Like many avatars of American art, Thelonious Monk displayed esoteric and abstract qualities while simultaneously drawing on the most traditional and crowd-pleasing craft. His blend of avant-garde style and danceable swing connects to people from all backgrounds and interests. The 60 Monk tunes are all essentially in current circulation, something that cannot be said of any other jazz composer.
The JD Allen Trio, which includes Gregg August and Rudy Royston, offers a deep blues ethos and Monklike concision. Three major voices will guest: Bill Frisell has done the most to put Monk on the guitar, Kris Davis (replacing the late Geri Allen) is in the crucial lineage of swinging and surreal pianists, and Dave Douglas uses Monk-concepts for his own composition but can also find a casual vein of Monkish irony when needed.
The modernist side of Monk has traditionally been of interest to duos. Jason Moran, who was featured at the Duke Performances celebration of Monk a decade ago and created the project IN MY MIND under the auspices of Duke Performances, partners with the vital conceptualist and swinging drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Gerald Clayton, who created the well-received “Piedmont Blues” last year for Duke Performances, joins his brilliant associate Ben Wendel. All these musicians can seemingly play anything, so it will be interesting to hear how they approach Monk.
To make sure we play each one of Monk’s compositions at least once, five pianists will take turns essaying the complete songbook: Chris Pattishall, Ernest Turner, Jeb Patton, Orrin Evans, and myself. Pattishall, Turner, and Patton are serious professionals with connections to Durham. Orrin Evans and I represent the future and the past of The Bad Plus, another group with connections to both Monk and Duke Performances.
Monk dropped out of high school to tour with an evangelist and eventually recorded a couple of spirituals. We are thrilled to host the stunning gospel trio the Como Mamas as part of our Monk celebration, to remind us of not just Monk’s roots, but also of the stunning tapestry of southern music that still exists today.
Monk would eventually settle on the tenor quartet as his preferred format, with a list of saxophonists that included some of the best: John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Johnny Griffin, Charlie Rouse, and, at the end of his career, Paul Jeffrey, who would go on to be so important for jazz studies at Duke University. To accompany a murderer’s row of modern tenor giants — Melissa Aldana, Ravi Coltrane, Houston Person, Chris Potter, and Joshua Redman — we are bringing down a classic New York rhythm section, David Williams and Victor Lewis, two veterans who have played with just about every significant jazz musician of the last forty years. Between the song list and the players, this is a foolproof set of gigs to celebrate the living repertoire of Thelonious Sphere Monk.
— Ethan Iverson
Pianist, writer & co-curator of MONK@100