His Middle Name was Sphere

Tickets just went on sale for MONK@100: A Century of Genius, a series of concerts that I am co-curating with Aaron Greenwald to celebrate the centennial of one our very greatest composers.

It makes sense to hold the big party in Durham, for this is easily the closest performing arts hub to Rocky Mount, the birthplace of Thelonious Monk. (Rocky Mount to Durham is 62 miles as the crow flies.)

Overview:

Tue, Oct. 17 — JD Allen Trio (w. Gregg August and Rudy Royston) + Bill Frisell
Wed, Oct. 18 —  JD Allen Trio + Dave Douglas
Thu, Oct. 19 — JD Allen Trio + Geri Allen
Fri, Oct. 20 — Tyshawn Sorey & Jason Moran
Sat, Oct. 21 (afternoon) —  “Monk Songbook” — Chris Pattishall, Frank Kimbrough, Jeb Patton, Ethan Iverson, Orrin Evans
Sat, Oct. 21 (evening) — Gerald Clayton & Ben Wendel
Sun, Oct. 22 (afternoon) — “Monk Songbook” — Chris Pattishall, Frank Kimbrough, Jeb Patton, Ethan Iverson, Orrin Evans
Sun, Oct. 22 (evening) — The Como Mamas
Mon, Oct. 23 — Ethan Iverson Trio (w. David Williams and Victor Lewis) + Melissa Aldana
Tue, Oct. 24 — Ethan Iverson Trio + Chris Potter and Houston Person
Wed, Oct. 25 —  Ethan Iverson Trio + Joshua Redman
Thu, Oct. 26 — Ethan Iverson Trio + Ravi Coltrane

Like many avatars of American art, Thelonious Monk displayed esoteric and abstract qualities while simultaneously drawing on the most traditional and crowd-pleasing craft. His blend of avant-garde style and danceable swing connects to people from all backgrounds and interests. The 60 Monk tunes are all essentially in current circulation, something that cannot be said of any other jazz composer.

The JD Allen Trio, which includes Gregg August and Rudy Royston, offers a deep blues ethos and Monklike concision. Three major voices will guest: Bill Frisell has done the most to put Monk on the guitar, Geri Allen is in the crucial lineage of swinging and surreal pianists, and Dave Douglas utilizes Monk-concepts for his own composition but can also find a casual vein of Monkish irony when needed.

The modernist side of Monk has traditionally been of interest to duos. Jason Moran, who was featured at the Duke Performances celebration of Monk a decade ago and created the project IN MY MIND under the auspices of Duke Performances, partners with the vital conceptualist and swinging drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Gerald Clayton, who created the well-received “Piedmont Blues” last year for Duke Performances, joins his brilliant associate Ben Wendel. All these musicians can seemingly play anything, so it will be interesting to hear how they approach Monk.

To make sure we play each one of Monk’s compositions at least once, five pianists will take turns essaying the complete songbook: Chris Pattishall, Frank Kimbrough, Jeb Patton, Orrin Evans, and myself. Pattishall, Kimbrough, and Patton are serious professionals with connections to Durham. Orrin Evans and I represent the future and the past of The Bad Plus, another group with connections to both Monk and Duke Performances.

Monk dropped out of high school to tour with an evangelist and eventually recorded a couple of spirituals. We are thrilled to host the stunning gospel trio the Como Mamas as part of our Monk celebration, to remind us of not just Monk’s roots, but also of the stunning tapestry of southern music that still exists today.

Monk would eventually settle on the tenor quartet as his preferred format, with a list of saxophonists that included some of the best: John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Johnny Griffin, Charlie Rouse, and, at the end of his career, Paul Jeffrey, who would go on to be so important for jazz studies at Duke University. To accompany a murderer’s row of modern tenor giants — Melissa Aldana, Ravi Coltrane, Houston Person, Chris Potter, and Joshua Redman — we are bringing down a classic New York rhythm section, David Williams and Victor Lewis, two veterans who have played with just about every significant jazz musician of the last forty years. Between the song list and the players, this is a foolproof set of gigs to celebrate the living repertoire of Thelonious Sphere Monk.

