The Most Bizarre of Operas

The Exterminating Angel by Thomas Adès proves that there is still room to shock, perplex, and provoke in the Grand tradition. I had been speculating that Adès was getting more and more “accessible” and “tonal” over the years, but his latest work is as brutally abstract as anything from him that I’ve heard.

The production has gotten excellent detailed reviews by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times and Alex Ross in the New Yorker, 

As every plot idea is a trope from fantastical fiction, The Exterminating Angel almost feels like a science-fiction opera. I loved the set. Hildegard Bechtler’s superb looming “Arc De Triomphe” put me in mind of the portal from the classic Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

Met Orchestra percussionist Jason Haaheim snuck us in to the pit at intermission.

The ondes Martenot played by Cynthia Millar is a key element in the score (and another science fiction reference):


Sam Budish slams the door:


More percussion.


I said, “More percussion!” (Is this the only Grand Opera with roto toms?)


My date, Rob Schwimmer, next to the big bells (also used in Tosca)


Jason plays the tympani.


The following note might seem a rather unfriendly item to start a score with, but Adès is a genius, so these radical meters (a way to notate nested partial triplets without changing tempo) are apparently acceptable — especially since Adès can sing, play, and conduct it all himself.


A moment of Jason’s tympani score with those meters in action. (Hard to sight-read!)


Very special thanks to Jason Haaheim.

Monk in Durham in NY Times

Good news! From Aaron Greenwald’s FB: “NYT’s Giovanni Russonello has a lengthy review of Duke Performances’ MONK@100, our celebration of Thelonious Monk’s centenary. Russonello has written a smart piece of criticism w/ exceptional photos by Justin Cook. I’m hugely proud of the festival & deeply indebted to all of the folks who worked tirelessly to pull it together.”

Read article.

Monk@Durham Day 10


Ravi Coltrane guesting with David Williams, Victor Lewis, and me.

Set 1

Played Twice
Bemsha Swing
Ask Me Now
Wee See
Monk’s Mood

Set 2

Monk’s Dream
Ugly Beauty
Criss Cross
Monk’s Mood

After the concert a woman I didn’t know came up to me and said, “I’m so glad I got to hear ‘Criss Cross’ three times! I love that piece!” Then vocalist Kate McGarry said almost the same thing, “Great to hear ‘Criss Cross!’ I learned so much from that album!”  Hard to imagine these sentences occurring anywhere else but at MONK@100….

Ravi and I played “Monk’s Mood” duo in both sets. We sort of emulated the version that Monk did with John Coltrane. After a solo piano statement there are two unexpected cadenza chords, B dominant and B-flat dominant, before the tenor and piano continue more or less in unison. In my opinion the studio recording is a window into the process of Monk’s music, where he played his songs over and over and Coltrane caught as many notes as he could.

I was sort of amazed that both Melissa Aldana and Ravi wanted to play “Skippy.” Damn, that’s a hard tune. However, both really sounded great on it. I’m coming up with a kind of personal take as well. Possible think piece: “Skippy: A jazz standard for the 21st century?”

Ravi played soprano on “Bemsha Swing” and “Rhythm-a-ning,” that was a nice move and perhaps brought a little of Mr. Steve Lacy into the room. If MONK@100 were continuing another week, it would make sense to do a night of compositions by Monk’s best students: Lacy, Herbie Nichols, Mal Waldron, Paul Motian, Roswell Rudd, Geri Allen….

But MONK@100 is done, and it was a huge success. Thank you to all, especially Aaron Greenwald (who created the project) and Tim Walter (who gave us Durham Fruit and Produce to work with).


Drummer Sarah Gooch loaned Victor some killing cymbals.


There may be a film of what happened here. If so, that will be thanks to Matt Durning.


My “taking candid photos” game was down, I didn’t even get a group shot of tonight’s quartet. But here’s Victor and Ravi talking about Geri Allen. (The last time they played together was with Geri at the Vanguard.)


Finally, a signal boost of the three big Monk pieces I published the week before the Durham festivities. (And scroll back to see quick overviews of what we did each day.)

Think of Monk (at the New Yorker Culture Desk)

Primary and Secondary Documents (this is the big one)

Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Not Judged (auditioning tapes for the Monk Competition)


Monk@Durham Day 9

Joshua Redman guesting with David Williams, Victor Lewis, and me.

I’ve gotten to know Josh pretty well through all the gigs with The Bad Plus Joshua Redman and more recently the week with Billy Hart. He’s a worker, and didn’t mind getting assigned some more obscure items. It was a sensational couple of sets. Actually I thought it was the best showing from the “house trio” yet. It was telling how differently Victor Lewis played for Houston Person than for Josh Redman. I asked Victor about it and he said, “I love all the eras of this music.”

Before we began with “Boo Boo’s Birthday,” David Williams told us about how Barbara Monk (Thelonious’s daughter, nicknamed “Boo Boo”) would come by rehearsals when David played with T.S. Monk in the group Natural Essence.

Set 1

Boo Boo’s Birthday
Ugly Beauty
Off Minor

Set 2

Think of One
Light Blue
Criss Cross
Oska T.
Ask Me Now
Straight, No Chaser

Josh came by the previous night with Houston Person and Chris Potter. Lotta tenor in this photo!


