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Monk Competition 2008: Saxophones

Jim Santella By

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All twelve saxophonists were winners for their courage and dedication to the art of jazz.
Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz
International Jazz Saxophone Competition
Schoenberg Hall, UCLA
Los Angeles, California
October 25, 2008
The 12 semifinalists at Saturday's competition this year were so close in musicianship that it was nearly impossible to determine who should be named a finalist. The 2008 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Jazz Saxophone Competition featured tenor, alto, baritone and soprano saxophones as each semifinalist had 15 minutes to show his wares. Each performed three pieces with sterling support from pianist Geoffrey Keezer, double bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Carl Allen, showing the audience fast romps, gentle ballads, and plenty of originality.

On tenor, Gian Tornatore worked slow and up-tempo standards that included Latin jazz in the formula. Evan Schwam, also on tenor, provided a quiet interpretation of Ellington-Tizol's "Caravan," a challenging arrangement of Chico Hamilton's "Spring Again," and an original song that contained obvious swing band elements. A third tenor saxophonist, Gilad Ronen, proved to be the most original of the twelve competitors, as he followed up Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge" and Matt Dennis' "Everything Happens to Me" with Keith Jarrett's Middle-Eastern-flavored "Oasis," which he began without mouthpiece, blowing into the saxophone as if it were an ancient horn.

The jazz celebrity judges for Saturday's semifinal competition and Sunday's finals—Jane Ira Bloom, Jimmy Heath, Greg Osby, David Sanchez and Wayne Shorter—had a tough decision to make, considering how close the artists sounded within their respective 15-minute windows.

Jon Irabagon, on alto saxophone, closed his eyes and summoned up the artistry of Bird, making sure that there was a rapid-fire masculine side as well as a slow, made-for-strings, softer side. For his efforts, Irabagon went on to the final competition Sunday night.

Tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts included a Monk composition in his three-song program, using familiar sounds to portray both fierce, up-tempo burners and slow, lyrical ballad pieces. He was followed by Joris Roelofs, who employed alto saxophone for the quick, bebop action of "Background Music" by Warne Marsh and the quiescent, suspended time-feel of "I Fall in Love Too Easily" by Jule Styne. His best work was on clarinet with "Francesca," a brisk waltz by Tonino Horta that certainly added considerably to his scorecard.

Tenor saxophonist Walter Smith performed a bravado entry that included Monk's "Ask Me Now" and the swing-era standard "Tangerine." When Jason Marshall followed on baritone with more familiar standards, such as "The Very Thought of You," his performance seemed like the winner that everyone had been waiting for all afternoon. The baritone, however, makes for a very different presentation than the smaller, more versatile and arguably more expressive saxophones. David DeJesus employed alto saxophone in a program that featured some of the same melodies heard earlier, but his ballad tone lacked the resonance that comes with years of woodshedding and experience.

Then came alto saxophonist Tim Green and tenor saxophonist Quamon Fowler—audience favorites who were later selected as finalists for the Sunday night competition. The judges heard Green play a bit of Monk, Bobby Troup's "The Meaning of the Blues" and "Goin' Home," the theme adapted from Dvorak's New World Symphony. His gospel feel brought immediate recognition and familiarity, and his fast bebop articulation deserved high praise. Fowler, who preferred a loose Texas blues to bebop, provided evidence of several prominent jazz aspects, including a thorough reading of "Ask Me Now" and an original that allowed him to perform on his curved soprano before switching back to tenor for a grand finale.

The afternoon finished with tenor saxophonist Alex Hoffman, who was hampered by a microphone that had been moved away from where his horn needed it. Nevertheless, he provided a welcome reading of Monk's "52nd Street Theme" and two additional numbers, making sure that his program, like those of all twelve competitors, included a balance of ballad material, up-tempo technical challenges, and creative originality.

The winner from Sunday night's final competition at the Kodak Theater was guaranteed a recording contract with Concord Records and a $10,000 award. Rather than simply repeat what had been performed the day before in the semifinal competition, each came in with new material. They were required to perform one selection with piano trio and one musical conversation with trio and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater.

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