Two of the most exciting jazz concerts I've seen in a long time were the recent Thelonious Monk tributes at Town Hall in New York, and one reason for the thrill—beyond the treat of hearing great music played live by great musicians—was the sheer surprise that they were great, for tribute concerts tend to be, almost by nature, lame.
Certainly, there's a place for jazz repertory—recitals of the classics—but, with some of those classics, the projects are fraught with doom from the get-go. For instance, Charlie Parker not only invented a new way of playing jazz; he also perfected it. A generation of alto saxophonists latched on to his style, but the best of them knew better than to play his tunes very often, for fear of inviting comparison, inevitably to their detriment.
Covering Duke Ellington poses a different sort of risk: He composed much of his music with specific band members in mind; other big bands fall short when tackling Ellington's scores, in part because their musicians, while they might be very good, aren't Johnny Hodges or Paul Gonsalves or Cootie Williams.
And so, when you go to a Parker or Ellington tribute concert, you usually wind up wishing you'd stayed home and listened to your Parker or Ellington albums instead.
Musicians who dare devote an entire album or concert to Thelonious Monk are toying with still more dangerous fire. Monk was a completely distinctive pianist. His jabbing dynamics, his jarring cadences, his oddball intervals that seem at once slapdash and preternaturally precise—he was to the keyboard what Picasso was to the canvas, and nobody can play or paint the same way, to the point where it's a bit crazy to try. Most of those who make the attempt either round off the edges or sharpen them to the point of parody.
A few intrepid souls have leapt into the ring with Monk and held their own. In the mid-1990s, Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez put out an album called Panamonk, which, by highlighting (though not overdoing) the suggestive Latin lilt in Monk's music, made us hear Monk in a new, intriguing way. Around the same time, Fred Hersch recorded an all-Monk solo-piano album, called Thelonious, in which he managed to put his own stamp on the music while imbibing a full dose of Monk's spirit. " 'Round Midnight," as Monk first played it in the 1940s, was a haunting, eerie tune.
Hersch's take, though very different, nailed that spectral quality.
The Monk tributes at Town Hall last month—the first led by Charles Tolliver, the second by Jason Moran—faced a further challenge. Both were commemorating the 50th anniversary of a single concert—Monk's first stab at leading a big band through his music, performed at the same Town Hall in February 1959. The concert was recorded live and released as an album that came to be hailed as a modern masterpiece. How do you duplicate—or otherwise capture "the spirit"—of that? Try to sound too much like Monk and you risk coming off as a pale imitation; try for something too different and you risk being dismissed as insufficiently Monkish.
The first of the two tribute concerts took the former course to an extreme degree. Charles Tolliver, an accomplished trumpeter and arranger who attended the 1959 concert as a teenager, was commissioned to transcribe all the parts (listening over and over to the LP, since the original sheet music was lost long ago), put together a 10-piece band, and lead them through a straight re-creation of the event The musicians were allowed to improvise their solos—this is jazz, after all—but the pianist, Stanley Cowell, was instructed to match Monk's solos as closely as possible.
Miraculously, Tolliver pulled it off. The concert, which could have been an "academic" exercise, was anything but. The musicians had no doubt listened to the album countless times, but they owned these arrangements, playing them as if for the first time—not too perfectly, not at all stiffly, leaving some space to sway in—and blowing solos that, in some cases, rivaled the originals. I would single out Howard Johnson on baritone sax, Aaron Johnston on tuba, Marcus Strickland on tenor sax, and—above all—Stanley Cowell. A longtime band-mate of Tolliver's—and, like him, a connoisseur of the melodic avant-garde—Cowell embodied Monk like no other pianist I've heard, grasping not only the material, which is tricky enough, but Monk's off-center rhythms and distinctive touch without sounding at all mannered. Listen to the first track of the 1959 concert, with Monk zigzagging through the opening bars of "Thelonious":
Now listen to Cowell doing the same, here (jump ahead and listen from 27:52).
Did the concert stand up to Monk's original? Not quite—how could it? But it came closer, in substance and, more to the point, in spirit, than anyone had any reason to expect. It was an astonishing feat. (A podcast of the entire concert, recorded by WNYC, can be heard here.)
The next night's tribute concert—by Jason Moran and his Big Bandwagon, an octet extension of his Bandwagon trio—took the more adventurous path, seeking not to replicate the original but, rather, to use it as a leaping-off point.
