Monk’s Spheres Encircle NEC During Centennial Concert


Fred Hersch performs at New England Conservatory’s Oct. 19 concert celebrating Thelonious Monk’s centennial.

(Photo: Courtesy NEC)

New England Conservatory’s joyous Oct. 19 concert celebrating Thelonious Monk’s centennial came as a model of clarity, conciseness—and surprise. Monk’s extended musical family stood tall at Jordan Hall with inspired solo faculty performances balanced by a potent set from the NEC Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Ken Schaphorst.

Biographer Robin Kelley’s opening words, embodying Monk’s credo to “always know,” pointed the way and warmed attendees with facts about Monk and his compositions.
Four solo-piano studies on Monk framed two stunning departures.

Frank Carlberg’s take “Pannonica” was grounded and bold, yet tender.

Anthony Coleman wittily dissected “Think Of One” in multiple registers, favoring the very highest.

Matana Roberts distinguished herself with an original alto saxophone solo, improvising rich, luminous skeins.

Dominique Eade sang her own lyrics and plucked her “air theremin” in a playful, laser-sharp spin on Monk’s rarely heard but hypnotic “Introspection.”

Ran Blake called for a darkened hall for a lilting, seductive “’Round Midnight” that evoked shards of clouds sliding across a full moon. Blake, in green jacket and shades, broke ranks (typically) with fellow improvisers as he (atypically) swung the entire piece.

Fred Hersch deftly fused the genially lyrical “Ask Me Now” with a tart, puckish “Work.”

As Schaphorst later observed, “Monk was such an individualist, it puts the pressure on you to be equally original, and each soloist brought a different dimension.”

After intermission, the orchestra played with maturity and precision beyond their years on a set consisting of three Schaphorst arrangements, two of Frank Carlberg’s Monk-inspired compositions and two transcriptions of Hall Overton’s timeless settings for Monk’s historic big band.

Schaphorst’s chart for “Monk’s Dream” was strong and clear, commanding a shift in attention with Bulut Gulen’s robust trombone solo. Carlberg stepped in to conduct his own Monk inspirations, from his recent Large Ensemble album Monk Dreams, Hallucinations And Nightmares (which received a 5-star review in the May issue of DownBeat): “Dry Bean Stew” (based on “I Mean You”) rattled and hiccupped, with blazing solos by tenor saxophonist Hunter Smith and trumpeter Daniel Hirsch. “International Man Of Mystery” (based on “Misterioso”) built in slyly sustained layers, with a knockout turn on alto by Nathan Reising and prettily picked piano by Iñigo Ruiz.

The showstopper was Schaphorst’s gripping orchestration of Blake’s “Short Life Of Barbara Monk.” Its cinematic sweep was tempered with intimations of childhood, ominous shadows offset by a vertiginous sing-song waltz. Blake returned onstage (wearing shades) to play piano as Ruiz moved to celeste, and the overall impact was riveting, as the ensemble strove mightily with the keyboards. Schaphorst explained the collaboration with Blake, who had babysat for Monk’s children, Thelonious Jr. and Barbara (1953–’84). “I listened to Ran’s quartet versions, wanting to show respect for the work, yet feeling obliged to bring something new to it, as does Ran,” Schaphorst said. “I changed a few rhythms and harmonies, balancing love with innovation. Ran’s writing is specific: The chords represent Barbara’s death, and the waltz is her as a child, going to dances. It’s a film score to his imagination, with strong melodies—like Monk’s.”

Singer Nedelka Prescod stood up to the task of balancing Schaphorst’s bold arrangement of “’Round Midnight” with Carmen McRae’s suave lyrics for Monk’s melody and his bolero-like coda.

The classic Overton chart for “Evidence” (from Monk’s 1963 album Big Band And Quartet In Concert) brought out Jesse Beckett-Herbert’s tenor saxophone, evoking long-time Monk colleague Charlie Rouse, and a round-robin of other soloists. The rollicking “Little Rootie Tootie” (from 1959’s The Thelonious Monk Orchestra At Town Hall), named after Thelonious Jr.’s fondness for toy trains, brought back Hersch, whose second cameo rattled off a stop-time solo, Overton’s impossible transcription of Monk’s original off-the-rails solo to challenge the full orchestra and a rousing pots-and-pans excursion for freshman drummer Marcelo Borque Pérez.

The overflow house continued the party in Brown Recital Hall, devouring a very large chocolate cake and enjoying an impromptu jam session. DB

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