After Josh’s triumphant sets:


Monk@Durham Day 8 — and a visit to Rocky Mount

David A. Graham (who wrote the centennial piece in the Atlantic) drove us an hour and a half to Rocky Mount, the birthplace of Thelonious Monk.


Yeah, we took this selfie.


David pointed out, “How the hell does this sign not say, ‘Park closes ‘Round Midnight?’”


The park is within a block of the location of the house Monk lived in until he was five. It is right by a major train junction. In the following pic you can see the active trains right next to the park.


More detail from park signage:


This plaque just went up for the centennial.


Down the block from the park, South St. was renamed Monk St. in 2012. Cover of David A. Graham’s album, Monk at the Crossroads.


Cover of my album, Monk Street.


I had emailed Sam Stephenson (who  wrote the definitive article on Monk’s 1970 return to North Carolina, “Thelonious Monk: Is This Home?”) in order to help us find our way around.

Sam has a new book out, Gene Smith’s Sink: A Wide-Angle View,  which connects the dots to a lot of Sam’s interests, including piano genius Sonny Clark. This photo is for Sam.


Sam also sent some official paper work courtesy of James Wrenn of The Phoenix Historical Society of Rocky Mount.Thelonious Monk Proclamation

In the center of town there’s a small plaza with a highway marker. Again, thanks to James Wrenn of The Phoenix Historical Society, a key player in making these recent commemorations of Monk in his birthplace happen.


The art is “Fall Wind” by Bob Doster, unconnected to Thelonious


Nearby there’s the Prime Smokehouse, which boasts excellent barbecue and further connections to jazz.


A few more shots of Rocky Mount.


Back at the gig that night at Durham Fruit and Produce: Houston Person and Chris Potter guested with David Williams, Victor Lewis, and me. While separated by almost 40 years in age, both tenor masters are from South Carolina and both command the audience.

Monk’s music can be looked at from so many delightful angles. If Kris Davis or Tyshawn Sorey participated in the most abstract gigs at MONK@100, then this two-tenor winner will probably rank as the most grounded. Houston says that jazz must be dance music, and Victor knew to bring the backbeat when things got heated. At times the saxophones riffed together and the stage seemed to levitate. I couldn’t stop smiling.

Set 1

Blues Five Spot
Bemsha Swing
Ruby, My Dear
Let’s Call This
‘Round Midnight
In Walked Bud
Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are

Set 2

Bright Mississippi
Blue Monk
Ask Me Now

Houston took the first solo on “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are.”  He was wearing his glasses in order to read the tricky melody, and began blowing with the eyewear still on. However, after a few perfect blues phrases, Houston paused. He slowly took off the glasses placed them in his breast pocket while the rhythm section ticked over. (The thought bubble over Houston’s head read, “I got this.”) Then he recommenced laying down the law.

Another highlight was Chris’s incredible closing cadenza on “Ask Me Now.” Actually Chris was a very important part of the gestation of MONK@100. I played a week in Potter’s quartet with Larry Grenadier and Eric Harland. All the music was good but Monk’s “Four in One” was a real highlight. It was an easy win: In order to create great jazz, I just needed to play the right voicings while Chris blew virtuoso tenor and the rhythm section swung out. No overthinking was required. When Aaron Greenwald asked me what we should do for MONK@100, I remembered that gig and said, “Let’s get the best tenor players we can find.” We had four slots and asked six. Branford Marsalis (who could have easily driven from his house to the gig) couldn’t make it, but everyone else said yes. That’s why we put Houston and Chris on the same show, and — wow! —  it really worked out.

Concert photos by John Rogers.

duke day 6_2duke day 6_1duke day 6duke day 6_3


Monk@Durham Day 7

Most of Thelonious Monk’s records and gigs were with a quartet made up of tenor saxophone and rhythm. Monk’s music still makes the most natural sense in this configuration. For Monk@100 at Duke Performances, Melissa Aldana kicked off the first of four concerts featuring a tenor saxophone star (or two) with a house trio.

As soon as the Bad Plus broke through to our astonishing success all those years ago I began pursuing relationships with an older generation of swinging jazz musicians. It was not enough to be the newest, hippest thing, I also wanted to attempt to become as grounded as possible. These kind of “historical” studies also aligned with my interest in writing about the music.

David Williams and Victor Lewis are the latest to fall into my clutches. Neither played with Thelonious Monk but they’ve played with just about everybody else, including most of Monk’s tenor saxophonists: Sonny Rollins, Johnny Griffin, Charlie Rouse, Paul Jeffrey.

For 33 or 34 years David Williams was with Cedar Walton. That’s about as close to playing with Monk as you are going to get. (Walton even subbed for Monk at the Five Spot.) One of Victor Lewis’s first long associations was Woody Shaw, a modernist composer who influenced the 70’s just like Monk influenced the 50’s.

There’s not much good written language to describe straight-ahead jazz mastery, especially in the bass and drums. I’ve been trying to work on this on DTM for about 15 years with mixed results. But if you know it, you know it. And David and Victor have it.

