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Monk in Hollywood

Jazz’s most important competition hits L.A. for a trumpet showcase

Monk Institute Chairman Herbie Hancock (right) and Concord Music Group's John Burk congratulate winning trumpeter Marquis Hill, 2014
An all-star assemblage honors Bill Clinton, recipient of the Monk Institute's 2014 Maria Fisher Founders Award

Jazz threw a party in Los Angeles on the weekend of Nov. 8-9. The occasion: the 27th annual Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition, the jazz year’s most prestigious. The guests of honor: 13 of the most talented up-and-coming trumpeters on the planet. The party favors: prizes worth more than $100,000, including a guaranteed recording contract with Concord Music Group. In the end, that top prize went to 27-year-old Chicagoan Marquis Hill.

The semifinals, held at Schoenberg Music Hall on the campus of UCLA, found the competitors strutting their stuff before a judging panel of trumpeting giants including Ambrose Akinmusire, Randy Brecker, Roy Hargrove, Jimmy Owens and Arturo Sandoval (and, during the finals, Quincy Jones). The musicians, backed throughout by the indomitable trio of pianist Reggie Thomas, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Carl Allen, thrilled the audience with lyricism (Mike Cottone playing his original composition “The Traveler”) and moments of pure exultation (Alphonso Horne’s glistening rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Portrait of Louis Armstrong”). Pittsburgh’s Benny Benack III showed the fire of a classic hot-swing soloist on Monk’s “Green Chimneys,” while Mao Sone of Chiba, Japan, playing his own composition “Brightness of the Lives,” displayed a clean timbre and spectacular breath control. Venezuelan Alejandro Berti unleashed dazzling pyrotechnics without ever seeming show-offy, and Hermon Mehari of Kansas City, tackling the Monk composition “Bright Mississippi,” worked one of the composer’s most complex melodic lines as if it was written for him.

The three finalists ultimately selected by the judges brought considerable gifts to the stage. Institute board of trustees chairman T.S. Monk introduced Adam O’Farrill as “a third-generation monster”; he is the son of pianist Arturo O’Farrill and grandson of composer-arranger Chico O’Farrill. A Mingus Scholarship student at the Manhattan School of Music, O’Farrill unfurled a supple melodic sense on Billy Strayhorn’s “U.M.M.G.” and put some New Orleans gravy on the Monk classic “Ask Me Now.” Monk Institute graduate Billy Buss, an instructor at the Boston School of Music Arts, worked the trumpet’s upper register with intelligence and impressive rhythmic elasticity on “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” and cohered seamlessly with the trio throughout his performance. Hill won the 2013 Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition and currently serves on the faculty at the University of Illinois. Hill’s take on “When Sunny Gets Blue” displayed nimble-fingered virtuosity and masterful dynamics: He handled a rapid-fire solo as if it were a plaything and earned the most emphatic audience reaction of all the semifinalists.

The following night, the festivities moved to Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre for the competition finals and all-star gala concert. One of the evening’s centerpieces was the presentation of the Monk Institute’s Maria Fisher Founder’s Award, given annually to a public figure whose efforts promote the spirit of jazz throughout the world. The 2014 recipient, introduced by institute chairman and co-host Herbie Hancock as the “Commander-in-Chief of Swing,” was former President Bill Clinton, who praised the education efforts of the organization but acknowledged, in winking fashion, that “sometimes frustrated jazz musicians end up with another life, and it works out pretty well.”

A celebratory tone was struck throughout the evening. Co-host Kevin Spacey swung “Fly Me to the Moon” with off-handed grace, and Dianne Reeves gave a smoky reading of “Love Is Here to Stay,” with an expectedly elegant solo from guitarist Kenny Burrell. Tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman and trumpeter Jon Faddis galvanized “Blowing the Blues Away” and Chaka Khan took on “I Loves You, Porgy,” supported by a full-bodied solo from 2013’s Monk competition winner, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana. Joined by trumpeter Theo Croker, Dee Dee Bridgewater uncorked some viciously potent scat on “Oh, Lady Be Good,” while Queen Latifah offered a passionate original composition titled “Georgia Rose.” Performing his Oscar-nominated “Happy,” Pharrell Williams tore the roof off the proverbial mother, and guitarist John Mayer and bassist Marcus Miller burned on Joe Sample’s “Put It Where You Want It.” Mayer also took a ripping electric solo on Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom,” with Taj Mahal roaring the vocals.

But all that star power couldn’t eclipse the trumpet competition finalists. Third-place winner O’Farrill played flashy unaccompanied segments with a Latin tinge, while Buss, recipient of the institute’s second-place prize, filled the theater with his powerful tone and evinced confidence in ceding solo time to Thomas. Hill won top honors and the Concord deal with the finesse of a born balladeer; his lush yet intricate solo on “If I Were a Bell” took command of the melody without ever betraying its emotional intent. Hill joined the evening’s all-star cast of players, including the judges, for a rousing show-closing version of “Everyday I Have the Blues.” Given the Monk Institute’s record of celebrating the music’s most promising new talent, and the style with which Hill took the competition honors, his place in this grand finale could only be called very well earned.

Originally Published