Thelonius Monk, who followed in the footsteps of the jazz greats Duke Ellington and Art Tatum, created his own sound. So too, 32-year-old Jason Moran, inspired by Monk, and already critically acclaimed as jazz pianist and composer, is making his mark. Commissioned as part of the "Following Monk" series at Duke University, In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959,* was premiered in Page Auditorium.
More than a tribute or a simple pastiche, Moran’s multi-media work for recorded sound, video, and live performance celebrates the artist, his roots, and the art form and, at the same time creates something meaningful and provocative. It is stitched together with Monk's own melodies and harmonic structures; Moran wove themes from pieces of the original program (including the quartet pieces that were not on the Lp), hymns ("We’ll Understand it Better by and by" and "This is My Story, This is My Song"), recorded conversations, and tracks from the original recording while using visual images to create a mesmerizing dream-like effect. Primed for a journey into Monk’s creative process, Moran improvises over a recording of Thelonius from the opening of the 1959 concert. Thus this is the story of two contrasting African-American experiences.
Monk’s compositions seemed fresh, and Moran’s youthful all-star octet players summoned the electricity generated by the original ensemble’s historic debut. And while faithful to elements of the original work, each of these jazz masters placed indelible new stamps on this classic jazz repertoire. Trombonist Isaac Smith, who brilliantly coaxes everything from fluttery whispers to deep, velvety sounds, rendered a heart-felt solo on “Monk’s Mood,” harmonized by trumpeter Ralph Alessi.
Alessi later spread his wings with amazing dexterity on the exuberant “Little Rootie Tootie,” a piece named for Monk’s son. The upbeat tempo and jarring dissonances, paired with video clips of New York City traffic, worked better than caffeine. And rising to the challenge of “Friday the Thirteenth,” saxophonists Logan Richardson (alto) and Walter Smith III (tenor) played with the inherent harmonic possibilities where only the brave wander. From the outset Moran’s virtuoso playing seemed to light them on fire. The audience enthusiastically responded with approval.
I would be remiss to leave out the extraordinarily talented rhythm section; Bob Stewart on tuba, Tarus Mateen on bass, and Nasheet Waits on drums provided the engine that drove this incredible octet. The penultimate event of the series, this was a night to remember!
Moran’s intent was “to push jazz to a new level” and “make people think.” I think he accomplished both counts; surely this project points to the need for our fractured society to view itself more honestly. The New Orleans-style departure of the musicians was a poignant reminder that we have a long way to go. But while the audience left the hall and a handful of insiders mulled about, a quiet voice inside me whispered, “that cat plays!”
*In My Mind was commissioned by Duke University and the Center for Documentary Studies, Jazz at Symphony Center/Chicago, SFJAZZ, and the Washington Performing Arts Society.