Monk Competition 2007: Trumpets

Jim Santella By

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The ten semifinalists this year weren
Thelonious Monk Institute
International Jazz Trumpet Competition
Los Angeles, California
October 27-28, 2007

The 20th annual Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz competition featured trumpeters this year, along with a concert tribute to Herbie Hancock that brought out an array of guest artists. A night to remember, the event was filmed at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles for a future television showing on the BET Jazz cable network. The competition, concert, testimony and jam session ran in three parts: the trumpet finals, a concert tribute and award presentation to pianist Hancock, and an additional concert that featured the night's honoree swinging with his many friends.

The celebration opened with a New Orleans trad band that marched in from one of the auditorium ground-floor entrances opening up to the hall's large audience. Judges for the competition, all noted trumpeters, sat near the front of the stage, just close enough to see the performers but far enough back to be able to hear a balanced presentation. Quincy Jones, Clark Terry, Hugh Masekela, Herb Alpert, Roy Hargrove and Terence Blanchard made themselves comfortable for the finals, which found trumpeters Mike Rodriguez, Jean Caze and Ambrose Akinmusire (which was pronounced ah-kin-MEW-sir-ee) taking the stage in turn for two songs each.

Pianist Geoffrey Keezer, bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Carl Allen supported each competitor as they performed on stage. Unlike most competitions of this nature, each finalist was required to work with a vocalist for his second number, giving the presentation a twist. With George Duke at the piano and Al Jarreau sharing the front line, each of the three performances took on extraordinary qualities. Jarreau, after all, works the music as if he were another horn sitting in for a round of fun.

Finalist Caze was first, playing his solo number, Van Heusen's "I Thought About You sweetly, and then Bronislaw Kaper's "On Green Dolphin Street with Jarreau. Trumpeter Rodriguez followed with an up-tempo burner followed by "How High the Moon with singer. When finalist Akinmusire took the stage, dramatically placed his horn up close to the microphone. Closing with Jarreau and Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are, he showed the ease with which he can adapt to a "live situation as they traded fours and had a good time doing so. Later, the winners were announced: Akinmusire in first place, Caze in second place, and Rodriguez third. Everyone was a winner, however, as the competition opened doors for a new generation of jazz professionals.

The tribute concert, hosted by Louis Gossett Jr. and Jamie Foxx, included Hancock's "Hang Up Your Hang Ups, "Cantaloupe Island, "Rockit, "Butterfly, "Watermelon Man and Monk's "'Round Midnight. Guitarist George Benson, pianist George Duke, the Debbie Allen Dancers, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, saxophonist Bennie Maupin, and flutist Hubert Laws all contributed something of musical value to this portion of the concert while numerous other Hancock acquaintances showed up to pay their respects. The ballad presentation of "'Round Midnight by Nancy Wilson and Terence Blanchard had a strong emotional impact that must have affected everyone in the house. As the camera swung to Hancock, Wayne Shorter and their families, you could see the delight on their faces.

Despite several miscues in lighting and a few problems with feedback, the concert fared well. Quincy Jones presented the institute's inaugural Herbie Hancock Humanitarian Award to the night's guest of honor, and then he renewed ties with old friends. Wayne Shorter, Joni Mitchell and Sting added their best wishes, and the evening concluded with a jam session that brought almost everyone back together for a performance of Hancock's "Chameleon.'

For the semifinal competition on Saturday at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall, each of the 10 trumpeters had 15 minutes to perform with the piano trio of Keezer, Veal and Allen. Each trumpeter showed plenty of class through three songs that offered variety—including slow ballads and hard-driving bebop—to allow audience and judges to hear strengths and weaknesses. Many of the songs were originals, which provided further adventure. Surprisingly, the ten competitors behaved like professionals, all appearing quite at ease in front of an audience.

Semifinalist Rodriguez showed off his rich tone and warm and bright side, topping off his 15 minutes with Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring. Tobias Kaemmerer displayed a pure open tone with plenty of strength as he drove hard and then settled down with a ballad standard. His lower register was full if not wide open, exhibiting range mastery, but his rather stiff sense of swing held him back. Maurice Brown played Erroll Garner's "Misty, but without the expected warmth that usually accompanies that particular piece. He pushed hard, and it was good to see how well all the semifinalists worked with the piano, since they had only a brief period of practice with their accompaniment.

Philip Dizack's unusual arrangement of Van Heusen's "Polka Dots and Moonbeams brought pizzazz to his segment of the competition, making him one of the best semifinalists, a player exhibiting extended range, emotional spirit, and superb cohesiveness with the piano trio. Semifinalist Caze exhibited intuitive stage presence during three selections, running fast, slow and fast again. The airy ballad that he chose for his middle piece was weak, but his high register came through as his strongest feature on all three.

Josh Evans, unlike most semifinalists, provided a nod to Thelonious Monk with one of his song selections. While he displayed a beautiful, natural trumpet tone, his ballad selection, like Caze's, was also weak. Semifinalist Akinmusire stole the competition right from his first few phrases. Placing the bell of his horn quite close to the microphone reminiscent of Miles Davis, he communicated with the audience with a natural, conversational air. Finally, he proved his point with some experienced half-valve work—icing on the cake.

Nadje Noordhuis was the only competitor to bring both flugelhorn and trumpet to the stage. Recalling the great Rafael Mendez's programming and technique, she opened strong on trumpet with a ballad, drove hard for her second number, and closed on flugelhorn with another ballad.

Unlike the other semifinalists, Charles Porter announced his songs: Monk's "Evidence, Joni Mitchell's "Periwinkle's Mood and Ellington/Tizol's "Caravan. He brought plunger mute and Harmon mute to the stage and used them wisely, creating a New Orleans atmosphere that brightened the day. Let's face it. Any competition of this nature is bound to be filled with tension, and Porter brought a looseness to the affair that no one else appeared to consider important. Finally, Vitaly Golovnev closed the semifinal competition with a strong performance that included a soulful ballad.

The ten semifinalists this year weren't simply "talent deserving wider recognition. They were all dedicated professionals who brought winning talent and ability to the stage. Only minute degrees separated them from each other in the final judging. Representing a cross-section of world's trumpeters, they came from New York, Wisconsin, Illinois, Haiti, Connecticut, California, Australia, Florida and Russia with experience that included Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, the North Sea Jazz Festival, working at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, issuing CD recordings of their own, performing with the band Chicago, touring with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter as well as with Sherrie Maricle's DIVA Jazz Orchestra, appearing on the BET Jazz cable network, and working with the Mingus Big Band.

Thelonious Monk Institute at All About Jazz

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