Melissa Aldana is the youngest of our tenors. She is from Chile, which is not known for its jazz culture, but her father had the records and by the time she was just barely in her double digits she was already a Sonny Rollins fanatic. She told me she loves to transcribe, not just lines, but also the sounds. Among many other things she brought to the table was a version of Rouse’s outrageous note choices on “Wee See.”

Set 1

Let’s Call This
Ugly Beauty
Gallop’s Gallop
Friday the 13th
Ask Me Now
I Mean You
Blue Monk

Set 2

Four in One
We See
Monk’s Dream
‘Round Midnight
52 St. Theme

Notable events: Victor’s march on “Friday the 13th,” Melissa’s virtuosic cadenza on “Ask me Now,” David’s feature on “‘Round Midnight.”

“Skippy” was interesting. Victor and I played a duo for a while (I joked it wasn’t Harlem Stride, but sadly only Northern Wisconsin Stride) and then Melissa tore the hard changes to shreds. For “52 St. Theme” Victor brought the calypso and Melissa responded in kind.

Houston Person, Victor Lewis, and David Williams meeting at the hotel:


David, Victor, Melissa at soundcheck.



Concert photos by John Rogers:

band w Mmelissa

Monk@Durham Day 6

It was Sunday, and Ernest Turner played two church services in the morning before coming to join us for the second day of the Monk Songbook marathon. I had casually assigned Ernest “In Walked Bud” without thinking much about it one way or the other, but as it turned out that song gave him the opportunity to tell the audience that his middle-school teacher was Celia Powell, Bud Powell’s daughter. (I had to pick my jaw off the floor after hearing that.)

31 Ethan Coming on the Hudson

32 Ethan + Ernest Four in One

33 Ernest Monk’s Dream

34 Ernest + Jeb Evidence

35 Jeb Trinkle Tinkle

36 Jeb + Orrin Hackensack

37 Orrin Ask Me Now

38 Orrin + Chris Friday the Thirteenth

39 Chris Stuffy Turkey

40 Chris + Ethan Skippy

41 Ethan Who Knows

42 Ethan + Orrin 52 St Theme

43 Orrin Reflections

44 Orrin + Ernest We See

45 Ernest Boo Boo’s Birthday

46 Ernest + Chris Thelonious

47 Chris Blues Five Spot

48 Chris + Jeb Let’s Cool One

49 Jeb Work

50 Jeb + Ethan Straight, No Chaser

51 Ethan Monk’s Mood

52 Ethan + Ernest Little Rootie Tootie

53 Ernest In Walked Bud

54 Ernest + Jeb Gallop’s Gallop

55 Jeb ‘Round Midnight

56 Jeb + Orrin Rhythm-a-Ning

57 Orrin Think of One

58 Orrin + Chris Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are

59 Chris Ugly Beauty

60  Jeb + Ethan + Orrin + Chris + Ernest Epistrophy

Chris Pattishall, Orrin Evans, me, Ernest Turner, Jeb Patton.


I asked Orrin about the relationship of Gospel and the Blues. He said that harmonically there could be striking correspondences. Some hymns are 12 bars and many have “blues movements.” It’s not just the Blues, Orrin said, but jazz standards like “There Is No Greater Love” can find striking parallels with certain hymns and gospel pieces.

Recently Mike McGinnis sent me the hymnal sheet to “Blessed Assurance.”

Blessed Assurance.jpg

In 1966 Thelonious Monk recorded a short version of “This is My Story This is My Song” that remained unreleased for decades. Essentially Monk reads though the above chart of “Blessed Assurance” (or another similar realization). He adds a couple of color tones, changes register a few times, and thins out the left hand activity. In the end, this (still reasonably faithful) reading totally sounds like “Monk.”


Esther Mae Wilbourn:


Della Daniels:


Angelia Taylor:


The Como Mamas are from Como, Mississippi, and have been singing together for decades. They are the real deal. It was an honor to be in their presence and to hear their extraordinary a cappella concert. It was a Sunday in Durham, and the message was delivered.

Set list.


We don’t know much about Monk’s first opportunity to tour. From the official website: “Monk dropped out at the end of his sophomore year to pursue music and during the summer of 1935 took a job as a pianist for a traveling evangelist and faith healer. Returning after two years, he formed his own quartet.”

Two years on the road at the end of adolescence! Whatever happened must have been powerful influence on the young musician. Later on Monk said that music he played out there with the evangelist was like rock and roll.  Tonight Della Daniels led the whole audience in clapping on the back beat, which certainly got us all rockin’ and rollin.’

Once again, Thelonious Sphere Monk has ways to make the math work out. A pianist controls 88 keys. Five times 88 is 440, better known as the tuning pitch, A=440.

duke day piano marathon.jpg

photo by John Rogers

And for MONK@100, the Como Mamas scored one their biggest successes of the night with the piece where they exhorted,  “95 won’t do. 96 won’t do. 96 won’t do. 97 won’t do. 98 won’t do. 99 and a half won’t do. You’ve got to keep running until you reach 100.”


photo by John Rogers