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It takes a lot of brass to tackle the music of Thelonious Sphere Monk, the creative giant whose idiosyncratic piano playing and composing reshaped the sound and texture of modern jazz. And when the musician attempting this feat is a solo guitarist, well, that makes the challenge even more daunting.
On Sphere, fingerstyle jazz guitarist Sean McGowan proves he’s up to the task. Wielding his 2003 Custom Virtuoso Nickerson archtop, McGowan tackles 10 of Monk’s tunes, including such classics as “Blue Monk,” “Ruby, My Dear,” and “‘Round Midnight,” as well as lesser-known pieces like “North of the Sunset.”
With a slightly smoky yet ringing tone, McGowan captures Monk’s signature rhythmic hesitations, dissonant close-interval voicings (which can be particularly tough to work out on a 6-string), and playful use of silence and space.
When the music demands a fast run or two, McGowan rips with gazelle-like speed across the fretboard. But it’s his ability to coax rich, sustaining harmony from his axe that puts him in a league with today’s best solo jazz guitarists. Whether plucking waves of shimmering harmonics à la Lenny Breau or paying homage to Joe Pass by juggling walking bass lines, chordal fragments, and single-note bebop phrases, McGowan plays with a relaxed, swinging feel and ripe tone.
Here’s the kicker: McGowan cut these tunes live in the studio with no overdubs, so the performances have an immediacy and energy that draw you in as a listener. Yet it never sounds like he’s struggling with a passage or hurrying to get through the song without blowing a take. These tracks will satisfy both Monk aficionados and fans of solo guitar who may be new to this music. In fact, if you’re in the latter camp, Sphere provides a superb introduction to one of America’s musical icons. —Andy Ellis
Must-hear track: “‘Round Midnight”