Jason Moran and the Big Bandwagon
In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall
New York, New York
February 27, 2009
Jason Moran was playing perfectly. He'd just begun his solo introduction to "In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959"—his tribute to, and reimagining of, Thelonious Monk's historic concertdashing off a few strains of "'Round Midnight" in a medley that had him leaping across the keyboard with poise and polish. The notes sounded elegant, precise, and far too measured to be Monkish.
Static broke the spell. A recording of Monk's Town Hall version of "Thelonious" seeped through Moran's headphones, roughing up moments that would have felt too precious. Instead of wisps of a just-played melody drifting through the hall's expectant silence, we heard Monk crackling. Moran ensured that the old master, who spent much of his career playing on out-of-tune uprights, wouldn't be lost amid the surroundings' pomp.
Playing Monk too cleanly isn't the only possible path to misinterpreting his music. The opposite approach, exaggerating Monk's personality into caricature, marks many tribute attempts. "I want to reconnect with Monk," Moran writes in the program notes, "not with people talking about his 'quirky rhythms' or 'off-center humor.'" To avoid the pitfalls of canonization and imitation, Moran chose to make the concert a deeply personal tribute, utilizing an audio-visual presentation that worked back from the moment he first noticed Monk's music toward an understanding of Monk's life, words, and work.
Moran created the night's program in 2007 for a Duke University celebration of Monk's 90th birthday, but this concert, marking the 50th anniversary of Monk's Town Hall show, was its grand premiere—Moran channeling Monk in Town Hall itself. Much of the pre-concert press had anticipated the concert as a deconstruction of Monk, a studiously hip spectacle that would showcase Moran's penchant for transforming golden oldies into postmodern romps.
On the first two songs, "Thelonious" and "Friday The 13th," these expectations proved founded. On "Thelonious," Moran, drummer Nasheet Waits, and bassist Tarus Mateen, played with spontaneity and inventiveness, but the two saxophones, trumpet, trombone, and tuba that made-up the rest of The Big Bandwagon sounded like a tacked-on studio horn section, harmonizing with stale whole notes and accenting obvious points in the melody. On "Friday The 13th," the horn arrangements were loose and shambling, taking far more away from the music than they added. The video presentation projected above the stage was even more distracting: bright yellow cut-out shapes flashing over blurry photographs of Monk's band in rehearsal. The video emphasized clichés about Monk's use of repetition, his 'quirky rhythms,' and his 'off center humor'it didn't bring us any closer to understanding his mind.
Beginning with the next song, "Monk's Mood," Moran's project found its focus: the intersection of the musical and the personal. As the horns brought out multiple shadings of Monk's contemplative ballad, the story of Moran's introduction to Monk's music played as text over video footage of Moran's piano studio. As a 13-year-old, Moran discovered Monk amid tragedy. He was at home with his parents when they received a call telling them that a family friend had died in a plane crash. When Moran walked into his parents' bedroom, he found them watching news footage of the wreckage, the TV muted, Monk's "'Round Midnight" playing on the stereo.
This snapshot from Moran's life segued into a recording of Rwandan drumming overlaid with narration of two stories from Monk's history: his great grandparents' lives as slaves on a North Carolina plantation and his brutal beating at the hands of the New York Police Department. An ebullient Nasheet Waits solo followed, bringing the music back to the here-and-now before yielding to the brass section's rendition of the gospel number "Blessed Assurance." After a few choruses, the brass section marched slowly offstage—a New Orleans funeral procession at full tilt—continuing to play from the wings even after the applause died down.
When the horns' last strains faded away, Monk himself began to speak. His conversations with Hall Overton, the arranger of the 1959 Town Hall concert, formed the centerpiece of Moran's concert, bringing Monk's voice to the forefront. The actual content of the recordings, documented as part of photographer W. Eugene Smith's "Jazz Loft" project, reveals little about Monk's process ("I don't like no big band sound. The big band sound is too stiff..." is one of the more illuminating moments). Yet hearing Monk's voice clearly and without accompaniment served as a perfect climax to the personal chronicle that began with "Monk's Mood" and Moran's story.
"Little Rootie Tootie" and "Off Minor," the concert's next two songs, followed in the same spirit, utilizing the horns to great effect and maintaining a focus on the personal. Monk's voice emerged again while the band played "Off Minor," repeating the phrase "in my mind" over and over as a kind of DJ'ed mantra, before moving into Monk's discussion of his sparse arrangement for "Crepescule with Nellie," both concerts' final number.
Moran's "Crepescule with Nellie" deliberately broke with Monk's minimalist precedent. Monk never soloed over "Crepescule," honoring the melody with faithful repetition, while Moran offered the song as an impression, barely hinting at the melody. Yet Moran's interpretation of "Crepescule" managed to sound Monkish even as he played almost none of Monk's notes. As inimitable as his music was, it's doubtful any other jazz composer has ever matched Monk's ability to craft pieces that are at once so malleable, allowing for infinite reworkings and reimaginings, and so unshakably personal. Throughout the concert, Moran investigated that unalterable strain of Monk DNA—demonstrating its strength in his varied approaches to Monk's compositions, searching for its roots in Monk's history and voice, and ultimately celebrating its power as the Big Bandwagon descended from the stage and marched towards Town Hall's lobby as an ecstatic encore.