2012 Thelonious Monk International Drums Competition
The series of tunes began with singer Roberta Gambarini paying tribute to Anita O'Day, with a characteristically over-the-top delivery that served to underscore the deceased singer's talents largely through contrast. Following a moving introduction by UNESCO spokeswoman Irina Bokova, who described the direct impact she'd witnessed jazz have in the inspiration and formation of political liberation movements, singer Gretchen Parlato joined saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington for a rendition of "Chega De Saudade." Parlato's understated, innovative reading transformed this look at the infusion of bossa nova into jazz into one of the evening's musical highlights. Aided by Oh's insightful bass work, Parlato's beautifully abstract vocals blended seamlessly with Shorter's saxophone into a keen of passionate seeking.
Singer Nnenna Freelon and cellist Akua Dixon took the stage next for a gratifying version of "Stormy Weather," followed by a bluesy "Rollem" that highlighted the many contributions of pianist Mary Lou Williams, on which both pianist Geri Allen and saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom lent their distinct voices. No tribute to women in jazz would be complete without an Ella Fitzgerald tune, and the Institute delivered with an appropriately out-sized, big-band take on "Lady Be Good" by singer Patti Austin and a host of guests, including saxophonist Jimmy Heath, guitarist Lee Ritenour, saxophonist Claire Daly, and many more.
With the stage now properly set, Hancock and Institute supporter Tipper Gore introduced the culmination of the evening's entertainment, a set of tunes by legendary singer Aretha Franklin, as a tribute to the many achievements of Former Secretary of State, Madeline K. Albright. In fine form, Franklin first performed "My Funny Valentine" and, following a few words of sincere affection for Albright, an ovation-inspiring version of "Respect."
Just when it seemed like nothing more could be done, the Institute provided one more surprise. After accepting her award with signature humor and penetrating commentary, Albright indicated she would fulfill Monk Competition protocol by joining in with the assembled artists for a tune. And so she did. Perching herself on the drum stool, Albright gripped a pair of felt-head drum sticks and with only a few cues, added several cymbal rolls to a quite beautiful rendition of "Nessun Dorma" led by trumpeter Chris Botti. It was a heartwarming way to underline not only Albright's unique personality and tremendous lifetime accomplishments, but also to close the circle on the evening's multiple themes with both grace and humor.
Invariably and deservedly, the main focus of every Monk Institute competition is the young artists who compete for the illustrious honors and often career-making suite of prizes. This year was no different and provided a chance for audiences to experience the drums in all its many facets, highlighting the instrument's integral nature to the distinctiveness of jazz. The finalists all brought their unique style to the stage and proved just how diverse drumming can be.
But the annual Monk Institute affair goes beyond the competition. Embedded in the sometimes reductive, sometimes corny and at times eloquent speeches lay an earnest reminder of how powerful jazz can benot only to individuals as entertainment, but also in helping to create international bonds, inspire political action, and bring together cultures through shared history and artistic experiment. Or, as Irina Bokova perhaps put it best, the concert and competition proved once again that "Jazz started in the U.S. but now belongs to the world," and its further evolution depends on the continued programs, proselytizing, and partnerships of institutions like the Monk Institute.
Page 1 (top), Page 2: Courtesy of Getty Images
All Other Photos: Steve Mundinger