Dan Willis and Velvet GentlemenThe Monk ProjectBelle Avenue

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Dan Willis and Velvet Gentlemen The Monk Project (Belle Avenue)

To EWI or not to EWI? That was the question for Dan Willis when he adapted Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One” for The Monk Project, his new album of compositions by the singular jazz legend.

The saxophonist and master of many other instruments, who has worked in classical, Broadway, and cabaret settings as well as jazz, knew that Monk “might not have agreed with my choice.” He also knew that he risked offending Monk fans by featuring the electronic wind instrument on one of the legend’s beloved classics.

But ultimately, Willis said, “I had to just let go and follow my ears. The more traditional quartet arrangement I had written was perfectly fine, but it just wasn’t inspiring me. I had pushed the envelope on other Monk tunes, but it seemed like I was taking a step back with this one.”

And so, “Think of One” became not only a celebration of Monk, but also a tribute to the late tenor saxophonist and EWI innovator Michael Brecker, in whose 15-piece quindectet Willis played oboe and English horn 15 years ago. The rich, block-like melodies that emanate from his EWI may sound a lot different from Monk’s angular acoustic figures, but they are imbued with the same playful spirit—and the same sense of independence.

On The Satie Project, Willis’s 2010 album, he and his band Velvet Gentlemen transformed works by French composer Erik Satie into warm and challenging personal statements. Moving from the man who invented the Gnossienne to the man who coined “Epistrophy” was easier than one might think. Actually, it made a lot of sense.

“I hate to use the word ‘simplicity,’ but both Monk and Satie retain a certain childlike innocence and playfulness in their music,” said Willis. “There’s a tunefulness to their compositions, which are fun to sing along to. And like Satie, Monk dedicated many of his compositions to family and friends and teachers.”

Willis initially envisioned The Monk Project as a collection of solo saxophone pieces on which his arrangements wouldn’t stray far from the originals. His intention was to use Monk’s music to “get back to basics” and immerse himself not only in tunes “I thought I already knew” but also to refresh himself on the history of jazz from which those tunes sprang: the history of Art Tatum and Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane, and other influences and associates of Monk.

Only after Willis blueprinted his project with tracks from an online list of the 10 “best” Monk songs did it occur to him that they all appeared, conveniently enough, on the 1963 masterpiece, Criss Cross. Things started off well with “Pannonica,” but other tunes proved beyond the capabilities of his saxophone. “Monk plays orchestrationally,” he says. “On saxophone, I can only play one note at a time. There was no way I could play up to what Monk performed.”

Willis’s solution was to keep his original arrangements intact wherever possible—his unaccompanied tenor can be heard in various spots across the album—and expand the instrumentation where that was called for. Some songs were performed at almost half the tempo of the originals. “Our aim became to get a lot more lowdown and dirty to fully capture the blues aspect of this music,” he says.

The Monk Project opens with “Hackensack,” first as a playful duet between Willis on popping tenor and longtime bandmate Pete McCann on electric guitar. The ever-creative McCann alternates between Looney Tune-ish effects and blues-busting slide guitar. The song then opens up in funkish fashion, with Ron Oswanski on Fender Rhodes, Evan Gregor on bass, and John Mettam on the drums.

On “Crepuscule with Nellie,” featuring the great Kermit Driscoll on electric bass, the opening phrase is stretched into a coda, two bars transformed into eight. On “Eronel,” Willis trades tenor solos with himself across the stereo divide.

And then there’s his EWI experiment—and more—on “Think of One,” the album closer featuring drum master Ian Froman. “It’s really such a fun instrument,” says Willis. “It enables you to let your imagination go, to combine whatever sounds you want to. You can play one note and make it sound like a large orchestra.”

“We recorded the album in a home studio I built for myself,” says Willis, who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, just a few miles from “Hackensack” (which opens the album). “We could take as long as we wanted to get things right. On some sessions we did only one tune. That’s a luxury musicians don’t often have.”

Daniel Wieloszynski was born on September 23, 1968, in Fredonia, New York. His late father, Stephen Wieloszynski, was a jazz trumpeter and vibraphonist and esteemed string orchestra arranger. And Dan’s grandfather, grandmother, aunt, and brothers were all musicians. From an early age, his goal was to attend the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, like his dad.

As a kid, he started out on drums. He then studied piano but was advised by his unimpressed father to switch instruments. Rejecting the trumpet, Dan took up the saxophone, partly because the instrument was played by his “Uncle Don”—tenor great Don Menza, a close friend of his father’s, who proved to be a huge influence.

At the age of 12, Willis was already sitting in with top Buffalo musicians. While in high school, he played with the McDonald’s All-American Marching Band, which afforded him the opportunity to travel all over. He visited New York City for the first time with the jazz ensemble.

