Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Monk Jazz competition

Here is Ben Ratliff's piece on the Monk Jazz Piano competition.


September 13, 2011  New York Times

At Monk Competition, a Sound Worth Returning To

dex.html?inline=nyt-per> BEN RATLIFF

WASHINGTON - Hod Moshonov, a 22-year-old pianist from Israel, had already
loosened his tie by 1 p.m. on Sunday, and his wine-colored dress shirt was
coming loose from his waist. Super-revved, he seemed to dump his whole
conception of jazz on his instrument.

He leaned into the grand piano and damped the strings, playing muted
percussive melodies with his right hand alone. Then some classical Romantic
fantasias, leading into aggressive versions of Thelonious Monk's "Think of
One" and Freddie Hubbard's "Birdlike." He sang along to his rhapsodic
improvising and beatboxed against his rhythms. It was an exhausting 10

Mr. Moshonov was the first of 12 to compete in the
<> Thelonious
Monk International Jazz Piano Competition here on Sunday, presented by the
Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Despite his abundant talent, he was the
first to fall. He did not make the finals. Kris Bowers, 22, from Los Angeles
but now a New Yorker, played a little after the halfway point on Sunday, and
the next day he won the $25,000 first prize.

What did Mr. Bowers have that the judges wanted? Polish, understatement,
breadth. He made the piano sound clear and pleasing, and he got along with
the rhythm section. He played "The Summer Knows," from Michel Legrand's
"Summer of '42" soundtrack, and then turned "Blue Monk" three ways:
reharmonized, stride-style and as a stomping shuffle. It was the only time
all afternoon that the audience started to clap and shout.

Aside from the imposing panel of judges - Herbie Hancock, Ellis Marsalis,
Danilo Pérez, Renee Rosnes, and Jason Moran - Aretha Franklin was sitting in
the auditorium at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural
History. (She would be awarded the Monk Institute's Maria Fisher Founder's
Award, and sing in the gala concert on Monday night at the Kennedy Center
for the Performing Arts.) She sought out Mr. Bowers backstage, got his
telephone number and suggested they work together. She told him that "Summer
of '42" meant a lot to her because she was born that year.

The Monk competitions are many things: thrilling, strange, boring. Musicians
play unaccompanied and with a trio, with one Monk tune required. The process
can become an unsolvable puzzle. It is a performance, an occasion to
demonstrate presence of mind, but for each contestant it is also a canned
and unnatural 10 minutes. You must be memorable, but you can't overdo it.
Most people agree that jazz lives on originality, but you must prove
yourself a proper custodian of the past. You want to create immediate
gratification, but the implication of the first prize is that you'll be a
responsible bandleader, carrying jazz forward.

The event - the most visible part of the institute's educational initiative,
which includes high school programs and a tuition-free master's program at
U.C.L.A. for eight students at a time - began 25 years ago, in 1986. At
first it was piano-only, and soon the featured instrument began to change
each year. This was the seventh piano competition; winners have included
Marcus Roberts, Jacky Terrasson and Eric Lewis. Winning first prize does not
guarantee fame, but it helps, especially at a time when many jazz
bandleaders do their own publicity via Twitter, and a deal with Concord
Records, a label with a publicity department, comes with it.

The two-year master's program has yielded visible results. New York jazz
aficionados will have noticed a clump of excellent performers who all seem
to play in other people's bands: Gerald Clayton, Joe Sanders, Ambrose
Akinmusire, Walter Smith III, Chris Dingman. What they have in common is
their recent involvement with the Monk Institute.

Pianists do it all: they're leaders, composers, rhythm-section players and
unaccompanied soloists. In this Monk competition some pianists created a
sleek and battened-down European mood, as if auditioning for ECM Records;
they weren't so interested in the feeling of swing. Most of the solos were
built of prefabricated lines and licks, without much melodic improvisation.
Few pianists accompanied a bass or drum solo; they just shut down for a
little while. And some were nervously overeager to show how good they were
with tricky rhythmic patterns: perhaps that's why Monk's "Evidence," with
its unusual pattern of rests, like potholes in a road, was presented three

Emmet Cohen, a senior at the University of Miami, placed third on Monday,
and one of the competition's most memorable musicians came in second. Joshua
White, 26, from San Diego, had one overriding style: he embedded a song in
thick, unbroken clumps of chords. He pressed hard against the rhythm section
and improvised with form, telling the bassist Rodney Whitaker and the
drummer Carl Allen what to do and when, accelerating and decelerating,
suddenly going free. (Nobody else did that.)

Mr. White used a lot of dissonance and clutter, but it was provocative,
chord-related clutter, not the brilliant-soloist kind made mostly with the
right hand. It was a sound worth returning to, one that had more to do with
Monk than that of the rest of the pianists - although emulating Monk per se
is not a competition requirement.

Ms. Franklin was the star of Monday's 25th-anniversary gala concert, the
most extreme and complicated example of an event that has historically
brought together a surreal mixture of inward improvisers, outward pop stars
and government officials.

Dozens of personages shuttled on and off stage. Among them were Colin L.
Powell and Madeleine K. Albright, who participated on the institute's
anniversary committee; executives from sponsors, including Cadillac,
Northrop Grumman and United Airlines, who all gave grandiloquent speeches;
former competitors, not all of them winners; Mr. Hancock and Wayne Shorter;
the "American Idol" star Jennifer Hudson, who sang "Oh Me Oh My (I'm a Fool
for You Baby)"; the rapper Doug E. Fresh; Chaka Khan, Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee
Bridgewater, Kurt Elling and Jane Monheit, who strung together a half-dozen
Franklin hits; and Ms. Franklin herself, who sang "Moody's Mood for Love,"
dramatically, with lots of cries and asides, dancing her way offstage,
letting a stagehand untangle a long, gauzy shoulder wrap from her microphone

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