Jason Moran, “In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall 1959”

Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, February 2, 2012

Pianist and composer Jason Moran presented his program “In My Mind” at New England Conservatory, where Moran has been on the faculty since 2010. “In My Mind” centers on the 1959 Thelonious Monk concert at New York’s Town Hall, where Monk performed his compositions with the ten-piece Thelonious Monk Orchestra, using arrangements by composer Hall Overton.

Rather than recreate the Town Hall performance, Moran has reworked and repurposed its music to reflect the influence of Monk and his music on Moran and the rest of the jazz world. “In My Mind” incorporates additional musical material, spoken and written words, and visual material produced by video artist David Dempewolf. Moran has presented the program in a number of cities since 2007, following a similar format with some variations. In 2009, Moran presented “In My Mind” at Town Hall to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the concert.

At the 1959 Town Hall concert (recorded by Orrin Keepnews for Riverside), Monk’s presence was central. As the orchestra cycled through choruses of his compositions, Monk’s carefully sculpted solos punctuated and opposed the steady groove of the rhythm section, and there were also plenty of solos by other players. The orchestration (the word favored by Overton) served largely to display the melody with instrumental timbre and color, as well as occasionally play melodic phrases in the background of solos and a composed unison “solo” that included Monk-like passage.

With “In My Mind” Moran does not take the role of the headline performer as much as the leader of an exploratory mission to a musical world of the past, where he and his group examine that world and how it may influence today’s music. As in the original concert, each number starts with the pianist playing the head. On piano, Moran tends to start with a sound that evokes (but doesn’t imitate) Monk’s and then to move to his own style, more fluid and elaborative.

Solos are much less prominent in Moran’s arrangements, which give the players opportunities to express themselves through group improvisation and free playing. Moran has also expanded on the original arrangements to use repetitions and rhythmic variation to emphasize or reframe phrases. At base, the sound of the rhythm section is different from that of 1959, with the drummer in particular playing a more prominent and complex role.

Moran and his regular trio players, drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen, were joined by New England Conservatory students Kai Sandoval on trumpet, Jon Kenney on trombone, Cale Israel on bass trombone, Andrew Halchak on alto sax, and Carlos Fernandez on tenor sax. The piano sat nearly perpendicular to the stage, with Moran facing the drummer on a raised platform and the other players on either side. After the three video screens (a large one above the stage and a smaller on each side) showed TV footage contemporaneous with the Town Hall concert, Moran wore earphones as he sat at the piano, “rehearsing” fragments of Monk’s music. Then, taking off the phones, he led the entire group in an energetic run of the Monk piece “Thelonious,” which served to announce the intense focus of all the musicians.

During “Friday the 13th,” the screens showed photos of Monk and other musicians (and street scenes through the window), taken by renowned photographer W. Eugene Smith at the jazz loft where the Town Hall concert was conceived and rehearsed. Moran occasionally brought the song’s persistent descending bass line to the fore by letting the whole group play it. Waits took a brief outstanding solo with triplets on toms and bass drum. In a Moran-originated segment, he played a montuno pattern under Sandoval’s well crafted trumpet solo. After bringing back the original groove, Moran led the group in a well-controlled crescendo and accelerando.

The screens showed grainy black and white photos, with captions, taken by Moran, showing his work space and some personal milestones, which he related to Monk’s influence. The fragmentary shots, which recalled photographer Smith’s shots of street scenes through the loft window, show no faces and thus seem more universal while preserving subjects’ privacy. Then, Moran’s recorded voice told how as a young teen he was introduced to Monk’s music as background to the loss of a family friend. Meantime, the group played “Monk’s Mood,” which included solos by trombonist Kenney and by bass trombonist Israel, who used an affecting tremulous approach.

Another visual and musical segment considered the African roots of Monk’s music. It began with a voice description of Monk’s enslaved ancestors’ home, with a video showing a field colored in searing oranges and yellows along with the rhythmic sound of footsteps through it. Then came Rwandan drumming, with which Moran played a small hand chime. The group started a reprise of “Thelonious,” with Waits playing along with continued African drumming. Afterward, the horns played "Blessed Assurance” (or “This Is My Story, This Is My Song"), a hymn that Monk liked and recorded.

In a segment that gave insight into Monk’s thinking about the Town Hall concert, the audience heard conversation between Monk and Overton during a rehearsal at the loft, recorded by Eugene Smith; the screens showed its transcription. Prompted by Overton’s questions and affirmations, Monk cogently explained his ideas for the concert, including which recorded versions to work from, his ideas about the arrangements (avoid typical big-band riffs and too many “harmonies”), and his approach to rehearsing the band (members must always hear the music and must not sound like they’re “reading”). The sound of Monk’s speech, loose and flowing and vernacular, was fascinating and in remarkable contrast with his spare and jabbing style of performance. Throughout was the steady rhythmic tapping of Monk’s hard-soled shoes as he paced the wooden floor, and the excerpt ended with a rhythmic figure made when Monk took a little dance turn. While the evening’s one moving picture of Monk shows only his hands on the keyboard, this brief moment was an auditory reminder that Monk sometimes expressed his music by dancing.

The rambunctious “Little Rootie Tootie” included effective use of repeated fragments, such as the song’s last two measures, that recall the use of repetition in hip-hop. Moran has cited hip-hop as a significant influence in his music.

In his discussion of his art and its relation to Monk, Moran revealed the Monk and Overton discussion as the source for his title, “In My Mind,” which Moran’s recorded voice repeated with varying emphases. The screens showed a collage of posters and record covers of the late 1950s, representing such diverse musical threads as R&B, Broadway musicals, and Elvis. The musicians put on headphones and chaotically “rehearsed”.

In “Crepuscule With Nellie,” Moran emphasized the song’s secondary lines and rat-a-tat rhythmic fill, giving the ballad an altered groove and mood -- intense and almost march-like. Led by Waits’ shuffle beat, the group played the last two measures as a repeated phrase under Moran’s improvisation. They concluded with a slow, pensive recollection of “Thelonious”.

To close, the group marched off the stage into the aisles, playing horns and hand percussion, while the speakers repeated the rhythmic figure that Monk had tapped out as he danced during rehearsal.

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Virginia A. Schaefer