Philadelphia Museum of Art
September 30, 2005
Imagine that it's a pleasant Friday evening, with a nip of early autumn in the air. You finish work, maybe meet your hot date, and grab a taxi over to the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It's your first attendance at this unique jazz-with-art event, called "Art After 5," which has been a feature at the museum for several years. You get a Museum pass, browse a gallery or two, and then sit at a table or on the steps of the main hall, perhaps order dinner, a drink, or a snack, and tune into the live band at the base of the stairs. You're surrounded by a few sculptures- like "Diana" by Auguste St. Gaudens, at the top of the stairs, "Lunar Bird" by Joan Miro, in the foyer, and a Calder mobile hovering abovea very "artsy crowd of jazz fans and museum goers, and a bevy of young, well-attired, friendly, and efficient waitpersons in a kind of "cocktail party atmosphere. A very heady mix, indeed! Fantasy made into reality.
This relaxed but sophisticated setting is a bit unusual for a concert of music by Thelonious Monk, whodespite his remarkable achievements and famewas probably one of the most unassuming performers in the history of jazz! I still remember Monk at the Five Spot Café in the East Village of New York, sitting at an upright piano, wearing a sport shirt and a sailor's cap, banging out some of the most interesting music I'd heard even during that innovative time in the early 1960's. Nothing "artsy about this pioneering musician. Yet, artespecially modern artand Monk are not so far apart after all. He was just doing on a keyboard what artists like Matisse, Picasso, Pollack, and Mondrian were doing on canvas- taking traditional themes and colors and then transforming time and space into radically new forms and statements. Monk was a genius, perhaps a latter-day mystic, doing something that on one level seemed comprehensible only to himself, yet rattling your bones and getting you up on the edge of your seat because with every twist of rhythm he hit something deep inside you. And when he got up and took his last trademark 360 degree spin on the stage, which some have attributed to a neurological condition, he left a never-ending legacy of musical exploration. At least for me, whenever I hear a Monk composition, I am filled with a sense of wonder. As Paul Desmond said, Monk's rhythm is "at an angle. And it's the right angle. That angle captures microcosms of music within it, generating infinite potential.
The thing about Monkadelphia is that these guys have a grasp of and indeed are passionate about the myriad possibilities that inhere in Monk's compositions. This is a group of master musicians with a strong creative flair. When they play, they seem obsessed with generating rich and unexpected complexities, like crazed medieval monks in the throes of a religious spell. They take the syncopations, the twists and turns of Monk's utterances, and transform them into divine madness. They genuinely possess the insight that Monk broke up the music in such a way that you could hear what's inside it, and then they take the risks that are necessary to make it manifest. Rather than nostalgically "remembering Monk by improvising be-bop around his tunes, which has been the general tendency, they seize upon the opportunity to draw out the potential energy that Monk carried with him. This results in variations and elaborations with a point-counterpoint set of challenges that develop and become organically richer, so that the end of the improvising becomes rather arbitrary, since the development could go on and on.
The group started in the late '90s on a whim of their leader, vibraphonist Tony Micelli. They played at small clubs around South Street and in the Old City section of Philadelphia, with an occasional concert at local colleges. A recording at Rowan College garnered them some notoriety, and they continue to re-unite periodically, with some personnel changes and an occasional guest musician such as David Liebman. They are all accomplished jazz musicians of exceptional virtuosity and musical independence. Micelli is an extraordinary technician. Lawton is a brilliant pianist with remarkable resilience who is among the most respected musicians performing today. Schachter is an astute saxophonist with a rich repertoire of musical ideas. Drummer Miller and bassist Rast are experienced professionals with the needed prowess to back up a group like this. Taken together, they constitute a formidable jazz machine. Rarely will you experience such energy in a group, and yet the finest details of meaning and interpretation do not escape them.
The dozen or so Monk tunes they performed in their two sets at the Art Museum are full of the musical "tongue twisters and unusual modulations for which Thelonious was noted. Few groups would dare perform them all in one night. These gentlemen ran through them like Cole Porter standards. Frequently, they engaged in simultaneous improvisations which took on a life of their own. At times, the sheer speed of articulation was mind-boggling. The effect was electrifying, a musical Cirque de Soleil, while the melodies and the chord structures were strictly perceptible throughout.
The Art Museum setting made the implicit statement that all the arts are one. Each fine painting, sculpture, and musical performance takes a universal theme and gives it a unique life of its own that awakens a particular range of sensations, emotions, and ideas in the viewer or listener. The true artistic creation says something that can't be said any other way than by those particular colors, shapes, and sounds. The idea of presenting live musical performances in the midst of great works of art is inspired in this respect. It rescues creativity from didactic compartmentalization.
The only problem I encountered at the concert were the acoustics of this unusual room. Despite the careful microphone and speaker placements by technician David Burgess, the concrete walls that ascend two stories high create an echo effect that markedly obscures the sound. The museum might want to consider some moveable or unobtrusive acoustic panels to direct the sound towards the audience and absorb some of the ambient reverberations. Until or unless that is done, those who really want to hear the music should arrive early and take a table or sit on the stairs close to and directly in front of the musicians. If you simply want to have a wonderful evening, you can sit anywhere and soak up the atmosphere. It's a rare opportunity to combine good music with a cocktail party atmosphere amid great works of art from the Middle Ages to the present day. And since the event typically runs from 5:30 to 8:30, you have the rest of the night still ahead of you.Players:
Tony Micelli, vibraphone, leader; Ben Schachter, tenor saxophone; Tom Lawton, piano; Madison Rast, bass; Jim Miller, drumsPlaylist
FIRST SET: Ugly Beauty; Bright Missisippi; Bemsha; Eronel; Epistrophy
SECOND SET: Blue Monk; Creppescule; Skippy; Reflections; Trinkle; Think of One; Round Midnight; Off MinorPhoto Credit
Victor L. Schermer