So Jason Moran has decided to re-create something that is already a pinnacle of a master’s work—something that could hardly be improved on. You could be expected to ask Why? and How?
In My Mind. At Jordan Hall, Boston, MA, February 2, 8 p.m. Ticket price: $30, $20. $10 for students, seniors. $5 off for WGBH members.
By Steve Elman
If only I could be there on February 2. I’m already convinced that I’ll be missing one of Boston’s most important jazz events of 2012, but I’ll be out of the country because of a previous commitment, so it can’t be helped. Fortunately, the Fuse will have J. R. Carroll’s ears on hand, and he will undoubtedly give you some cogent, post-concert observations. So check back here after February 2.
The point of this preview is to get you to attend—to get out of your comfort zone on February 2 and into Jordan Hall to hear something that will make you think. I’ve attended too many brilliant Jordan events where the hall was half-full or even more sparsely populated, and I hope this one doesn’t follow in that long line. This event is important, and it deserves your support. In some ways, the attempt itself is the point.
I’m operating at a disadvantage in this attempt to whet your appetite, since I’ve only been able to read reviews and blog posts about Jason Moran’s previous presentations of In My Mind. What I’ve read and seen (see below) confirms my impressions that Moran is trying something ambitious, and that it will be valuable. Instead of trying to intuit what he will do, I want to give you my impressions of the challenges he’s posed to himself, and why I think this will be such a fascinating evening.
I’ve heard Moran in group settings and solo, live and on CD. He makes great music, and like a number of other musicians in the current scene, he is not so much a stylist as an explorer. He brings a personal arsenal of ideas to each project he undertakes, but his work resists the attempt to pigeonhole it with a stylistic label or to reduce it to some quick catchphrases. Nonetheless, if you care about the jazz tradition and contemporary music, you need to get some of Jason Moran into your head. And the Jordan Hall concert promises to be a choice opportunity to do so.
In My Mind was commissioned in 2006 by the San Francisco Jazz Festival. It has been described by several writers as a multi-media piece, but what I’ve seen of it in videos makes me think that it might better be described as a musical exploration, augmented by visual material and non-musical sound. Moran grounds the project in one of the great Thelonious Monk performances, the Town Hall concert of February 20, 1959. This is both an inspired and a bold selection, since that show and the recording of it represent two kinds of musical ideals, and because the recording is so well known to Monkophiles.
The Town Hall concert was designed as a showcase for Monk’s compositions. It opened with a short quartet set with Charlie Rouse on tenor (who was in Monk’s working band at the time), Sam Jones on bass, and Art Taylor on drums, but the featured pieces were six other Monk tunes, each a masterpiece in itself, presented in an expanded format—the trio as above, plus four brass (trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba) and two reeds (alto and tenor). Though the eventual recording billed the ensemble as the “Thelonious Monk Orchestra,” the instrumentation is really quite economical, nowhere near the forces of a big band. It’s just rich enough to give Monk’s tunes distinctive, timbral decoration. That decoration was provided by Hall Overton, in consultation with Monk, and it is superb in every way. Though there are fine solos (especially by Donald Byrd on trumpet), the greatness of the performance and the recording consists in how those solos are set within this beautiful ensemble.
This concert represented the first time that Monk’s music had been offered in something other than traditional combo format. In his later years, he almost always chose to work in a quartet setting with one tenor saxophone unless a producer pushed him in another direction, but even in his more instrumentally varied recordings of the earlier years, the idea was always rhythm section plus soloists, with only the barest minimum of arrangement. And although many others have attempted to inflate Monk’s tunes with varying degrees of success, the Town Hall show, and the Philharmonic Hall concert of five years later (both arranged by Overton), are the only large-ensemble ones that had Monk’s full participation as advisor/co-arranger. (There is also a later big-group session arranged by Oliver Nelson, but it is much less inspired than the Overton concerts were.)
