Though I’ve been acquainted with Elliott Sharp’s proverbial eclecticism for several lustra, the name Thelonious Monk was not one I ever expected to see associated with Downtown’s one and only cyberbluesman. Sharp’s passion for Monk’s music dates back to 1968 when, during a stint as a late night DJ, he discovered Monk’s “tart harmonies and percussive attack, his catchy but twisted melodies and his incredible rhythmic motion, always dry and economical”, but it’s taken 38 years for the New Yorker to display that admiration on record. Armed with a Dell’Arte Grande Bouche acoustic guitar, a few mics, preamp, compressor and ProTools, he recorded three versions each of the five Monk pieces covered here. The resulting homage is a treat, a set of heartfelt, crystal-clear improvisations.
Sharp might be best known as a composer, but he’s bad on the guitar. The theme of “Misterioso” is rendered with scholarly devotion, but when E# starts attacking the fretboard with his trademark percussive style, tapping and snapping the strings to elicit mind-boggling cascades of notes, you could be forgiven for thinking that Mr. Thelonious Sphere wrote the piece specially for him. “Well You Needn’t” is another “look-ma-both-hands-on-neck” eruption (no, Van Halen has nothing to do with it), ending with a lyrical yet intense virtual string/tabla duo that brings the whole body of the guitar into play. “Bemsha Swing” is probably the best entry point to the whole album, its theme executed with a cool blend of Montgomery-like octaves and half-strummed, half-plucked lines that could teach a few things to the snotty Berklee nerds lost in their Superlocrian finery. Perhaps the most impressive performance, though, is “Round Midnight”, played with enormous sensitivity using a complex mix of harmonics and plucked notes, before the improvised section casts us into the arms of a ghostly Joe Pass/John Fahey hybrid, each note perfectly calibrated to reveal its luminescent particles. A final eBow elegy seals this astonishing version of an otherwise pretty worn-out standard. The grand finale “Epistrophy” is a clamorous show of technical prowess and right-brain intuition: the evergreen is felled, sawn up and mashed into an infernal pulp of flamenco bottleneck blues.