Monkathon: Chasing The Unicorn plus four pianists

Symphony Hall Cafe Bar, Birmingham UK

The Monkathon – all Monk’s works played over four days (more here) – began with the project’s main instigator, Hans Koller, saxophonist Francois Theberge, bassist Percy Pursglove and drummer Jeff Williams.

Koller asked us to be forgiving of some of the pieces – “we’re still learning them” – but luckily his self-effacing nature is restricted to his announcements and not to his always interesting, always adventurous playing. These are four strong and characterful players and it struck me as I listened that they needed to be. Monk doesn’t favour the lily-livered. So strong is his identity in his music – even in a subtly reworked blues – that the players must show equally strong character or risk being a Monk tribute band.

Francois Theberge

Francois Theberge

I was a little concerned by halfway through the second tune, Gallop’s Gallop, that all the tunes – especially the less familiar – were going to blend into a bit of a Monkish mush (one fellow listener questioned jokingly how we could be confident they really all were Monk compositions – it would be so easy to play anything and add a few Monk signature phrases and a little lumpy timing and we innocents would be fooled).

However, with a short and marvellously witty Crepuscule With Nellie and Theberge on blistering form in Who Knows, Monk’s wider range of moods began to be revealed. It was a fine start by the opening runners in this marathon.

After a short interval the Conservatoire teachers were replaced by four students, and if the playing was inevitably less developed and less experienced, it showed more courage just by virtue of the fact that these are jazz musicians in the foothills of their careers and Monk is such an awe-inspiring and breath-taking peak up there.

Taking their places at the piano in turn were Andrew Woodhead, Stella Roberts, Mark Pringle and Dave Ferris.

Monk met iPad with Woodhead setting up an electronic tweeting, beeping circular sequence underpinned by a low growl, and then worked two Monk blues, Monk’s Point and North Of The Sunset, both from the album Solo Monk, over the top of it. The effect enhanced rather than diluted the Monk, and Woodhead’s rolling, funky playing managed to get deep into the heart of the music while appearing delightfully offhand and casual.

Monk met nursery rhyme as Roberts explored the comic apparent simplicity the composer can be capable of. I missed the titles but I was reminded of some of the jazz tunes interpreted by classical pianists Joanna MacGregor and Katia Labeque in the way Roberts brought thoughtful note placement and thematic development to her pieces.

Monk met silence with Pringle’s exploration of the pauses in the music’s rhythms. If Functional and Five Spot Blues were framed oils, Pringle built up from sketch to full painting and then scraped bits off to repaint. His unhurriedness in this process was a joy.

Monk met the bumpy road as Ferris accentuated the composer/player’s tendency to square the wheel, with all sorts of tasty knobbles and knuckles, crunches and cracks. Again, the accent was on the blues, in this case Blue Hawk and Blue Sphere.

I came away with the encouraging view that there are as many Monks as there are perceptive – and courageous – performers of his music. This octet of players had provided some tempting angles to persuade us into continuing along the long road ahead.

  • Is there anyone out there who is intending to go to every Monkathon event, and therefore hear every Monk tune? If you are or you know someone who is, please get in touch by leaving a comment on this post. I’d like to talk to you!

Categories: Live review

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