“Monk Town Hall Concert”
Jason Moran and Big Band at the San Francisco Jazz Festival
Harry S. Pariser
Despite being one of the 20th century’s premier pianists, “Thelonious Sphere Monk” remains unknown to most Americans. An outlandish but sadly apocryphal story brings this point home. Tabitha Soren interviewing Bill Clinton on MTV supposedly asked the presidential candidate who he had dreamed of playing saxophone with. “Thelonious Monk” Clinton replied. “Who is the ‘Loneliest Monk’?” a bewildered Tabitha responded. Thoroughly eccentric yet extremely introverted, Monk was a brilliant pianist and composer. During performances, Thelonious would sometimes get up and dance around in a circle stomp; he posed for a record cover while sitting in a little red wagon, and he was famed for his singular choice in hats. In short, Monk was a character. (A vivid character study of the man may be found in the form of the wonderful documentary “Straight No Chaser.”)
Monk would have been 90 in 2007, and in recognition of this legacy, SFJazz initiated “The Monk Project”— a series of concerts and educational events devoted to the history of and present-day impact of Monk’s music.
Although Monk rarely performed with a large ensemble, his Town Hall concert of February 1959 was one such memorable occasion. (It’s currently available on CD as Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall.) As part of the SFJazz Spring Season 2007, pianist Jason Moran was invited to lead an orchestra which would commemorate the event in the form of a reinterpretation. Moran, one of the most innovative young pianists touring and recording today, proved an auspicious choice. Born in 1975, Moran began studying the piano at age six. He had almost abandoned the instrument when he first heard the music of Thelonious Monk and he was thereupon inspired to keep going. This inspiration eventually led to his work with the San Francisco Jazz Festival. (A second concert is scheduled for this Fall).
An initial public performance by this ensemble took place at the Palace of Fine Arts in May 2007. For this gig, Moran recruited a crew of outstanding and highly talented musicians including drummer T. S. Monk, the late musician’s son, well-known tuba player Bob Stewart, alto player Jaleel Shaw, tenor saxophonist Walter Smith, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (a Monk Institute member), trombonist and ethnomusicologist Isaac Smith, French horn player Vincent Chancey, and bassist Tarus Mateen. Each was given ample opportunity to solo, both in the ensemble and, individually, against a sample of Monk which was repeated over and over. (At times this seemed to detract from the solo in question). Moran’s piano solos were spectacular throughout the evening, and Bob Stewart was a particular standout on tuba. At one point, T. S. stepped out in front of the band and, facing them, proclaimed “Jazz musicians are strange cats. You all played your ass off.” The versions of such Monk standards as Rootie Tootie, Off Minor, and Monk’s Mood were superlative. Jason Moran explained that (we) musicians had “all learned the tunes from records.”
Following the final number, the sublime Crepescule for Nellie (a tune Monk had named after his devoted spouse) the band promptly returned for the encore with Epistrophy, a signature Monk composition. At its conclusion, the band left the stage as T. S. embraced each performer.