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Educated Guesses At The 2013 Monk Competition

Sep 16, 2013
Originally published on September 17, 2013 12:19 pm

Yesterday's semifinal round of the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition was, to my ears, predictable.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. To my ears, the three finalists — Tivon Pennicott, Godwin Louis and Melissa Aldana, in no particular order — gave standout performances, winning the top honors primarily with their horns. Others among the 13 saxophonists did, as well, but it was clear to me the judges would favor these three.

  • Pennicott, a tenor player, impressed with a strong respect for melody combined with a vintage soft-focus tone that came closest to transmuting a human voice. Compared to many other generic readings of tunes, his phrasings were well thought-out, especially in Thelonious Monk's "Ugly Beauty." You could imagine the judges, all over 50, stumping for such a musician, one who had clearly considered the nuances of sounding natural.
  • Louis was easily the crowd favorite, and he pretty much sealed the deal by his first tune, "The Shadow of Your Smile." Though he's cultivated a feathery alto sound, when he threw his weight into a brief sustain, it was piercing rather than thin, vehement rather than weak-willed. His performance was demonstrative, displaying a full range of articulation; it also rang true as imagination rather than showmanship. "Soul!" exclaimed a musician sitting behind me.
  • Aldana's last tune was a bit of a train wreck — a complex original piece arrangement with interlocking parts that the house band failed to line up. But she had already established a distinctly darker approach. A tenor player, she plumbed the depths of her instrument outlining the contours of "Ask Me Now," developing motifs and exploring low filigrees and pitch bends. When her final tune turned into a blues, she salvaged it with her improvisatory thoughtfulness.

Between the last note and the actual announcement of the finalists, I made this very prediction. I don't have any evidence that they were my three pregame favorites, as well, but they were.

Part of that is name recognition. The winners were among the few I had actually heard of beforehand, and in the meritocracy of jazz — vague and incomplete as it may be — original talent has a way of being identified and nurtured early. Melissa Aldana has been championed by the much more established alto player Greg Osby, and even welcomed into his band; she also signed with Kurt Rosenwinkel's boutique management firm. Tivon Pennicott has been touring with Esperanza Spalding and played in Gregory Porter's band; I heard him at Winter Jazzfest with drummer Ari Hoenig and thought highly of it. Like the others, Godwin Louis is also making waves in the New York scene now; he was also a member of the Thelonious Monk Institute's select master's degree program when it was essentially handpicked by Terence Blanchard and based in music-rich New Orleans.

But the last item also says something that leads to a darker and more cynical set of questions. We all know that these decisions are necessarily subjective, and plenty of musicians claim to know a thing or two about what really goes on in the judges' back room. Talk to enough insiders and you get "I know for a fact" assertions that cultural politics, or seniority among judges, or "who needs it most" usually plays a role in the decisions, too.

Would the Thelonious Monk Institute competition really allow a Thelonious Monk Institute graduate to fall off the list? For that matter, Melissa Aldana is the daughter of saxophonist Marcos Aldana, who himself qualified for the Monk Competition more than two decades ago; would that story be too irresistible to pass up? Will that panel prohibit her from winning overall because she has the business side of her career beginning to line up? Would a judges' panel including one woman miss the rare opportunity to elect a female instrumentalist to the finals? Would a panel featuring five four black saxophonists, all over 50, possibly pick a finals without significant African-American representation, even if African Americans are fewer than a third of the competitors? (Personally, for the sake of jazz as a whole, I hope they wouldn't!)

Convinced as anybody may be of hidden agendas running the show — and with a prominent Cadillac sponsorship, a celebrity emcee in Billy Dee Williams, and a grand gala on Monday, it's certainly a show — there's also a clear argument for talent winning out in this case. For however much musical ability was on display, there wasn't as much actual music. Given the competitive recital atmosphere, this was predictable, too.

I witnessed a lot of proficiency, even virtuosity, but also a lot that didn't resonate memorably. Out of the 13 competitors, I wrote "generic" or "nondescript" four times, and would probably apply that tag more in retrospect. A number of contestants, perhaps thinking that their advantage was in blowing the judges away with technical bebop runs, drilled three tunes in a relatively unremarkable tone, then left. There were John Coltrane-isms and power displays, some Lou Donaldson-esque blues wailing, plenty of Charlie Parker. But there wasn't much of the sense that the contestant had internalized these pantheon influences and turned them into something apart, something his or her own.

There wasn't a lot of modernity in general, meaning there wasn't much obviously drawn from Albert Ayler or Arthur Blythe or Steve Coleman or Mark Turner or other saxophone linchpins of the last 50 years. That's perfectly fine, if a bit unexpected; unfortunately, many failed to inherit the advanced lessons of the older generations they had been studying. A melody is a tricky thing to properly finesse, and especially those found in Thelonious Monk's knotty tunes (out of their three tunes, each contestant was required to play at least one). Too many treated melodies as an afterthought; too many deployed an uncomfortable legato or missed phrasing in the rush to start improvising. I also heard the opposite: overwrought, or at least unnecessary-feeling arrangements, even from some of the finalists.

I'm being a little ungenerous here; admittedly, it's difficult not to feel a tad cranky after listening to 13 relatively inexperienced musicians. I did hear encouraging signs, too, that weren't rewarded by the judges. In random order, they include but are not limited to Mike Lebrun's stylized but well-paced take on "Monk's Mood," which was almost entirely a melody statement; local boy Braxton Cook's original ballad "Brody's Lullaby," a simple but effective tune; the little bit of twist and honk you heard from Clay Pritchard after a fleet Johnny Griffin-esque run; so forth.

One alto player, Ben van Gelder, proves an interesting case study. A Dutchman now based in New York, and now something of a known quantity among the young musicians there, he clearly came to the show to assert a personal aesthetic. His blowing was deliberate, methodical, slow-developing; he held notes for what felt like a bit longer than his peers and often landed flush on top of the beat. His tone felt a bit reedy on purpose, which was evident when he took on the Charlie Parker blues "Si Si," evoking none of Bird's fleshy warmth or flashy kineticism. One gets the sense he was cultivating a "hip to be square" vibe — perhaps inspired by teacher Lee Konitz, another alto-sax original. A fellow writer in the crowd called it an ECM sound, after the Germany-based record label with a reputation for austerity.

If the Thelonious Monk Competition were purely a contest in originality of conception, van Gelder would have advanced. It's not that, but it's clearly not a chops-off, either, as some might fear — in that case, he might not have even qualified for yesterday's event. As far as I can tell, you need a clearly identifiable vision, but you need to sell it strongly to people who aren't listening blind.

I'm no Monk Competition savant; I don't claim any special prognostication skill here. (I do smugly retain an email where I correctly handicapped the bass competition semifinals, though.) But having some idea of the historical balance between pure skill, musical personality and a systemic other — well, it helped me make sense of four hours of young musicians.

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