Classic Monk, classical Jazz at Lincoln Center

The jazziest scene at the second night of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Monk Festival was in the fifth floor atrium, during intermission of simultaneous concerts by pianist Danilo Perez’s trio (reprising his cd Panamonk, in the Allen Room) and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performing members’ arrangements of Monk’s music in big band settings led by Wynton Marsalis, with featured pianist Marcus Roberts (in more formal Rose Hall). 

Between sets all-age, all-hipster-style attendees mingled in the buzzy, high ceilinged room. Especially fashionable young couples gazed out upon the lights of Columbus Circle, Central Park and 59th Street and sometimes at each other. Films of Monk were projected on a large screen while a excitedly engaged, unannounced piano trio, lit but not raised off the floor, jammed on Monk themes. Arrestingly artful album covers of Monk’s lps were displayed on stands politely guarded by low ropes; high end drinks and snacks were sold at kiosks around which the multi-generational crowd surged. CDs and Monk paraphernalia were available at one table, sponsorship info for J@LC at another, and brewer Doug Moody was pouring free samples of his tasty Brother Thelonious Belgian-style abbey ale at a third.  The mood was lively as a village fair, in perhaps unfair contrast to the seriousness of intent palpable at the LCJO’s concert, from which I’d come. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with taking the exacting, enduring music of Thelonious Monk seriously. Few American composers’ ouevre pay off close listening so well by demonstrating  the fundimental complexities, puzzling paradoxes, potential alternatives and profound implications arising from jazz-related song. His songs are memorable, hummable, funny ha-ha and funny peculiar. Like Kafka or Escher or Bach, for that matter, his art has a logic of its own, though it is clearly put forth and immediately accessible.

 The LCJO did it’s characteristically note-perfect rendering of quite difficult charts that mostly embellished several of Monk’s less-often played melodies — “Crespuscule with Nellie,” “Epistrophy,” “Ugly Beauty,” “Hackensack,” “Four In One,” “Pannonica,” “Criss-Cross” and “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues Are,” “Bye-ya,” “We See,” “Skippy,” “Light Blue,” “Evidence” and “Blue Monk,” avoiding familiarities such as “Well You Needn’t,” “Straight No Chaser,” “Round Midnight,” “Off Minor” or “Rhythm-n-ing.” The show was sonorously scripted by historian Geoffrey Ward, with actor Courtney B. Vance delivering the biographical data; Wynton contributed introductory ad libs and T.S. Monk told an old family anecdote about how his dad earned his piano lessons. Marcus Roberts, winner of the first annual Monk instrumental Competition sponsored by the Monk Foundation, is an apposite keyboardist for such a program by virtue of his temperament as well as his technique; he breaks into oom-pah bass patterns, elicits unexpectedly delicate touches from up-high registers, rings percussive repetitions of insistent chords — does anything except offer predictably polished effusions. 
Yet Roberts did not dominate the evening,because this concert wasn’t meant to be a piano showcase nor a blowing date, although there were some piquant solos. It was much more consciously a repertory presentation, and therein lies the challenge Jazz at Lincoln Center continues to set for itself. 
How does the respectful preservation of enduring work jibe with the jazz imperative to make it new, keep it fresh, deliver excitement? Here, arranger-soloists including bassist Carlos Henriquez, drummer Ali Jackson, reedists Walter Blandings, Sherman Irby, Ted Nash and Victor Goines, trombonist Chris Crenshaw and trumpeters Marcus Printup and Wynton Marsalis himself focused on not smothering but rather highlighting the quirky spareness of Monk’s original small band in-the-moment versions, employed everything from picollos to congas and clavé beats, sweepingly harmonized Benny Carteresque sax section blends and extreme polyphony. What did they expect from all this? Was their intent to update the material, invest and interest themselves in it, or just show off? They evoked dreamy airs, bumptious rhythms, obliquely expansive references and mysterious conundrums — like a  a chamber orchestra tackling the reflective intricacies of a revered modernist, not much like a jazz gang attacking tried and true tunes to shake up the full house. 
Of course, this is the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, with a mission to elevate the art of jazz, not to sentimentalize or indulge the stereotype of its low-born if honest roots. Such concerts might seem perfect for an elite audience, designed for aficionados as informed as me, who are hyper-aware of and pre-ordained to be interested in signficiant albeit subtle variations on works we love and have heard many times. Rigorous extrapolation of possibilities Monk alludes to, which can only be realized by larger, more organized forces than the quartets he typically worked with, will inevitably de-emphasize interactive spontaneity, however much 16 musicians may try to make every note count (as Monk said essential to his method). The question is: must such repertory presention downplay the bold power of Monk’s — or Mingus’, Coltrane’s, Ellington’s, Morton’s, Miles’? — music. The Jazz at Lincoln Center answer has always been, “No!” So then why do we feel as exhausted as elated leaving a Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra Concert? Are we just getting old?
There’s that, but not only that. For all this concert’s assertions that Monk’s music is here and now for all to enjoy, there was something about the intricate frameworks in which this music was delivered that required listeners to make an effort to unpack it. Though I know Wynton Marsalis and all the aces on the bandstand want to swing hard and have fun, there is still something, maybe built in, only occasionally escapable, that makes these big, impressive events problematic for the less-than-devoted-yet-eager-to-be-enveloped fan. 
Were 14 densely detailed, multi-faceted arrangements too many to absorb? Should concerts be held in barns rather than well-appointed confines like “the house that swing built,” as Wynton calls his estimable institution? Are the ongoing attempts to justify jazz as America’s classical music doomed to leech the juice from jazz? Or is it just jaded critics, grouchy and prejudiced, who romanticize and indulge stereotypes of jazz’s low-born but honest roots as the real thing, and can’t accept that more upright presentations can be just as expressive and thrilling, as quickly convened, off-hand sets in crowded, rowdy clubs? 
Did anyone else hear the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra play Monk — and think, “Gee, the party is here in the lobby among the crush of folks chatting, touching, talking and listening too, more than it is when we’re in our seats”? Did you react/have you reacted similarly or differently to comparable concerts? As ever, comments on this question, which has troubled me a while, will be welcomed. I’m sure I’ve heard performances, even some by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (recalling a memorable battle of the bands with Jon Faddis’ sadly disenfranchised Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra), that delivered the longed-for visceral experience. What does it take to make classic jazz live, to keep classic jazz alive?