The Town Hall program was very carefully chosen. It opened with “Thelonious” and “Friday the 13th,” both in the repetitive-figure bag but with contrasting approaches. “Thelonious” uses some ingenious harmonic shifts under the repeated line to add variety and also offers one of his loveliest bridges. “Friday the 13th” is unrelenting, a tune that consists of the same figure played over and over again—the direct ancestor of Steve Lacy’s compositional approach, by the way—which works to build up a terrific tension that finally is relieved by the solo statements. Then we get a glorious contrast—“Monk’s Mood,” which defies the standard definition of “ballad” even though it is an AABA tune in slow tempo. The emotional landscape of the piece is almost impossibly rich—by turns, it’s melancholy, wry, wistful, uplifting, sentimental, goofy, and tart.
Monk’s swinging portrait of his son, “Little Rootie Tootie,” follows, kicked off with one of Overton’s best inspirations. I still remember the first time I heard the screech effect of the nine blasts of the ensemble that follow Monk’s piano intro, with trumpeter Donald Byrd and alto saxophonist Phil Woods leading the way and reaching into their top registers. No one before had put the glorious clangor of Monk’s piano dissonances into such a big suit of clothes, and I can’t think of a moment that has been so successful in doing so since. And that’s not all, as the pitchmen like to say. The whole arrangement is inspired by Monk’s performance of the tune on a Prestige trio date in 1952, and before the theme returns, Overton provides an orchestration of Monk’s solo on that recording, which the band plays with great verve.
“Off Minor” is an AABA tune that feels like a blues, and logically it could have been a bright closing number, but Overton put it next to last, saving “Crepuscule with Nellie,” Monk’s poem to his wife, for the closer. In some ways, “Crepuscule” is the toughest piece on the program, because it depends so heavily on Monk’s hyper-dramatic note placement—he delays or advances each phrase just a tiny bit, so that the music behaves like the cadences of speech in a sensitive recitation. The ensemble doesn’t quite match Monk’s articulation step for step, but this doesn’t dull the shine of the music at all. (For perfection, listen to the version Monk played with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall 15 months earlier.)
So Moran has decided to re-create something that is already a pinnacle of a master’s work—something that could hardly be improved on. You could be expected to ask Why? and How?, and Moran will undoubtedly have some serious and well-considered answers. He will bring to it some reflections on Monk’s importance in music, some shards of Monk’s biography, audio excerpts of conversations between Monk and Hall Overton, some examples of ways in which Moran connects and disconnects with Monk, and some observations on the ways in which an African-American artist engages with the society he or she lives in.
It appears that Moran will not use Overton’s arrangements, at least not note-for-note. The six horns will be scaled down to five (no French horn), and the tuba will be replaced by bass trombone. In addition, Moran is employing New England Conservatory hornmen rather than members of his Big Bandwagon, which will give this performance a distinctive twist. I have no doubt that alto saxophonist Andrew Halchak, tenor sax player Carlos Fernandez, trumpeter Kai Sandoval, trombonist Jon Kenney, and bass trombonist Cale Israel can cut it, having heard several of them in NEC concerts, but you may be curious to see how they measure up. They will be supported by a very forceful rhythm section—Tarus Mateen on electric bass (another interesting variation from the Town Hall instrumentation) and Nasheet Waits on drums, both members of Moran’s working band who have played the program on several other occasions. Jason Moran himself will play piano, never trying to imitate Monk but rather commenting on and grappling with the music and the traditions that come along with it.
One clip I’ve seen from a previous performance indicates that “Thelonious” will be played as a dialogue between the live band and the original recording. That alone should give you some esthetic meat to chew on. If you were trying to find ways to comment on and enhance an already existing jazz performance, and a great performance at that, what would you do?
Another clip suggests that Moran will use a version of Overton’s orchestration of the Monk solo on “Little Rootie Tootie” and that he will play piano with it. How will the band rise to the technical challenges? How will Moran find a place for his own voice in that beautifully-chiseled solo? And what about the start of the piece—will Moran’s version of those dramatic opening chords come up to the standard set at Town Hall? If I were going to the Jordan show, I’d be anticipating “Rootie Tootie” with a mixture of adrenalin and dread.
