A young jazz master looks to a personal hero

Moran's Monk
By JON GARELICK  |  January 24, 2012

TOO BIG When offered a plum commission based on Monk’s music, Moran’s first impulse was to suggest that it go to Cecil Taylor play the music instead. 
Jason Moran — 37-year-old MacArthur Fellow and New England Conservatory teacher — epitomizes what's best about the current jazz scene: a composer and pianist who can — and does — draw on all eras. He's someone who, in one set, can play jazz-trio arrangements of a Brahms Intermezzo and "Planet Rock," and make them belong together. And there are his own compositions —knotty and lucid, suffused with bebop, blues, gospel, free jazz. It's all of a piece.

It's in keeping with his expansive cultural view that when Moran was offered a plum commission from the San Francisco Jazz Festival — to write and perform a tribute to Thelonious Monk based on Monk's historic 1959 concert at New York's Town Hall — his first impulse was to turn them down.

"I thought it was a good idea," Moran tells me over the phone from his home in New York, "but I thought they should have Cecil Taylor play the music." Monk was just too big. Although he cites Monk as supreme among his influences, Moran — over the course of eight Blue Note albums — hadn't recorded a single tune by the great pianist/composer. "He really shifted my life," Moran says, "so how can I really discuss all of that as well as the music?"

What's more, this was 2007, Monk's 90th anniversary year — there would be scores of tribute concerts. How to do something different? Moran envisioned a multimedia event, something that would take in as much of Monk as possible but also make a personal statement. When he told New York Times music writer Ben Ratliff about the project, Ratliff asked if he'd heard the Town Hall rehearsal tapes archived at Duke University.

"That really exploded the concert," says Moran, "the access to Monk's working process. His relationship with the musicians, Monk away from the piano."

Moran estimates that he's performed the piece (which comes to New England Conservatory on February 2) 30 times since its premiere at Duke in 2007. As it's constructed now, "In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall 1959" follows the set list of the original event but with variations. "Each song is a scene, not just a song by itself." Songs will be presented in different contexts ("Thelonious" is performed four times). We'll hear some of the rehearsal tape juxtaposed with Moran's interpretations with his trio (bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits) and the original horn arrangements by Hall Overton with an NEC student ensemble. There will be stories about the music and some of Monk's personal history. And Moran will also focus on the present tense of 1959 America. "All of his musicians overcame a lot of social turmoil — how were they able to do that and deliver some artistic truth on a consistent basis?" There will be video playing almost constantly — still photographs, documentary footage.

The one variation from the original set list will be the inclusion of a hymn, "Blessed Assurance, or This Is My Story, This Is My Song."

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