The lights dim to almost nothing, and a velvet chord—with a touch of cayenne pepper—emerges from depths of the Steinway on stage. Next, the first four notes of Thelonious Monk’s signature “Round Midnight” are intoned, and we are transported both backward and forward.
Iconic pianist Ran Blake’s spellbinding, four-dimensional reading of Monk’s masterpiece was less a tribute than a re-imagining, and I like to think that’s how Monk would have liked it. In fact, Blake’s solo performance was one of many moving, jaunty, humorous, and heartbreakingly beautiful moments at New England Conservatory’s celebration of the High Priest of Bop’s 100th Birthday Celebration last Thursday (October 19th). And in the spirit of Thelonious, each artist approached the music from a personal, unique angle.
Robin D.G. Kelley, author of the definitive Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, gave an introductory statement on Monk’s life and legacy, and reminded us of this: Monk was a rebel. Yes, we are honoring the man and his music, but let’s not relegate him to the museum or history books or halls of idolatry. Thelonious Monk resisted – he resisted a violent, racist encounter with police; he resisted musicians and critics who claimed he couldn’t play; he resisted conforming to the demands of a society that too often puts conformity and efficiency above creative self-expression and truth. Monk always knew, and reminded those around him to “always know.” Being yourself in all ways is the way to make a lasting mark on your family, your friends, your community, and the world. In this spirit, dozens of creative musicians celebrated the music of an unabashed, uncompromisingly individual artist.
The first half of the concert continued was a set entirely of solo “re-compositions” of Monk’s material. Frank Carlberg, who, like Blake, is a former teacher of mine, opened with a stunning version of “Panonnica,” Monk’s tribute to his friend and patron of the arts Pannonica de Koenigswarter (also known as the “jazz baroness”). Carlberg’s clarity of sound, reference to Monk’s harmonic/rhythmic signatures (without sounding imitative), and deeply personal arrangement that used another Monk composition (“Crepuscule with Nellie”) as an intro and ending, made for an auspicious beginning to one of the most memorable Jordan Hall concerts I’ve witnessed. Pianist Anthony Coleman followed Carlberg with a percussive and wide-ranging reading of “Think of One.” Within the first few notes of Coleman’s performance, I was reminded of how remarkably different the same piano in the same hall can sound when played by different musicians of such a high caliber.
Matana Roberts’ solo saxophone improvisation alluded less to a composition than to certain “Monkisms”—intervals and rhythms reminiscent of the master’s musical fingerprints. She seemed to revel in the way in which her gritty, ebullient tone, devoid of instrumental accompaniment, reverberated around the great hall. One- and two-note incantations were left to hang and travel around, careening through space as though driving home the idea that the immediacy of Monk knows no bounds of time or space.
I was especially moved and taken with vocalist Dominique Eade’s solo Monk medley (or “madly,” as she jokingly referred to it to me during the intermission), which featured most prominently the devilishly chromatic “Brilliant Corners” and the underrated “Introspection.” Eade is that rare singer who has the range of color, sound, dynamics, and vocal dexterity to render a performance that sounds almost orchestral despite being delivered by a single voice. Her humor and swing came through loud and clear with a sly nod to the end of the bridge of the standard “Just You, Just Me” (the chord sequence of which forms the basis of Monk’s signature “Evidence”), with Eade singing, “use your imagination!” Her performance earned an explosive applause and curtain call.
After Ran Blake’s mesmerizing solo rendition of “Round Midnight,” Fred Hersch concluded the first half of the program. For me, Fred has one of the most compelling, original, and emotionally vital solo piano approaches in all of music. (Full disclosure: Fred is also a teacher of mine.) He first played “Ask Me Now,” segueing into the virtuosic Monk burner, “Work.” Also receiving a standing ovation and curtain call, Fred confessed during the break that Ran Blake “was a tough act to follow!” Both Fred and Ran’s performances were transcendent, unique tributes to a transcendent and unique musical mind.
Such mutual respect and admiration was also apparent through Ken Schaphorst’s magnificent curation of the second half of the concert, featuring the NEC Jazz Orchestra. Man, these students can play! While perhaps shaking off some rhythmic/sonic cobwebs on the first tune, they quickly settled in and closed out the concert with aplomb. Schaphorst graciously reintroduced Frank Carlberg, who led the big band through two excellent readings of his Monk-infused original compositions from his recent recording (highly recommended!), “Monk Hallucinations, Dreams, and Nightmares.”
Ran Blake re-emerged to play a devastatingly beautiful, grooving, and energetic version of his composition “Short Life of Barbara Monk,” with an incredibly imaginative, fun, and dance-able big band arrangement by Schaphorst. The piece is a celebration of the life of Monk’s daughter, whom Blake had babysat when she was a child, and who died of breast cancer in 1984 at the young age of 30. The iconic vamp of a pair of minor-chords in an irresistible rhythm was made colossal when scored for 18 musicians. Perhaps the biggest trip of all was seeing the NEC Jazz Orchestra pianist, the fantastic Iñigo Ruiz, play celeste right alongside Blake on the acoustic piano. Here was one of my most inspiring teachers, Ran Blake, performing with one of my most inspiring students from Berklee, Iñigo, who is now a graduate student at NEC. Not only that, “Short Life of Barbara Monk” was a piece I had performed on my own graduation recital at NEC, as a duo with my good friend Doug Pet. Talk about worlds and generations colliding!
Nedelka Prescod gave a powerful and moving rendition of Round Midnight, this time with Carmen McRae’s lyrics. Schaphorst’s exquisite arrangement culled many jewels from various versions of this classic Monk tune. The closing piece of the night again featured Fred Hersch, in Hal Overton’s iconic arrangement of “Little Rootie Tootie,” the middle of which gave Hersch a chance to wail, solo, without any accompaniment at all. Fred then led the band back in, and the horns proceeded to play that impossibly virtuosic Monk solo, now scored for 13 winds!
Perhaps most heartening was to see and feel the love and joy in the hall – love for Monk’s music, for the musicians on stage, and for the community that celebrated this icon of American Music in a way that was reverent and irreverent all at once (just the way Monk would’ve had it, perhaps?). I remember plenty of outstanding concerts at Jordan Hall that were poorly attended, with maybe barely 100 people. It was gratifying to see a large audience many times that size hooting and hollering and clamoring for more by the time the music was finished. I was moved to realize that Monk, a high school dropout (and undoubtedly a musical genius), was being celebrated at an elite Conservatory originally founded to teach the music of dead white men. Times have changed, and the music keeps getting better and better.