The idea of a piano-free homage to jazz giant Thelonious Monk might sound as unlikely as a mime tribute to Ethel Merman — but both on disc and in live performance, this concept takes flight with amazing elegance, thanks to the clever, intuitive nature of co-leaders Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd.
Soprano saxophonist Lacy and trombonist Rudd, who first played together 35 years ago in a Monk-centric combo called School Days, have revived their partnership on the just-released Verve disc “Monk’s Dream” — which formed the basis for the riveting, sometimes Byzantine set delivered Wednesday.
Although they share a similar avant-garde background, Lacy and Rudd couldn’t be more different in style — the saxophonist’s cerebral musings standing in marked contrast to the trombonist’s impulsive, often prankish blowing. The pair tested each other’s limits — much like “The Odd Couple’s” Felix and Oscar — on “The Bath,” which saw Rudd unleash some of his most pixilated solos with all the zest of a school kid hitting a water slide.
The front men meshed more readily on a rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Koko,” which took on a pseudo-Eastern tone during Lacy’s laconic solo. The quartet closed ranks even further for “Wake for Tomorrow,” a rhythmic tour de force redolent of the mournful-yet-brisk vibe of a New Orleans funeral march.
Credit drummer John Batsch with holding together some of the set’s more disparate elements. With his light touch and oddly configured kit — an upended snare served as his kick drum–Batsch smoothed over rough patches with panache, gently guiding his band mates in the proper direction.
Although both Lacy and Rudd have spent much time on the fringes of the jazz scene, they’re equally conversant in traditional playing — as borne out by their parrying on the trombonist’s “Bamaco,” a sunny, Iberian-tinged number that closed the set on a jovial note.