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2013 Thelonious Monk Institute Competition

Franz A. Matzner By

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To underscore this growing attribute of the Institute's extensive educational programing, Cassandra Wilson joined blues guitar veteran Robben Ford to perform Charlie Paton's "Saddle My Pony." Wilson coyly flipped the gender roles of the original and extracted every ounce of innuendo from the classic tune, while Ford accompanied her powerful singing with appropriately gritty guitar work. Ford then assumed the spotlight for an electric-blues romp that elevated the concert hall's energy level and underscored the blues' many manifestations and influences.

Honoring Wayne Shorter

No celebration of the saxophone would be complete without mention of Wayne Shorter. The Institute took full advantage of his 80th birthday to honor his enormous contributions to jazz and to shine a much deserved spotlight on his long-standing involvement with the organization as an educator. Shorter received the Institute's rarely presented Lifetime Achievement Award, bestowed only one other time to Quincy Jones in 1996. Perhaps more meaningfully, Shorter was saluted by his friend and colleague, Herbie Hancock, who delivered a touchingly personal and poetic speech describing Shorter's brilliant career and enigmatic persona. The best honor, however, was the tour of Shorter's musical history presented by an impressive roster of rotating guest artists, including, Herbie Hancock, John Patitucci, Gerald Clayton, Kurt Elling, Roy Hargrove, Jimmy Heath, Branford Marsalis, Marcus Miller, T.S. Monk and more.

A septet of Shorter's own students performed a smooth take on "One by One," with Diego Urbano's vibe playing standing out in particular. This was followed by a combination of "Black Nile" and "Dolores Dream." On the later, Kurt Elling joined to deliver his patented ultra-hip, stylized take and provided a dose of humor to the proceedings, while the band's rendition of "Black Nile" highlighted the continued fertility of Shorter's famous Blue Note solo recordings. "Fall" and "Footprints" were chosen to document Shorter's Miles Davis Quintet period and his contribution to the seminal group. Here the assembled performers once again used the two pieces to simultaneously depict the longevity of these works and the vision of Shorter as a player and composer. Shifting gears, the next performance recognized Shorter's path breaking forays into fusion with the group Weather Report. To do so, John Beasley, Danilo Perez, Marcus Miller, and the vocalists Take 6 broke out the electric instruments for a rendition of "Palladium" decked out in full Seventies funk regalia.

Appropriately Shorter then assumed center stage to lead his current quartet in a stellar performance of "Over Shadow Hill Way." It could not go unnoticed that Shorter's playing—even on only a single tune—instantly soared, carrying the audience into the stratospheres of our emotional and philosophical being and made a fitting conclusion to the night's celebration of his six-decade career as a restless iconoclast and perpetual seeker.

George Duke Tribute

Only a month prior to the Monk Competition composer, performer, and producer George Duke passed away. A frequent partner with and staunch supporter of the Thelonious Monk Institute, his loss was clearly acutely felt by the presenters and performers as they incorporated into the night's concert a commemoration of Duke's accomplishments across a spectrum of genres and contexts.

Accompanied by a slideshow that revealed the impressive scope of Duke's collaborations—ranging from Billy Taylor to B.B. King to Bono—vocalist Ledisi performed "You Never Know" from Duke's final album DreamWeaver (Heads Up, 2013) and the a cappella group Take 6 delivered a rendition of "Fly Away," the occasional flaws of which made the tribute all the more endearing even as it reflected Duke's irrepressible positivity.

Conclusion

The 2013 Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition was a refreshing affair in almost every sense. The Institute furnished its top prize to a female instrumentalist for the first time. The winner, Melissa Aldana, exemplified the personal expressiveness associated with jazz's signature instrument and the concert portion of the evening paid homage to one of the music's most significant composers, performers, and thinkers. The relative simplicity of the night's presentation only added to the sense of camaraderie and allowed the music to dominate, illuminating both the historic arc the night's many performances documented and the future contours implied by the competitions rising talents.

Photo Credit
Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz

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