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.