The venue is an evocative and unusual choice. Grayson Currin explains:

“All the performances will be at the Durham Fruit & Produce Company, a 15,000­ square­ foot, brick ­and­ timber warehouse that sits just east of the city’s center. Built nearly a century ago, the space long housed Durham’s produce wholesaler before becoming an eccentric arts space and outsider shopping center more than a decade ago. It is now the kind of wide­ open, flexible warehouse space that has grown increasingly rare in newly dense American downtowns.

“For ten days in October, Duke Performances will transform those 15,000 square feet into a sanctuary for the music and iconography of Thelonious Monk a week after his one­-hundredth birthday. A third of the building will be a 200 ­seat jazz club, the kind of dimly lit place Monk spent his life playing. There will be a listening room lined with record players, so attendees can hear every Monk LP available. A large, amorphous third room will host more concerts, art installations, and community events, all in service of Monk’s legacy. Raleigh artist and Duke Performances collaborator André Leon Gray has even designed and decorated the space with Monk’s forever cool aesthetic in mind.”

Sincere thanks to Aaron Greenwald and Duke Performances for the foresight in planning what will most likely be the largest celebration of Monk’s big birthday.

More general thanks to Aaron and his team for doing such interesting stuff at Duke for the past decade. What an inspired list!

Commissions
Jason Moran In My Mind: Monk @ Town Hall 1959
The Bad Plus On Sacred Ground: Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’
The Bad Plus Ornette Coleman’s ‘Science Fiction’
The Civilians School Project
Gerald Clayton & The Assembly feat. René Marie Piedmont Blues
Pam Tanowitz Dance & Simone Dinnerstein, Piano New Work for Goldberg Variations
John Supko & Bill Seaman THE_OPER&
Tift Merritt & Simone Dinnerstein Night
Donald Byrd | Spectrum Dance Theater of Needless Talents
William Tyler Corduroy Roads
Hiss Golden Messenger + William Gedney Heart Like a Levee
Jenny Scheinman + H. Lee Waters Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait
Hoi Polloi Republic
Glenn Kotche + John Luther Adams ILIMAQ
The Campbell Brothers John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’
Kronos Quartet + Steve Reich WTC 9/11
Kronos Quartet + Missy Mazzoli You Know Me From Here
Kronos Quartet + Maria Schneider String Quartet No. 1
Megafaun + Fight the Big Bull feat. Justin Vernon & Sharon Van Etten Sounds of the South
Brian Blade + Pastor Brady Blade + Daniel Lanois The Hallelujah Train
Imani Winds + Fisk Jubilee SIngers + Frederic Rzewski Sometimes
Bill Frisell + Bill Morrison The Great Flood
Billy Childs Jazz Chamber Ensemble feat. Dianne Reeves Enlightened Souls: Commemorating 50 Years of Black Students at Duke
Nick Sanborn + Amelia Meath + William Tyler + Chris Porterfield Lend Me Your Voice
Bombadil + Torry Bend Love’s Infrastructure
Joe Henry + Milk Carton Kids + Over the Rhine Wild Edges: A Collaboration
Ari Picker Lion & the Lamb
Lost in the Trees A Church That Fits Our Needs
DJ Spooky Video Soul: Wattstax to the Avant Garde
Development Residencies
Meredith Monk & The House Foundation On Behalf of Nature
Fiasco Theater Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’
Urban Bush Women Walking with ‘Trane
Rude Mechanicals Now Now Oh Now
Ronald K. Brown / Evidence Dance Company + Jason Moran & The Bandwagon The Subtle One
Malpaso Dance Company + Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble ‘Dreaming of Lions’
Alarm Will Sound 1969
Shen Wei Dance Arts Re- (Part 2 & 3)
Simon Shaheen & The Arab Orchestra + Ibrahim Azzam + Sonia M’barek + Khalil Abonula + Rima Khcheich Aswat: Celebrating the Golden Age of Arab Music
Lee Breuer & Mabou Mines The Glass Menagerie

Adès, Braxton, Barry, Beethoven

Thomas Adès and the Britten Sinfonia are surveying Beethoven chamber music and symphonies alongside diverse works by living Irish composer Gerald Barry. At Milton Court last Tuesday I heard an early entry in what promises to be a wonderful cycle for London concertgoers.

