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2013 Thelonious Monk Institute Competition

Franz A. Matzner By

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The saxophone is the most iconic of jazz instruments. Its image is all that is needed to invoke the music's essence, its history intimately entangled with the cultural arc of American music and urban culture. Its masters are the most recognized outside jazz circles and its sound most closely identified with the art form. To many, jazz is defined by the sax and the sax defined by jazz.

For that reason, it was fitting that this year's Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Saxophone Competition divested itself of much of its hallmark pageantry, opting instead for a paired back presentation that put the saxophone, its players, and the music front and center. Speeches were truncated and more organic, the production less lavish, the itinerary foreshortened. The atmosphere transformed from elaborate celebration to intimate recognition and soulful introspection.

And the music—both the three saxophone finalists and the gala concert to follow—reflected this change and seemed, in some ways, better served for it. After all, the saxophone is most regaled for its reflection of the human voice, for its ability to shape moods, to channel emotions, and to conjure from thin air evocations of our innermost depths.

The Finalists

In keeping with the Institute's important focus on education, the evening opened with a sprightly rendition of "ETA" by a collection of student players before turning to the heart of each year's Monk Institute concert, the competition. Held annually at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts the competition draws contestants from across the globe to vie for the prestigious and lucrative first prize scholarship and Concord Music Group record deal.

Winnowed to three finalists, each of whom played two selections with accompaniment by Carl Allen (drums), Reginald J Thomas (piano) and, Rodney Whitaker (bass), this year's presentations were defined by a judicious constraint that substituted artful readings and subtlety for technical pyrotechnics and genre-challenging explorations. All three finalists strove for soul over sonics, grounding their work with historical touchstones and orienting their performances inward, thus reflecting a growing tendency of modern jazz towards recontextualizing versus decontextualizing.

Tivon Pennicott used his smooth tone to deliver convincing takes on Sonny Rollins' "Strode Rode" and Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" and showed adept rhythmic skills while trading with Allen. While his first selection felt stiff, "Smile" revealed a soft touch and a languid tone that evoked a water color of sleepy hollows and humid nights.

Playing on alto, Harlem-born Godwin Louis performed a powerfully personal interpretation of Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark." Displaying an unusually patient pace of development and a cunning use of dynamics, Godwin crafted a hypnotic mood both engulfing and enticing. Unfortunately, Godwin stumbled on his second tune, the original composition, "Our Father," which though intriguing in design, failed to captivate.

Last to perform was Chilean-born and New York-based Melissa Aldana. Throughout both Jimmy Van Heusen's "I Thought About You" and her original composition "Free Fall" Aldana consistently impressed with her deep, sonorous tenor and unpredictable development. Equally grounded in tradition and reflective of the night's minimalism as the previous contestants, Aldana's approach was less codified and, though extremely subtle, more adventurous across both her selections.

Ultimately, her exceptionally personal voice and expressive control established her as the first female instrumentalist to secure first place in the Institute's history. The significance of passing on the saxophone torch to a woman pleased judge Jane Ira Bloom whose own career has been defined by pushing the creative envelope. Bloom explained Aldana's victory stating, "The general impression of the judges was that Melissa has an original voice. She had really absorbed a great deal of information that many of the other performers had from the past, but what particularly struck me was how she used it to make a melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic vocabulary that was hers. We are all artists and I think that is what surprised our ears...She was expressing her feeling for old and new."

The Blues

In 2007, the Institute introduced its Blues and Jazz curriculum with an extended educational tour of Mississippi public schools. Since then, the Institute has been expanding its focus on the blues to highlight the music's history and relationship with jazz.


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