Friday, October 11, 2019

SFJAZZ Celebrates Monk’s 102nd Birthday

Pianist Kenny Barron (from the SFJAZZ event page for last night’s concert)

The iconic jazz pianist Thelonious Monk was born on October 10, 1917; and, since SFJAZZ was first launched, the organization has made it a point to celebrate this significant birthday. Last night (Monk’s 102nd birthday) was curated by jazz pianist Kenny Barron, who had previously performed with Sphere, the quartet that included Monk alumni Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone and drummer Ben Riley. Barron was joined by another pianist, Benny Green, and guitarist Miles Okazaki. While Okazaki was not a pianist, Barron introduced him as having prepared solo guitar transcriptions of the entire Monk canon.

The evening was structured strictly around that canon. For the first half, each of the three musicians took a solo set, playing three of Monk’s tunes. The intermission was followed by all of the three possible duet combinations, each playing two Monk pieces. The entire trio then wrapped up the evening with another two Monk compositions.

That made for a lot of Monk filling a duration (including the intermission) of almost two and one-half hours. Writing as someone who admires Monk’s association with the keyboard as much of that of Johann Sebastian Bach, I still have to confess that last night’s quantity was beginning to take its toll on my attention even before the entire group gathered for the trio set. Nevertheless, I rather enjoyed the occasions when one of the musicians would begin with the contrafact (the “silent theme” that is transformed into a new tune) that inspired Monk before launching into the Monk composition itself.

Several of those occasions were discoveries for me. “Hackensack,” played by Green and Okazaki, began as “Oh, Lady Be Good!” and was transformed into “Rifftide” by Coleman Hawkins before Monk put his stamp on it, while “Evidence, played by Baron and Okazaki, emerged from “Just You, Just Me.” However, there were also takes during which one Monk tune would encroach on another. During, Green’s solo set, there were signs that “Crepuscule with Nellie” was haunting the shadows of “Trinkle, Trinkle,” while “Ruby, My Dear” put out a call for which “’Round Midnight” provided a response.

For all of those rich discoveries, there was one disappointment that pervaded the entire evening. All three musicians demonstrated a clear and clean grasp of Monk’s thematic lines, and each performance unfolded its respective line into inventive improvisations. However, what was missing consistently from all of the performances was any indication of Monk’s idiosyncratic sense of rhythm. It was almost as if those idiosyncrasies had been expunged in favor of a clearer account of the tune itself. Nevertheless, in a piece like “Monk’s Dream” (the opening selection played by Barron), there is an intruding triplet of repeated notes that suggests that the dream is a disquieting one, while Barron merged that three-note stutter into a single note consistently for every statement of the tune.

This may simply have been a well-intentioned effort to “smooth over some rough edges” found in Monk’s own performances. However, both Green and Okazaki followed Barron down this path. The result was an avoidance of one of the key stylistic qualities that made Monk the remarkable pianist and composer that he was. A little of that coarseness might have held off the fatigue that was beginning to set in after two hours had elapsed.

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