Tuesday, October 13, 2009

3 From Monk at 92

A few notes on the "Monk at 92" piano mini-marathon at the Winter Garden last Friday night:

The majority of the "mini-marathon" (it was slated to run about four hours) was devoted to solo piano performances. As I've noted before, the quality of live sound in the vast, open, almost cathedral-like Winter Garden tends to suffer from the inherent limitations of the space. It clearly wasn't designed as a concert hall, at least acoustically. The limitations become more obvious and problematic the more instruments are involved, and particularly when drums are in the mix, but for solo piano it's not bad.

I'm focusing on the sound of the room because what struck me most about the performances I saw, even more than the variety of approaches performers took to Monk's music, was how radically different the same piano in the same space can sound when played by different musicians. The format of one solo pianist after another provided a perfect opportunity to witness this phenomenon, recently alluded to in Ethan Iverson's interview with Keith Jarrett.

Junior Mance (born, like Monk, on October 10th) played with a clear, sharp attack, each note ringing out distinctly, his touch perfectly suiting his approach to Monk's music, the bluesiest of any of the pianists I saw at the Winter Garden. Monk, of course, composed many blues, and the blues feeling is present in all his work, whether a given tune has a blues structure or not. It was this very central blues aspect of Monk that Mance was exploring on Friday night.

After Mance, Kenny Barron's sound at first seemed indistinct, almost muddy by contrast. As he went on, his sound somehow gained in clarity as his playing increased in complexity, building excitement and leaving no doubt that this was a master, able to translate Monk's language into his own terms with total authority. All the while, his touch remained wholly distinct from Mance's, to the point that it was hard to believe they'd been playing the same instrument.

Geri Allen's sound was immersive, full of overtones, with ideas like sparks floating and mingling in the air. Allen solidly established her Monk credentials twenty years ago, when she appeared on Paul Motian's Monk In Motian, an album that belongs on any list of the great Monk tributes, right up there with Steve Lacy's Reflections. Her playing on Friday was a clear testament to the continued ability of Monk's music to inspire high-level improvisation.

Though I saw some other performances and was sorry to have missed others, these three performing back-to-back-to-back was an undeniable highlight of the event, a small but concentrated cross section of jazz piano as it's being performed today. I'm pretty sure I spotted bassist William Parker checking out the music [update: turns out Parker performed as part of the marathon-closing Zim Ngqawana Quartet], and I'm going to look around to see if any other bloggers or critics have posted reviews. I haven't seen anything so far, but I'll post links when I do.

Bonus Links

A preview with comments about Monk from several of the participants

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