The Jazzcat

Jason Moran “In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall 1959” at the Symphony Center in Chicago

by on Nov.28, 2007, under News

imageHonoring the music of an American jazz genius, Thelonious Sphere Monk would be celebrating his 90th birthday this year had he still been here blessing us with the gift of his magic melodies. It took this gentleman practically seventy five percent of his career to become recognized for the true talent that has been there for us to admire and appreciate all along. Today you can’t say Thelonious Monk with out recognizing that his music is part of the standard that many judge knowledge and skill by. His music is definitely demanding and is a constant challenge for many to learn and understand and appreciate.


Jason Moran was commissioned to arrange the music for tonight’s performance and through his insight; we will discover the workings of the “Mind of Thelonious” and perhaps get closer to the man, his mind and the music.

 imageHanging high above the stage tonight is a huge screen that will display visual imagery, film, live feed, subtitles and pictures of Thelonious Monk and perhaps the things that Monk might be contemplating is his mind. Jason Moran walks out on stage solo to an exciting Chicago applause. He sits down and the first thing he does is put on a pair of headphones. This may seem odd as a first gesture but, this is no ordinary show just as Monk was on ordinary soul.

 Brilliant CornersMonk Town Hall

The music begins and it is a recording of “Brilliant Corners” and Jason is not playing. Images appear on the screen and all of a sudden Jason is playing along with Monk. I believe this was a live recording from Monk’s historic 1959 Town Hall performance and Moran inserts his melody in between the spaces and notes as Monk swings his thing. Polymelodic odd genius simplicities made complex by squaring the melody and filling the space with Monkish Moranic twists!


There is a pretty cool narrative that I soon learn will be a significant part of the performance. One by one, the narrator/ announcer introduced the band and out they walk: Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Logan Richardson III on alto, Walther Smith III on tenor, Isaac Smith on trombone, Bob Stewart on tuba, Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. You can just tell by just seeing who is in the band that your ears are going to be experiencing proficient sounds on a level that is elevated first by musicianship and then the added dimensions of modern genius music which take your conscience to a whole new plane. Monk’s Town Hall performance recreated 2007 style by the jazz youth who are standing up waist deep in the waters of cognitive metamorphisms.

 01.26.2007 RALPH ALESSI AT THE JAZZ GALLERYimageEsperanza Spalding 2008imageBob_tubaTaurus Mateen Nasheet-waits  Jamo

My man Walter Smith, assuming the role of Charlie Rouse, fills the air with delightful rolling riffs of mellow Monk melodies. Jason’s arranging on these classic Monk tunes really honor and pay respect to the musical intellect of the man. Blocky, chunky, intricate chordal structures that compliment the stridish Monk runs work so well as the recorded and real life music meet, bob, weave and dance around each other like bees pollinating a golden sunflower!

 imageFreshly organized cacophonic beauty may sound like a contradiction on paper but, in the essence of the music, the description is quite infallible. You heard of cats back in the day in Chicago running the numbers? Well onstage tonight there is nothing running except pure mathematics and the greatest equation that you have ever heard!

 imageThe narrator gives the audience a verbal look into the mind of Monk and the visuals appear as perhaps he may have pondered with thought. The next thing we hear is an interview being conducted and we are taken back to a room in our minds and we hear Thelonious answering questions about Thelonious. The visuals on the screen are panning an imaginary room that is hand drawn in black and white with blue watercolor paint washing the scene not staying within the lines but wondering as if dreaming and floating outside the box that defines the boundaries for most. We see a window, bookshelves, books, a typewriter, an easel, a desk and a piano and we listen to T.S Monk, who always refers to his father as Thelonious, describing what he used to witness as a child about how his father would think, practice and play.


Where the recorded music stops you would never know because of the integrated continuous flow of each musician that is blended into the canvas so effortlessly as if the elements of the new sound that they bring was already a part of the original composition that we did not hear the first time. Isaac Smith is the dominant force on “Thelonious” and his solo voicing paint the emotions as though waves of thought change from one state of mind to the other. Like a man walking down the street and thinking about his past, future and present meaning of life and not seeing any of life’s craziness that seems to be erupting in his general vicinity.


Tuba is such a lovely instrument yet so under utilized in the sounds of jazz music. Bob Stewart plays these muted bass tones that sing and have you hallucinating colorful mental states of being. The slow tempo of the tune allows you to become a part of the dream.

 imageArchibald Monk was the slave owner and John, Jack and Harriet Monk were the slaves and the grandparents of Thelonious. You hear the narrator tell this tale as the image on the screen depicts tall weeds in a field with magnolia trees in the distance. The weeds move with the sound of escaping footsteps making their way through the foliage fleeing, to where we do not know but, we sense the danger by the tambour of the voice and the heavy breathing of the runner. These are ancestral visions of life before life expressed by family folktales that connect the past with the present, giving insight into self. An African chant begins as strong percussive rhythms make their way from the thick density of the sound of Africa, cognitively evolving through time and morphing into the creativity of Monk modern mind frames. A mental feature film as a man closes his eyes and composes the meaning of his entire existence exuding emotions expressed from hammer upon strings. These are the stories that Monk was born to tell.


Jason and one section of the band get up and exit stage right as the narrator begins to tell a story of Monk being pulled over by the cops and beaten on the hands while clutching the steering wheel and not releasing it. Nasheet Waits, Bob Stewart, Isaac Smith and Ralph Alessi remain as they play what sound like a funeral march against the injustice. imageWe all know that Monk did not parish this way but, the protest vibe is similar to that of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra as they march off the stage and continue to play. There is no way that the drama of the moment can’t be felt and at the moment that you are processing this pain and anguish, you hear the sound of Monk’s voice descend down from the sky and start speaking.

He is in a recording studio and you hear him speaking to his producer as they are discussing the rehearsal and performance and how he wants to open up the freedom in the music. Monk was a hard cat to understand so there are subtitles that span across the screen and we are privileged to hear the man’s power, humanity, humor, creativity and his straight out, direct, realistic approach as to how he wants to see everything go down.You also hear this loud constant thump that continues through the conversation. Maybe many people did not figure this out but, this in not a flaw in the recording. It is the sound of Monks shoes hitting the wooden floor of the studio with that internal everlasting rhythm. With Monk some kind of conscious or unconscious rhythm is happening all of the time.

James P Johnson

“Little Rootie Tootie” is a familiar tune that we all love to hear and the band loves to play as they smile and nod their heads in appreciation of Moran’s Monkish swing with a touch of James P. Johnson’s stride. You can call him James P, but ya does’nt have to call him Johnson! Moran and Mateen hold down the B until the cats join back in to swing the A!

 JasonMoran_Bandwagon, by Paul Brown

The entire band reach for their headphones and apply them as the screen reflects their images playing a straight ahead version of “Crepuscule for Nellie”. The headphones must act as mini monitors while each member takes a layer of texture to add to the sound milking every last bit of drama from the tune as they walk off stage continuing to play off microphone. The mantra, the rhythm in my mind. I hear music in my mind in my mind, in my mind in my mind, in my mind I hear music in my mind in my mind, in my mind in my mind…….


LeRoy Downs

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