Will they deal effectively with “Monk’s Mood” and “Crepuscule”? These pieces are so beautiful and so fragile that missteps will be shattering.
The visuals are to include video of parts of North Carolina that Monk once called home (shot by Moran himself), a painting by Glenn Ligon that uses the “in my mind” motif, and still photos of Monk in performance. Will these, and the spoken audio, distract from the music or provide new perspective on it?
Fifty-three years, give a month, separate this performance from the original. How will this reinterpretation bridge that half-century, a period in which almost every aspect of American life has profoundly changed?
At the time of the Town Hall concert, Monk was 41. When Jason Moran steps on stage at Jordan Hall, he’ll be 37. What do these two artists have to say to each other across the years, standing as they are at very similar places in chronological biography? Though their artistic paths have been very different—Moran acclaimed early as a visionary, given a MacArthur grant, and already thought of as a master in waiting, Monk vilified early as an eccentric, scuffling hard through most of his youth to find work and income, and even at the time of the Town Hall concert viewed with a measure of suspicion by the jazz mainstream—what do they share, and what can you as a listener share with each of them?
In NEC’s website description of the concept, Moran says, “It’s much larger than a tribute project. Monk is the reason I started playing piano. I owe him all the investigation I can do.” Will this version of In My Mind reproduce what’s been done before, or will it continue the investigation in new ways?
Aren’t these the kinds of issues you want an artist to address? Wouldn’t you rather participate in an exciting, aesthetic adventure rather than hear about it later?
Then go. And pay attention.
The source material:
The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall (Riverside expanded re-issue CD, 2007). Contains the complete 2/28/59 Town Hall concert, restoring parts of “Thelonious” and including three quartet performances from that concert not previously issued.
Thelonious Monk, The Complete Prestige Recordings (Prestige 3-CD compilation, 2000). Includes the 10/18/52 trio performance of “Little Rootie Tootie,” with Art Blakey (dm) and the 11/13/53 performance of “Friday the 13th,” with Sonny Rollins (ts) and Julius Watkins (Frh).
Thelonious Monk, The Complete Blue Note Recordings (Blue Note 4-CD compilation, 1994). Includes the 10/15/47 performance of “Thelonious,” with Idrees Sulieman (tp), Danny Quebec West (as), and Billy Smith (ts); the 10/24/47 trio performance of “Off Minor,” with Art Blakey (dm); and the 11/21/47 performance of “Monk’s Mood,” with George Taitt (tp) and Sahib Shihab (as)
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note / Thelonious, 2005). First issue of one of the greatest of all Monk performances, from 11/29/57, including definitive versions of “Monk’s Mood” and “Crepuscule with Nellie.”
Reportage on previous performances of In My Mind:
Martin Johnson, “The Jazz Standard,” New York, 2/22/09
Eric Benson, “Jason Moran Returns to Monk at Town Hall,” All About Jazz, 3/12/09
Pamela Espelan, “Jason Moran and the Big Bandwagon: Monk in Motion,” blog post from bebopified.com, 5/10/09
Video / audio from previous performances of “In My Mind”:
“Not His Hands!,” an excerpt from Gary Hawkins’s documentary, “In My Mind,” a record of the 2/27/09 concert, including the story of Southern police assaulting Monk and a drum solo accompanying it by Nasheet Waits.
Recording of a rehearsal of “Little Rootie Tootie” and “Thelonious” at Cornell University’s Bailey Hall, Ithaca NY, in preparation for the concert of 9/20/08 (possibly including Logan Richardson, alto sax; Ralph Alessi, trumpet; Howard Johnson, tuba; Isaac Smith, trombone; Tarus Mateen, electric bass; Nasheet Waits, drums). It includes Moran coaching the horns while the alto player solos, and Moran playing piano with an orchestration of Monk’s 1952 solo.
Steve Khan’s comparison and analysis of Monk’s 1952 piano solo on “Little Rootie Tootie” with Hall Overton’s 1959 orchestration.