One of the premier jazz events of the year, the annual Thelonious Monk competition rarely fails to deliver. Each year the jazz elite gather to celebrate the legacy of Thelonious Monk and to recognize up-and-coming talents of the jazz world via a competition that rotates among instruments. When hosted by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., an aura of political weight is inevitably added to the evening as Congressmenand this year, President Barak Obama together with Michelle Obamaaffix their names to the list of honoree hosts and sponsors. The music is always top quality and the finalists often destined for recording contracts and popular recognition. Recent years, however, have left the competition a touch weighed-down by its own sense of import, the speeches gilded with pomp and the pace of the event stiff, like an ill-fitted suit. This may explain why the just-completed 2010 competition stood out as one of the most enjoyable competitions in recent years, due in no small part to the unaffected charm and unquestionable talent of this year's winner, vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant
Salvant's genuineness, however, was not the only factor at play in making the 2010 Monk Vocal Competition sweep along like a breath of fresh air. From opening number to closing speech, the evening was characterized by an almost familial quality as veteran performers, contestants, and hosts alike radiated a sense of loose fun and shared camaraderie. Hostess Phylicia Rashad certainly helped set the tone with her pitch-perfect mix of down-to-earth humor and good nature, as did the welcome segment of the night which focused admirably on the music and less on speechifying. In short, everything from the hosts to the line-up of supporting musicians, to the event's gently unfolding pace combined to create an inviting atmosphere that let the audience sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
Following a sprightly version of "Better Than Anything" by Ledisi, George Duke
, the first half of the evening's show began. Dedicated to the vocal competition and the composer's award, this phase started with each of the three finalists taking the stage to perform two selections each.
The eventual third place winner, Cyrille Aimee, a native of Fontainebleau, France, opened with an unabashedly seductive rendition of "I Wish You love." Delivered in her native tongue, Aimee successfully imbued the tune with flirtatious allure, including a portion of French-tinged and understated scat. Aimee then turned to a less successful version of "Summertime," the risky R&B-influenced arrangement of which failed to convince.
Choosing a dramatically different approach, second-prize winner Charnenee Wade began with a powerful, modern take of Duke Ellington
's "Mood Indigo." Serving up a generous helping of ambitious scat, Wade took significant stylistic risks, delivering a potent, unconventional version of the well-known tune. Wade also distinguished herself through her dynamic interaction with the supporting band, both on this tune and her follow-up piece "The Thrill is Gone."
Taking first place, Cecile McLorin Salvant chose two contrasting selections: a humorously quaint take on "If this Isn't Love" followed by a subtle but powerful rendition of Bessie Smith's "I Wonder Where our Love has Gone." Salvant convinced rather than overwhelmed the audience with her subtle vocals and unexpected phrasing, the combined effect of which produced an unusual emotional clarity that moved the audience to shouts of appreciation and in the end earned her first prize.
Describing Salvant's performance, competition judge Kurt Elling
articulated, "First of all, she is clearly a clutch hitter because she gave a hell of a performance. And she seems to know very clearly who she is and who she wants to be. Her voice is very beautiful and the material that she picked was tailor-made for her to be able to tell spellbinding stories."
As definitive as her performance was, Salvant's poise and unaffected sincerity was equally appealing. Reacting to the win as she signed autographs and shook hands with a string of appreciative audience members, Salvant expressed genuine surprise. "I don't understand what is happening to me! I have to remind myself where I am, what I am doing.... I have never experienced this...the first time I played with a band, a jazz band, was 3 years ago. Just seeing an audience respond the way they responded and come out here and have people even know who I am is overwhelming. Completely unexpected and surreal."