2012 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition

In walked beats: drummers battle it out for prestigious jazz award

Colin Stranahan
Justin Brown
Madeleine Albright on drums, sitting in with Chris Botti, at the 2012 Monk Institute International Jazz Competition
Helen Mirren, Herbie Hancock, 2012 Monk Institute Maria Fisher Founder's award recipient Madeleine Albright, Aretha Franklin, Tipper Gore & Chris Botti at the 2012 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition

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There was a lot to take away from the 25th annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, which focused on rising drummers under 30 and took place as usual in Washington, D.C., over two days in September. Most of all, the contest reminded you that-despite all the debate it had engendered on the blogosphere regarding the perils of formal jazz competitions-finding a winner is hardly the only point of the Monk proceedings.

The competition felt more like a showcase, a jazz drummers’ international expo, with a dozen young representatives hailing from across the United States, Europe and the Middle East. And in that way, it gave you a glimpse into jazz’s future developments-which are almost always guided by shifts in rhythm. (If you care deeply about crackling, ride cymbal-driven swing, you were likely to be troubled: Almost all the contestants invested more heavily in snare- and bass-drum patterns, a fact that speaks to the influence of popular music from the past 30 years, particularly sample-based hip-hop.)

The competition also demonstrated that while the healthy obligation of the blues looms large over drummers in the United States, the same can’t be said for their counterparts in Europe and Israel. And it served as a reminder that drummers, despite their standard station at the back of the bandstand, do write fascinating tunes and may have some of the most balanced ideas about how to lead a band.

But all was not revealed quickly at the semifinals, held Sept. 22 at the National Museum of Natural History, where the 12 contestants were required to perform a 15-minute program that included at least one Monk tune and a drum solo, accompanied or unaccompanied, among other ground rules. The audience had to wait while drum sets were wheeled on and off stage between each set, and the first handful of performers offered precious few thrills. None of the three contestants who would be chosen as finalists appeared until well after intermission. One early contestant that stood out was Abe Lagrimas Jr., from Hawaii, who offered a tightly tweaked arrangement of Monk’s “I Mean You”; he knew how to let flares of polyrhythm empower his propulsion, not interrupt it.

Lagrimas was among the nine who fell that day, though. The three who made it performed two tunes each at the Kennedy Center the following evening, amid a red-carpet gala and all-star concert. The night was tailored to suit an audience of lobbyists and top-flight government contractors, so to the serious jazz fan it was alternately ambrosial and mortifying. Monk Institute Trustee Wayne Shorter and Institute Chairman Herbie Hancock performed, and so did Aretha Franklin, but then there was Madeleine Albright, the gala’s honoree, somehow playing drums with Chris Botti.

Going into the contest, all knowing eyes were on Justin Brown, a well-studied, thunderous drummer who lives in New York City and plays alongside Ambrose Akinmusire and Gerald Clayton. He easily glided into the finals, where he opened with a duet on “Oleo” with the competition band’s pianist, Geoffrey Keezer. After an annunciation of a drum solo, he plowed into a blazing swing feel and ended by doubling Keezer on every note of the tune’s melody. The whole thing was delectable and dizzying; Brown held the audience in his thrall. But this was ostentation, a competition-type performance-not the kind of thing you could play on a gig.

After Brown came the competent but outmatched Coloradan Colin Stranahan. On his version of John Coltrane’s “Countdown,” Stranahan showed more vigor than sensitivity; a constant feed of quarter-note triplets on the ride cymbal quickly began to feel reflexive. He ended up taking home third place.

Then Jamison Ross strode onstage, with the same tomcat glide and Cheshire grin seen at the semifinals the day before. At the semis, he’d focused on swinging strongly and cleanly; building the band’s sound from the ground up by throwing specific lines of support to each member; and simultaneously celebrating the funk grooves that in so many ways are an invention of New Orleans, where he lives. He opened his set at the finals with a tambourine in one hand, shaking it in 5/4 time while the rest of his body handled the kit. The band flowed into the picture, and a melody emerged: “Magnolia Triangle,” by the Crescent City drum icon James Black. The meter was odd, but Ross dug a deep and sauntering pocket, implying a gentle swing without stating it outright. Ross didn’t take a knockout solo in either round, but he had us pressed against the back of our seats with the simple suction of his feel. It was good enough for first place.

“I’m very into having the facility and the knowledge of New York musicians, but I’m also into having the feeling that the music that we play is not for ourselves,” he said. “Being in New Orleans, drummers control the entire atmosphere of the bandstand. You take a drummer out of a bandstand and it completely will change the entire vibe. I already get practice as a bandleader because I have to uplift the bandstand.”

In late August, the pianist Ethan Iverson lit a minor flare on the jazz Internet when he wondered on his blog, Do the Math, whether the competition’s panel of six distinguished drummers might have trouble prizing innovation over finesse. He’s got a point, but differences of perspective aren’t nearly as dangerous as differences of criteria, and that’s where the Monk competition laid itself the biggest snare. At the competition, judges, contestants and audience members were all left wondering: What exactly are these guys supposed to demonstrate? (Problematically, there were no female contestants.)

It’s no surprise that this issue would come up during the first Monk competition in 20 years to highlight drummers, whose role is incomparably complicated. They must goad and guide the band but hardly ever take the lead. Their solos are often the greatest crowd pleasers, and also the most wearying when overplayed. If they write and arrange original music-something that’s often expected of all other band members-drummers can invite skepticism. Hardly any band lacks a drummer, but rarely do you see one advertised under a drummer’s name.

“Unfortunately, there was no consensus” on what the panel ought to use as criteria, said Terri Lyne Carrington, a judge along with Brian Blade, Peter Erskine, Jimmy Cobb, Ben Riley and Carl Allen. “You take a vote and ultimately that’s it, but there aren’t really any guidelines. I suggested that maybe there should be. … Some people are going to care about [drummers presenting] original material, like myself, and some people aren’t. It’s up to the aesthetic of each judge.”

Clearly, even a broad set of guidelines would serve the competition. And in the end, Iverson seems to have been vindicated. Ross, the man showing the deepest reverence for tradition, won the competition’s top prize: a $25,000 scholarship and a record deal with Concord Music Group. It’s not that he doesn’t know how to play modern (good live bootlegs online depict him deep inside a hip-hop groove). But he seemed to recognize the importance of getting out the swing vote.

Home page photo of competition winner Jamison Ross.