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Los Angeles’ Kris Bowers Wins Monk Piano Competition

Monk Institute 25th Anniversary Celebration & Piano Competition Finals; Washington, D.C., Sept. 12, 2011

Kris Bowers
Aretha Franklin onstage at the 25th Anniversary Monk Institute Celebration
2011 Monk piano competition winner Kris Bowers
Jennifer Hudson onstage with Monk Institute 25th Anniversary Year Co-Chair Colin Powell
Herbie Hancock, Kris Bowers and Monk Institute President Tom Carter (from left)

There was a lot of applauding on Monday night at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in Washington, D.C., and a lot worth applauding, including performances by R&B royalty and many jazz A-listers. But there was also a logistical mastery on display that deserved accolades: a lot of people onstage at the same time, somehow making sense and often generating real excitement in an institutional setting. Programming this event, the 25th anniversary gala of the Thelonious Monk Institute and the finals for the 2011 Monk piano competition, amounted to assembling a puzzle containing complex, important pieces like time, celebrity, tradition and genuflection-along with plenty of teleprompter talk about aspiring jazz musicians and hope for the future. But everything fit together nicely.

The annual Monk gala program is always a tricky organizational proposition, but it’s rarely handled with such tact. (I remember one particular closing all-star jam in past years that began as a blues and devolved into a train wreck.) There is a lot to do and a high-profile audience to do it for, with people like co-chairs Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright and many executives. Ostensibly, the most important order of business is the competition, and here it didn’t disappoint. A panel of Herbie Hancock, Renee Rosnes, Danilo Pérez, Jason Moran and Ellis Marsalis culled the three finalists from an imposing group of 12 semi-finalists the day prior, and were again on-hand to choose the winner. Miami native Emmet Cohen, who earned third place, arrived with space and clarity on a ballad and followed with Kenny Dorham’s tastefully grooving and swinging “Short Story”; Southern California’s Joshua White, second place, took on Monk’s “Criss Cross” as well as “Darn That Dream”; and Los Angeles native Kris Bowers, the victor and recipient of a Concord label contract and a $25,000 scholarship, included as his Monk obligation “Shuffle Boil.”

There is rarely, if ever, such a thing as a shoo-in at the Monk competition, and this year was no different. Cohen’s playing was extremely focused and agreeable-jazz contests for emerging players often turn into tests of humility, and Cohen did a fantastic job of proving that he had nothing to prove. White was clearly the most fearless, and showcased impressive facility at the mercy of his personal and abrasive style: His “Criss Cross” was heavy on tumbling, scrambling reharmonization and utilized dramatic stabbed chords-pieces of Monk, Cecil Taylor, Jaki Byard and even McCoy Tyner, performed unashamedly for an audience probably more comfortable with cabaret. White segued into “Darn That Dream” seamlessly, as if it were part of a medley, and transformed into a very different pianist, fluid and graceful and tender. Bowers, in the end, was the most complete, and seemed the most comfortable. His combination of bop poise and bluesy nonchalance recalled one of the judges, Jason Moran, and he turned the appropriately poker-faced competition rhythm section of bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Carl Allen in his favor, allowing the trio to sound more elastic and interactive.

Although the results weren’t announced for another couple hours, a smartly executed Monk tribute featuring past winners and top competitors followed, and served to remind everyone of what was and wasn’t on the line. For every few lauded recording artists was someone for whom the exercise helped answer the “Where are they now?” query. All of these players sounded excellent and are still working, but it proved that this contest can neither make nor break a hopeful young musician on its own. Still, you couldn’t argue with Gretchen Parlato’s wordless vocalizing on “Evidence,” or Jon Irabagon’s breathless soloing on “Rhythm-a-Ning.” And it was a delight to hear from last year’s vocal winner, Cécile McLorin Salvant, who should do more gigging Stateside.

From there the evening’s star factor snowballed into something resembling a jazz version of a televised awards show. Doug E. Fresh beat-boxed in collaboration with students from the Monk Institute’s Bebop to Hip-Hop initiative, a public-school program that fuses jazz with rap music at its most wholesome. Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, on soprano, reprised the duo format they inhabited on 1997’s 1 + 1 with a track from that album, Michiel Borstlap’s “Memory of Enchantment.” Dee Dee Bridgewater offered bluesy theatrics alongside guitarist Kevin Eubanks, with solid-toned assistance from 84-year-old Jimmy Heath. Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman worked into a polyphonous two-tenor frenzy. Dianne Reeves was remarkable, as usual, on “Skylark.” Even the players who filed in and out between equipment changes without too much fanfare were jazz elite-among them Ambrose Akinmusire, Christian McBride, Jacky Terrasson, John Patitucci, Ron Carter, Terri Lyne Carrington, Joey DeFrancesco and musical director John Beasley.

The stakes were raised with a vocal tribute to Aretha Franklin, the gala tributee and the recipient of the 2011 Maria Fisher Founder’s Award. As Franklin looked on in a white gown, Reeves, Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, Chaka Khan and Jane Monheit traversed a concise, deftly arranged parade of the Queen’s hits. (Highlights: Elling wore the guise of soul man brilliantly and hilariously, while Reeves awakened her former crossover self.) It worked to a triumphant, cathartic climax with all five singing a lyrically recast chorus to “A Natural Woman.” Still, a question remained: Would Aretha sing?

She did, bringing down the house with a take on “Moody’s Mood for Love” that stamped out any concerns about her health or ability to deliver convincingly in a jazz context. And a surprise performance of “Oh Me Oh My” by Jennifer Hudson heaped on more celebrity and relished pure R&B vocal power. What did it have to do with jazz? Not too much, other than the fact that the band consisted of jazz musicians. Jazz players with a gig backing a big name in a packed house-now there’s a hope for the future.

Originally Published