Shining the light of early jazz through a prism of modern jazz innovations, Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) created music that is both sophisticated and highly entertaining.

The centenary of Monk’s birth has inspired numerous recordings and concerts in his honor. Some play it close to the original while others take some liberties. Frank Carlberg’s “Monk Dreams, Hallucinations and Nightmares,” as recorded last year for Red Piano Records and as played live at the Space Gallery on Friday night, falls into the latter category.

Carlberg enlisted the New England-based OurBigBand, an ensemble different from that heard on the recording, for this performance. They were up to the challenge of playing his complex original compositions inspired by the iconic master.

Jumpy, jagged and unpredictable are some of the words that have been used to describe Monk’s music, and Carlberg’s music incorporated those elements while also acknowledging his subject’s gift for melody. Substantial space was left for soloists to offer their own variations, as well.

“Dry Bean Stew,” which rhymes with its source material – the Monk song “I Mean You” – featured the latter’s jaunty descending line tossed about on waves of counterpoint. As with many of Carlberg’s pieces played during the performance, rhythmic momentum carried the listener along as if on a storm-tossed ship on its way from stride-era jazz (where Monk began) to today’s cutting edge.

The band consisted of four trumpets, four trombones, five woodwinds, Rhodes piano, upright bass and drums. Carlberg mostly conducted but added piano on a couple of tunes. His daughter Priya Carlberg, a senior at the New England Conservatory of Music, took on the vocals for the evening.


Monk’s noted aphorisms provided material. For example, “You Dig!” took off from his saying that “You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?” and featured that line repeated in rapid fire by the young singer until Eric Klaxton took off on a high-energy alto sax solo to the obvious delight of his section mates and the large, cheering crowd.

The younger Carlberg also contributed wordless vocals on such pieces as her father’s lovely arrangement of “Round Midnight,” a piece on which the band’s regular front man, Chris Klaxton, soared on trumpet.

“Beast,” riffing on Monk’s “Ugly Beauty,” had Eric Quinn’s trombone growling as he led the band through the musical jungle. “A Darker Shade of Light Blue” set a rhythmic churn against which the horns could extend emotive lines before surrendering to the undercurrent.

Veterans Chris Oberholtzer (trombone) and Matt Langley (tenor sax) were also standouts on a couple of pieces. And Mike Effenberger added another dimension through electronic keyboard effects that created an otherworldliness appropriate to the evening’s pathfinding inspiration.

Co-presented by Space Gallery and the Portland Conservatory of Music’s Dimensions in Jazz series, Frank Carlberg and OurBigBand rightfully honored a jazz legend with music that reflected his unique musical spirit.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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