Interestingly, none of Adès’s own music is programmed, which makes it even a handsomer tribute to Barry, a new name to me, although he is well-known in the greater UK. (Tom Service’s guide is helpful.) It was kind of an insane thrill to sit in the front row in a terrific venue for chamber music and hear two major composers thunder out the two-piano Five Chorales from The Intelligence Park (excerpts from a Barry opera). It’s the only Barry piece I know so far but I can see why Adès digs him, the voice is surreal and witty yet utterly authentic to old-school harmony and flow. These two aren’t experimental composers, these are simply composers. My god, they are even composer-pianists! 30 years ago this breed simply wasn’t around, at least not like this.

The program began with Beethoven’s familiar Septet, an extended early potboiler that gets more inspired as it goes along. However I had never heard the Op. 70 No. 2 Piano Trio in E-flat. How many more utter masterpieces of the conventional canon am I still going to have a “first experience” with? There can’t be many, but, wow, what a piece. Adès is an excellent pianist, with a drive and urgent clarity recalling perhaps Rudolf Serkin. Beauty was there, but only as an afterthought to the taut lines and fierce argument. “Surprise” was the watchword, and while listening one wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Thomas Gould and Caroline Dearnl were excellent on violin and cello.

Last night in Moers, the Anthony Braxton ZIM Sextet became a septet with the addition of star saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock. I’ve long admired Laubrock’s playing, she’s got a kind of breathy Ben Websterism to her modernist ethos. The rest of the band included Taylor Ho Bynum (brass and conductor), Shelley Burgon  and Jacqueline Kerrod (both on harp), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Dan Peck (tuba).

In a way a typical Braxton configuration: Outrageous for anyone else, of course, but typical of Braxton. Most of the musicians played most of the time for 55 minutes, but the textures were transparent and engaging. The gently chiming atonal harps were wonderful, it felt almost as if we were lost in an old film score. A lyrical duet of Braxton and Laubrock accompanied by Peck’s burbs and burbles was almost a romantic moment. Bynum led the group in a few thorny ensembles and delivered scorching cornet and trombone.

At one point I felt some sadness, similar to the sadness I feel when seeing George Cables or Harold Mabern play. Whatever this is: Anthony Braxton: AACM: Black Experimental Music: the precise meeting between John Cage and John Coltrane: the fire of the late 1960s…Whatever this is, the clock is ticking and when it’s gone we will miss it.

Braxton played some bass saxophone last night. Braxton fucking invented the bass saxophone. Hearing Braxton play bass saxophone was like hearing Jo Jones play a high-hat.

Truthfully, as I get older, I’ve had to realize that experimental music is not my true love. Whether it’s Cage, Braxton, or other geniuses from that moment where it all went to the furthest dimension, I know that part of me rebels at the need to break that many rules.  (I might have been scarred for life by a set of Braxton playing standards on piano in the early ’90s.) Still, it’s important that this dedication to experimentation existed — one hopes for but does not expect experimentalists the caliber of Cage and Braxton to ever come again — and when the concert concluded I leapt to my feet along with the rest of the packed crowd.

There is also simply this: If someone reaches age 72 dancing to their own drum, there is profound gravitas to their bearing. I was reasonably close to Braxton twice yesterday, once at the canteen, once in the dressing room, and both times the impact was visceral. Waves of energy radiated off the old master.

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Afterwards: Ingrid Laubrock, Anthony Braxton, Taylor Ho Bynum