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Diane Monroe Quartet at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

Victor L. Schermer By

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Diane Monroe Quartet
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
"Spiritual Strivings" Exhibition and Concert
Philadelphia, PA
August 2, 2014

In the tradition of the Paris salons, art and music go together, and some of the best jazz in the Philadelphia area today can be heard at art museums, taking up some of the slack due to the attrition of nightclubs. In this instance, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a premiere art school and museum, featured a one-time-only jazz concert to complement its exhibition entitled "Spiritual Strivings: A Celebration of African American Works on Paper," which runs until October 12.

The art and the music were intended to mirror one another. Legendary jazz violinist, John Blake, Jr., who has worked extensively with African American spiritual music, was scheduled to be the featured musician. Medical issues pre-empted him from performing, and he asked his long-time friend and cohort, violinist Diane Monroe to substitute for him. On short notice, Monroe put together a stellar rhythm section to work with her and delivered two superb sets emphasizing the African American heritage of jazz and spirituals, all composed by black musicians. The result was exciting and brilliantly executed music that was as soul-stirring as the panoply of art work reflecting the struggles, pain, and joy of many aspects of African American life and history.

Three of Duke Ellington's compositions honored his immortal status. The first set began with Ellington-Tizol's "Caravan," which is really a tone poem evoking the mysteries of the Middle East. The piece is a perfect foil for violin, and Monroe's technical mastery spared nothing to bring out the adventure and intrigue implied in the tune. Lee Smith is one of the only bassists who could match her virtuosity, and pianist Luke Carlos O'Reilly and drummer Leon Jordan, Sr. showed early on that Monroe chose musicians of the highest caliber for this gig. Monroe then gave her sidemen even more room to improvise with "I'm Beginning to See the Light," a standard attributed to several composers (!) including the Duke.

Both Blake and Monroe have frequently performed the folk spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." Here, Monroe played her own solo arrangement that brought out the depth and complexity of the lives and feelings of displaced former slaves, all African Americans, and the human condition of ultimate aloneness in the world. Monroe's mastery of violin techniques was put to good use in evoking the profound emotions of this song for the ages. It was followed by a haunting hymn composed by the great jazz pianist and radio host Dr. Billy Taylor: "I Wish I knew How It Feels to be Free." The group made the most of its evocative beauty and developed their variations in a consilient manner that emphasized expression over improvisational embellishment.

The set concluded with a medley of two songs that are almost mirror images of one another: Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'" and the traditional spiritual, "Calvary" as arranged by Monroe. These two songs could probably be played simultaneously as counterpoint, and at times, that is what the group seemed to be doing. The ensemble then worked up to a flourish of co-improvising with passionate intensity.

After a break, which gave the audience time to purchase CDs and browse the art collection, the band resumed with Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood." While in the previous numbers Monroe's virtuosity and clarity as a classically trained violinist predominated, here one could sense the influence of Stephane Grappelli and the jazz violin tradition. In this concert, Monroe showed remarkable versatility, incorporating romantic, modern, and postmodern violin approaches on top of swing, bebop, and country fiddler styles.

The pinnacle of the concert was Monroe's amazing arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia." Remarkably, she deconstructed the melody into what might have been a Bartok etude, and it worked! Then the group grabbed hold of this lively motif and turned it into a festschrift of improvising that culminated in Leon Jordan, Sr.'s incomparable drum solo which bloomed like an orchid that occupied the space in the room like a heavenly apparition. It was Elvin Jones' magic taken to another level.

The group then made a half-hearted attempt at Thelonious Monk's "Eronel." They got caught up in trying to negotiate between Monk's off-center syncopation and straight ahead rhythms. "Eronel" can be played as a standard ballad or as a "Thelonious the Onliest" (the title of a tune by J.J. Johnson), that is, in the unique idiom of Monk. Mixing the two styles can only compromise the music.

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