Instead of the star-studded cast that populated Monk on Monk--including jazz luminaries like Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath, Dave Holland, Dianne Reeves and Clark Terry--Monk decided upon a slimmed-down group with a consistent sound throughout Higher Ground. That’s not to say that the music itself remains static, for the composers and arrangers of Higher Ground have created a variety of styles that are challenging and entertaining.
With arrangements ranging from pianist Ray Gallon’s slowly unfolding wailing blues, "Craw-Daddy," to Bobby Porcelli’s light-samba-turned-swinger, "Haristocracy," Monk’s group explores numerous musical styles while the septet remains tightly harmonic in the opening and closing choruses. Including Ray Bryant’s "Cubano Chant" as an actual chant responding to Porcelli’s flute and Kenny Dorham’s "Philly Twist" in a highly accented start-and-stop arrangement with tambourine provides a degree of familiarity. Yet, the level of originality in the construction of arrangements, as for example the horns trade fours on "Philly Twist," provides excitement even as it prods the musicians to even great heights.
The highlight of the CD is singer Miles Griffith’s wild and crazy scatting on Cedar Walton’s "Mosaic," which alternates long tones with galloping intervals and long pauses with scampering vocal improvisation. With entirely unrestrained guttural and tongue-twisting alacrity, Griffith’s raw and humorous interpretation of the song is reminiscent of that of Eddie Jefferson’s. Griffith’s irresistible force leads naturally into Winston Byrd’s high-flying trumpet solo, screeching and smearing and rapid-firing repeated notes.
The powerhouse behind all of the work, of course, is Monk, both as he drives a tune like Willie Williams’s funky "Millennium Dance" and as he works to pull the entire project together, as well as marketing it. In the near future, he will be releasing his father’s The Legendary Paris Concerts ‘65 and continuing to pursue independent projects that continue to lead jazz to a higher ground.