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  1. Bill says

    Don’t know how it was Friday night. I was there Thursday. No trio playing that night. But what went on the concert hall (at least while the band was swinging) was wonderful. While I could have done without the narration (Solidad O’brian the night I was there). The band itself and the arrangements (and the soloists) were just amazing. I kept thinking (it was my first time at Rose Theater) just how marvelous the room and the acoustics were, that we have a venue that lets a big band reside and provide an opportunity for new arrangers (baby arrangers did Wynton call them?) to shine and learn their craft. And when the band played Ugly Betty, in its waltz time and 5 sax front lines, the whole legacy of Duke Ellington was there for me. And I thought how blessed I am to witness this, and how blessed is Jazz to have an institution and musical director such as this. In the last few weeks I had been to Smoke, the Jazz Standard, and no name bars to hear Jazz throughout the city. J@LC does not take away from those experiences, it adds to them.
    Personally, I think most jazz critics, and even some jazz fans, are missing the fact that we are in a jazz Renaissance, which will be recognized years down the road. Just as I’m sure jazz critics at the time missed what was happening at Mintons, wondering if they were just getting too old.
    HM: Well, at least I admit the possibility. Having heard Monk himself play, having immersed myself in his recordings and the Straight No Chaser film, having sought out pianists like Jaki Byard, Andrew Hill, Don Pullen, Muhal Richard Abrams who follow in his path of un-orthodoxy but really leave their own giant step — and especially Cecil Taylor, and friends like Myra Melford, Marilyn Crispell, Jim Baker and Frank Kimbrough and players I admire including (but not limited to) Jason Moran, Craig Taiborn, Amina Claudine Myers, Marc Cary, Borah Bergman, Lafayette Gilchrist, Misha Mengelberg, Irene Schweizer, Cooper-Moore, I’ve got to say there’s a fall-off in my estimation between what Monk promised and the LCJO delivers. But what they do deliver is excellent.
    I spoke tonight with the NYU class I took to hear the LCJO play Monk on Friday. They were without exception impressed — with the hall, with the highlighting of every member of the orchestra, with the Latin tinge provided by Carlos Enriquez’s arrangement and the guest conguero (whose name didn’t get in the program book, sorry), though one of them thought there was a bit of a war going on between him and drummer Ali Jackson when the clavé got hot (I didn’t find it so). They liked actor Courtney Vance, who Ben Ratliff in his review in the NYTimes today (Monday) found irritating. They didn’t mind there are no women in the LCJO (eight of my nine students are women), They didn’t find it too long. They remarked on trombonist Vincent Garder (I think it was) who solo’d using a plunger mute to dramatic effect. One of them mentioned Ryan Kisor, who took a very slippery solo, impossible to grab onto and hold still. But none of them mentioned Monk’s melodies. Only one of them was previously familiar with his songs, and the idea of arrangements of songs was new to them (I explained that the blues get arranged, too, but for rather different effect).
    One of them said she didn’t think jazz was her thing — unless Amy Winehouse is jazzy (yes, AW is jazzy). She thinks she misses the point of music without vocals, though on songs that DO have instrumental breaks, those breaks are often her favorite parts of the songs. There was some slight debate about whether the concert was too long — no one objected to the length strenuously. So maybe I underestimated this crew — maybe they have the patience to take in 14 Monk melodies, arranged by a dozen different musicians eager to show off to each other. I enjoyed many of the charts — “Four In One” (incredible section work), “Ugly Beauty” (wonderfully slow waltz) and “Hackensack” (upbeat) in particular. Did this music leap off the stage? Personally, I was leaning in to absorb it, sort of odd considering the fire-power up there.
    But I agree, we are living in a great age — renaissance? — of jazz. I keep pointing to the unheralded music of America — the great sounds that are growing out of our vast, rich, robust, vivid tradition but expanding it, moving beyond it. Whether improvisatory or composed, freely interactive or carefully coordinated, new sounds of vivacity abound. The problem facing the musical arts today is not lack of creativity, it is inconsistency of support, weaknesses of genuine connection with an enduring, understanding, engaged audience, dilettantism of those artists, presenters, producers and listeners who don’t dare put themselves on the line.
    At one point during Friday’s production, Monk was quoted as saying something like, “Make every note count.” Are the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra players impelled to blow like they’d never have another chance to move the pulse of those folks in the $120 seats? I hope so — but I wasn’t SO far from the front of the house, and I do SO want to feel it. . . .