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This was the second show of the evening featuring a world-class jazz musician in the person of saxophonist Joshua Redman, who incidentally was the winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 1991 at the age of 22. For the present performance, he adhered to the tenor sax since it was the instrument Monk always preferred. As in most of the previous concerts in the current 10-day series, of which this evening was the penultimate show, the accompanying trio consisted of co-curator pianist Ethan Iverson, the internationally acclaimed drummer Victor Lewis and renowned bassist David "Happy" Williams.
It was quite evident from the first of all six Monk pieces performed that Redman was endowed with considerable technical prowess on his instrument. His thoughtful use of circular breathing allowed him to play extended glissando phrases that added considerable dynamics to his solos, particularly on the melodic ballad "Ask Me Now" and the classic Monk upbeat piece "Straight No Chaser." Similarly, the quartet excelled on a piece from Monk's 2nd Columbia recoding in the 1960s "Criss-Cross"; as one reviewer at the time put it, "(the piece)… reflects the ability of four musicians to maintain melodic intricacies that are at times so exigent that it seems cruel that Monk would have expected a musician of any caliber to pull them off." Well, the current group did pull it off beginning with Iverson playing a masterful "Monkish" piano solo followed by a duet with bass and saxophone only, culminating in Redman gradually building up to the frenetic climax of the piece. Lewis was impressive by unequivocally demonstrating that the drummer can play a subtle but critical role in the rhythmic character of the Bebop genre.
While Redman was clearly in his element playing in a quartet setting, his diverse approach to every piece and focus on interaction with his three bandmates was palpable. As alluded to above, perhaps the most appropriate and compelling closing piece of the evening was the first basic Monk piece students learn to play: "Straight No Chaser." The arrangement was innovative, with Williams on bass playing the opening theme and then improvising on it. Iverson's solo was classic Monk with characteristic off-beat chords and spiking dynamics. Lewis' subtle approach to drumming was an object lesson of how the drums can complement as well as augment the music; and Monk's proclivity to insertion of "off-beats" gave Lewis the freedom to play the tune. Thus, Redman had a perfect framework to develop his solo by interacting with the drummer. This produced a fitting climax to the piece with Redman close to overdoing it with his circular breathing technique! He did not overdo it – but it led to the only complete drum solo of the evening which was both technically inspiring and an auspicious ending to a rousing final chorus.
Choreographed Chaos? Possibly. But the audience was ecstatic in its applause and appreciation. Sadly, however, there was no encore. Too bad!
The Monk@100 Festival ends on October 26. See our calendar for the finale.