He has this way of interacting with Monk that I don't think other drummers really achieved. His phrasing and comping style just really gelled with him.”

Richard Page will take the role of Charlie Rouse, playing the melodies on his tenor sax, Delage said, but “he's not going to try to play like Charlie Rouse. I don't think any of us want to try and play like Monk, or try and play like Frankie Dunlop. But we're definitely using their performances as inspiration to our own performance.”

Delage and Farrugia haven't played together before – in fact, they hadn't even met until Delage phoned Farrugia to invite him, on the recommendation of Page and Ottawa Citizen reporter Peter Hum. Page, however, was a student of Farrugia at Mohawk, and they played together occasionally in jam sessions.

By coincidence, another Monk tribute

Last Christmas, Farrugia actually played in another Monk tribute – a “Monk for the Monks” fundraiser in Toronto, organized by Jane Bunnett, which he said was “lots of fun”. He's also occasionally taken part in Sunday afternoon “Monk's Music” shows at the Tranzac Club in Toronto, playing more obscure Monk tunes.

“I've always been a fan, but I think it's just by coincidence these shows have fallen into place like this. I've never been like a serious student of Monk's music, but you can't be not influenced by him even peripherally. He had such a wide-ranging impact on the music that, even if you've never heard Thelonious Monk, but you play jazz piano, you've been influenced by him.”

“But I always enjoy working on his music. It's quite challenging and at times it seems almost counter-intuitive, but that's part of the fun. I feel like I grow working on his music.”

Many jazz pianists have explored Monk in recordings. Farrugia said he particularly enjoyed Danilo Perez's 1996 album, Panamonk, which reimagined Monk in a Latin vein.

“One of the things I've always loved about hearing other people play his music is it just seems that there are so many different interpretations of it out there. Everybody plays his music differently. Even on just a superficial level, if I hear Chick Corea play some Monk tunes, or Danilo Perez, I can find a couple cool things to steal from them to use in my own versions. It's just sharing this language."

But to prepare for this weekend's concert, he said, he's gone back to the sheet music. “I'm really all about just learning the songs, trying to get the song itself, the essence of the song, under my fingers, and then really just trying to close my eyes and get into the zone and let the song come out in the most honest way that it can. I really look forward to playing it just to use it as a vehicle for my unique expression.”

“I'm looking forward to it. It's always a kind of a neat experience getting called up by someone you've never played with to be a special guest. It's got a different set of expectations and the uncertainty of it all is exciting because it will be really interesting to see what kind of music comes from it.”

A busy recording schedule

Farrugia has several recording projects in various stages of completion. They include a live recording of three nights at the Jazz Bistro in Toronto this February, with an all-star band: “a great trumpet player originally from Chicago named Brad Goode, and Phil Dwyer on sax, and Barry Romberg on drums and Jim Vivian [on bass]”.

And that links back 11 years, to Farrugia's debut album, Live at the Senator [2004]. It's the same group, and the Jazz Bistro is in the same location at the former Top o' the Senator jazz club. Farrugia also has some concerts scheduled with Goode and the legendary tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts, and “I think a record might come out of that as well.”

He'll soon be recording a duo album with NYC tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, whom he played with in Ernesto Cervini's band. And he's working on a trio record with bassist Chris Jennings, who is originally from Calgary but has been living in Paris, France for the last decade.

And there's other projects with Ernesto Cervini: Cervini's Turboprop band, which recently released an album and toured Western Canada, and a new project the two of them are planning, doing “jazz reimaginings of all our favourite 80s and 90s cheesy pop tunes, tunes we used to listen to on the beach or at high school dance parties.”

“And then of course my wife, Sophia Perlman, bias aside, is my favourite singer and we're always doing things together. We've done a duo album and I think we'll be looking to do a quartet album in the near future. So lots on the go. I just have to get writing grants or win the lottery to fund all these projects.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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