25th Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition
Gretchen Parlato won first place in the 17th annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition finals on Monday night at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Parlato, a New York City-based singer and power-yoga instructor who studied ethnomusicology and jazz at UCLA with Gerald Wilson and Herbie Hancock, displayed near-perfect intonation, distinctive behind-the-beat phrasing, and creative, melismatic scat in her winning versions of “More Than You Know” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” She takes home the $20,000 first prize, with second place going to the charismatic Canadian Kellylee Evans, who recast John Lennon’s fragile peace song “Imagine” into a searching, soulful anthem. Third place honors went to the seriously swinging Robin McKelle, who garnered the loudest audience reaction, with the fourth place finish going to the beautifully poised Betty Carter Jazz Ahead alumnus Charenee Wade.
Singers were evaluated and prizes were awarded by an all-star line of judges, including Quincy Jones, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Al Jarreau, Kurt Elling, Flora Purim and Jimmy Scott, all of whom performed in the concert’s second-half gala. The finalists were coached and backed by the rhythm section of George Duke, piano; Lonnie Plaxico, bass; and Carl Allen, drums.
While waiting for the judge’s verdict, the remainder of the concert’s first half featured a performance by a fiery sextet from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the University of Southern California playing a burning original composition with a tricky, Ornette Coleman-like head. The winner of the Monk Jazz Composers Competition, Misha Piatigorsky, performed his loping, finger-popping piece “Low Talk” with soaring vocal harmonies sung by Judy Bady and Naomi DeVries.
The second half went from the sublime to the surreal. Herbie Hancock started with a contemplative solo on “God Bless the Child,” which segued into a breathtakingly beautiful “Polka Dots & Moonbeams” sung by Dee Dee Bridgewater, backed by Hancock and saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Flora Purim entered to sing “Dindi” in Portuguese, enlivened by Wayne Shorter’s puckish soprano sax fills. Even better was Purim’s duet with Al Jarreau on an elastic “Agua de Beber,’ which found Jarreau vocally imitating a calabash, among other instruments. Jarreau and Kurt Elling then teamed up for a fascinating “Freddie Freeloader,” with Elling singing the Wynton Kelly piano solo and everybody on stage checking out Wayne Shorter’s wonder-filled solos. Jimmy Scott came out for the final number; a haunting, intensely moving version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” that brought the evening’s only standing ovation.
Then, something strange happened. Inexplicably, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard B. Myers, gave out the first award. When General Myers started to politicize the event by making a case for the necessity of war, someone in the audience shouted, “War is not the answer.” Undeterred, General Myers pressed on with his defense of the “intervention” in Iraq, prompting others in the audience to boo and heckle. Many sat in stunned silence while the collective cringe meter went into the red. Fortunately, the General quickly concluded his remarks, the rest of the awards were given out and all the participants, including the all-star instrumentalists and four vocal finalists, returned for a spirited romp through the Monk classic “In Walked Bud.”