He then lived out his dream of attending the Eastman School, where there was no undergraduate jazz program. He became an oboe major, studying with Richard Killmer. At the age of 21, he was a featured soloist on English horn with the Eastman Philharmonia when it performed Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony at Carnegie Hall.

He continued to study jazz at Eastman with eminent instructors including Bill Dobbins, Rayburn Wright, Ramon Ricker, and jazz legend David Liebman. Subsequently, he went on a tour of Europe with West Side Story (he met his wife in Switzerland), playing a mess of woodwinds. (The challenge in doubling and tripling instruments in a pit band, he says, is as much physical as musical: “You have to keep quickly readjusting your jaw.”)

When Willis returned to the States, he moved to New Jersey and began playing all manner of gigs, record dates, jingles, jam sessions, and blues dates in the Big Apple while studying with Bob Mintzer under an NEA Study Grant. “The fun thing about New York,” he says, “was being able to meet musicians of all different backgrounds and areas of expertise.”

His first jazz album, Dan Willis Quartet, released in 1998, was a distinctive collection of post-bop originals featuring him on tenor and soprano saxophone. His stellar band included Ben Monder, Drew Gress, and John Hollenbeck, who had been a college roommate. Three years later he recorded the more expansive Hand to Mouth, which added Larry Goldings and Pete McCann to the mix.

In 2001, Willis was rear-ended on New York’s West Side Highway, an accident that left him with epic headaches. Thanks to his acupuncturist, who played a collection of piano pieces by Erik Satie during their sessions, the accident also led him to a deeper appreciation for the composer. “I fell in love with the music all over again,” he says. “And I also heard all these possibilities in pieces I was not familiar with. I thought they would make great jazz vehicles, using the compositional elements as springboard for free jazz improvisations.”

On his third album, Velvet Gentlemen (named after Satie’s fondness for velvet jackets), he applies the Satie influence to a set of original compositions. Recorded in 2003 (but not released until three years later), the album finds Willis branching out. He establishes what became his signature approach in mixing, matching, and overdubbing instruments; ranging stylistically from jazz-rock fusion to classical to horn ensemble, and showing off his skills on saxophones, oboe, and bass clarinet as well as piccolo, English horn, duduk, suona, and zura.

In 2004 and 2005, Willis toured with Michael Brecker’s unusual chamber ensemble. “That was a real turning point for me,” he says. “Seeing how Mike brought out the greatness of the people around him was so inspiring. He dedicated himself to making every show different, whether that meant changing the order of the instrumental pairings or set lists. I knew him only a little when I went out with the band, but we became great friends. I was and still am a huge fan of his.”

In 2007, with a band now named Velvet Gentlemen, Willis recorded The Satie Projecthis imagination in full bloom in arranging and orchestrating gymnopédies, Gnossiennes, and nocturnes. Like him, Satie was a restlessly inventive artist who liked layered effects and drawing from a wide range of musical forms. But the album’s finished results could not have been more different from what Willis initially heard in his head. Surprises abounded, from the unexpected chamber quality of his expanded ensemble (perhaps a byproduct of his work with Brecker) to the unique sound of overdubbed organ and accordion.

It’s rare for an artist to be as exposed to as many kinds of music as Willis is. His many other endeavors have included significant roles with the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, David Chesky’s Area 51 chamber group, and the multimedia ensemble VIA.

He has played on the Grammy Award-winning cast recordings of such Broadway musicals as Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots, and West Side Story and on a pair of PBS specials starring Audra McDonald and Billy Porter; played in support of Broadway legend Chita Rivera at the Carlyle Hotel; and toured with Liza Minnelli, Idina Menzel, Don Henley, and Trisha Yearwood. 

In a project close to his heart, he also participated with the Tiny Tunes Orchestra in an outreach program that took him to Guatemala, where he played classical music for children on flute, oboe, English horn, and clarinet. It grew out of the work he had done for the Baby Einstein classical music educational series.

Bizarrely, in 2018, Willis was again rear-ended on the West Side Highway, and again suffered from headaches and back problems. But he recovered sufficiently to finish The Monk Project, and to answer the questions with which he approached the sessions: “This music makes you look inward and ask yourself, why do I love this? And what can I do with it?”

For most jazz fans, the answer to the first question is obvious: It’s impossible not to love Monk. As for the second question, as joyfully demonstrated by The Monk Project, the possibilities are endless. •

All Compositions By Thelonious Monk except ‘Think Of One/EWI’ composed by Dan Willis (Wieloszynsku Music). All Arrangements by Dan Willis (Wieloszynsku Music)