Jason Moran’s Tribute to Thelonious Monk: A Review of “Jason Moran’s, In My Mind, Monk at Town Hall, 1959” at the Kennedy Center

Jason Moran, one of the most talented jazz pianists currently working, has created a thoughtful and compelling tribute to the indispensably idiosyncratic Thelonious Monk with his performance of “In My Mind, Monk at Town Hall 1959”, shown March 28th at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Moran converses deeply with Monk, with Moran beginning the performance by dawning headphones, his body swaying to the music as a recording of Monk’s performance at Town Hall comes on over the PA. Moran begins to feel out the melody with one hand, shaky and uncertain, but gradually his out of time playing begins to become confident, coming to sound much like Monk. He commences with his other hand, playing the large striding and yet dissonant intervals that were so peculiar to Monk’s voice. The angular and staccato playing begins to grow less jagged, with Moran filling in Monk’s lydian dominant signature tonalities with swells of passing tone runs. Monk’s playing abruptly cuts out, leaving Moran playing by himself, and sounding much more like himself, though now, perhaps more clearly than is usual, we hear Monk’s influence on Moran in the pulsating syncopation of chords in Moran’s right hand. Applause erupts as the last chord of this virtuoso musician’s homage to an unmistakable genius rings out.

Moran is joined on stage by seven other influential musicians, including Walter Smith III on tenor saxophone, Logan Richardson III on alto saxophone, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Frank Lacy on Trombone, Bob Stewart on tuba, Taruis Mateen on bass, and Nasheet Waits on drums. Together the octet sounds more like a gritty big band than a jazz combo, with the majority of the performance being collective explorations of tone and rhythm, rather than distinguishable solos. Perhaps surprisingly with the sort of talent on display, each player gets about two solos over the course of the night, save, of course, for Moran. Richardson seemed to pay tribute to Eric Dolphy, with his out playing of large intervals, while Smith seemed inclined to explore the possibilities of rhythmic variation in his solos, perhaps in respect of Monk’s legacy as one of the most rhythmically fascinating jazz artists. Alessi and Lacy took their solos in a more straight fashion, showing less of an influence of Monk in their playing, though the clarity of Lacy’s phrasing was remarkable and the soulful playing of Alessi outstanding. Indeed, Alessi had one of the most memorable solos of the night. Mateen and Waits were swinging hard, though Waits seemed to not get into the groove with the rest of the band until the second number. Mateen’s tone was exceptional for being on an electric bass, likely due to the unusual double bass bridge built into the electric instrument, and he always seemed to perfectly anticipate Moran’s movements.

The show was also conceptually rich. On a projector screen behind the stage photos and videos of Monk played, as well as segments of an essay by Moran that flashed on the screen as Moran took another solo interlude in Monk-style. Audio from a documentary on Monk played during the music at points, and at other times as an interlude between pieces, most powerfully when comments about Monk’s grandparents being slaves played before the band played Monk’s “Work” with fiery indignation. Following that comment on American history audio played that told a story of Monk being pulled from a car and being beaten by police officers, forcing the audience to grapple with race relations in America, and a continued history of discrimination and suppression of Black Americans. As Moran, Smith, Richardson and Mateen left the stage, Lacy, Alessi and Stewart played a forlorn work song as Waits took an extended and moving drum solo. Moran is to be commended for making this connection of history to the present, as the majority white audience became painfully aware that they were but another white audience watching black entertainers perform at an elitist institution. I offset this feeling by catching Donvonte McCoy and his quintet at 18th Street Lounge that night.

As such, Moran’s show is to be commended as much for the ideas presented on the history of black America and Black American music as the actual music played. The collective playing was exhilarating, building to climaxes that caused me gasps of excitement, and Moran displayed his trademark soulful reharmonizations and eighty-eight key piano runs, as well as his understated solo finales. All in all, an unforgettable performance.

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