Moran is attracted to conceptual art, meaning that he's fascinated with process as part of the art. This fascination is what's on display here—a sort of audio-video collage that explores the roots of Monk's concert, of Monk himself, and of the ties that bind his music to Moran's own path to jazz.
In most hands, this would be a formula for twee disaster. But Moran, at 34 (meaning he was born 16 years after Monk's 1959 concert), is one of the most versatile and imaginative jazz pianists of our time. On his 2002 CD Modernistic—which may be the best solo jazz album of the past two decades—he navigates James P. Johnson's stride-piano style, standard ballads (putting an original spin on "Body and Soul"), hip-hop (Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock"), knotty numbers by Andrew Hill and Muhal Richard Abrams, a piece by Schumann done straight-up … In short, Moran can play everything and play it brilliantly, preserving the integrity of the source while making it his own.
And he does it again in this unlikely postmodern adventure with Monk. When Monk started planning his big-band concert 50 years ago, he and his arranger, Hall Overton, met frequently in the loft apartment of W. Eugene Smith, one of the 20th century's great photographers, who was friends with several jazz musicians. (Overton lived in the same building.) In the late '50s and early '60s, many of them used his loft as a space to hang out and rehearse—and Smith tape-recorded everything they said and played.
An obsessive historian named Sam Stephenson has spent the last several years sorting through these tapes, which are archived at the Center of Creative Photography and now also at Duke University—focusing in particular on the ones with Monk and Overton. During a Monk festival at Duke, Stephenson told Moran about these tapes, guided him through some of the highlights, and thus were planted the seeds for this concert, which Moran titled "In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall 1959."
In the middle of Moran's concert, we hear about five minutes' worth of these tapes (with subtitles shown on a screen, as Monk's speech was hard to understand). Monk rarely spoke about his music, yet it's clear from these tapes that he knew precisely what he wanted: Certainly, for these big-band arrangements, the ideas were Monk's; Overton served mainly as a facilitator. For instance, there's a moment when the two are listening to Monk's 1952 trio recording of "Little Rootie Tootie," one of the songs he planned to use, when Monk suddenly suggests that they simply transcribe his piano solo for the entire band—not in call-and-response riffs, or in lush harmonies, but, rather, in unison, letting the tonal colors emerge from the natural timbres of the horns (which included a French horn and tuba as well as the standard saxophones, trumpet, and trombone). Here's the song as played by Monk's trio:
And now as played by his big band.
During his chat with Overton, Monk paces the wood floor; you can hear his footsteps. At one point, he breaks into a brief tap dance. Moran took this bit of sound and repeated it over and over on a tape loop. Then, at the concert, he played "Little Rootie Tootie" on the piano to the rhythm of Monk's dancing. Suddenly it became clear that Monk had been dancing to the song's rhythm. These songs, it seems, were constantly in Monk's head, growing out of the other tangled ideas churning in there. (Monk was deeply eccentric, possibly bipolar, but also a mathematical genius; everything he wrote and played had precise patterns, albeit unconventional ones, like some secret language that only he comprehended.)
At another point in the concert, Moran and his band played "Thelonious" at a very slow and melancholic tempo, while the screen displayed video footage of the fields and forests in Newton Grove, N.C., where Monk's great-grandfather toiled as a slave. The juxtaposition may sound corny on paper, but at Town Hall it was a heart-clutcher. As Moran told me a few days earlier in an interview, "We think of Monk as a contemporary musician, but this history is part of who he is, and what he plays, too."
Toward the end of the evening, Moran played Monk's sweet ballad to his wife, "Crepuscule With Nellie."* He alternated the opening bars with a reverie of his own composition. When the rest of the band came in, the two themes weaved in and out of each other; Moran launched into an improvisation; the horn players devised their own variations on top of that. Meanwhile, the screen displayed some of W. Eugene Smith's photos of Monk in his loft, mixed in with video footage taken recently inside the loft, which is now empty, the camera roaming across the bare wood boards. The sights and sounds swirled together like a kaleidoscope; it had the effect of a dream, a furtive glimpse of a life voyage.
And did I mention that it cooked like crazy?
Correction, March 10, 2009: The article originally misspelled the title of "Crepuscule With Nellie." (Return to the corrected sentence.)