[JPL] Where Jazz, Show Business and Politics Converge

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Wed Sep 20 18:27:27 EDT 2006

September 19, 2006
Critic’s Notebook
Where Jazz, Show Business and Politics Converge 
WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 — The Thelonious Monk Institute
of Jazz, now 20 years old, has a private face and a
public one, and there is a dissonance between them. 

The private one involves a small postgraduate program
in jazz performance, operating out of the University
of Southern California, presided over by the trumpeter
and educator Terence Blanchard. The public one is an
annual jazz contest and a sparkly, self-celebrating
concert, usually recorded for television, buttressed
with top-ranking federal government officials and
famous nonjazz performers.

There is a point at which pop’s intersection with jazz
is a good idea: their histories are intertwined, and
each can renew the other’s aesthetic resources. And
there is a point at which the federal government’s
intersection with jazz makes sense, like the State
Department’s 50-year history of sponsoring jazz tours
in foreign countries. Past those points — and some of
the events around the Monk Institute’s Thelonious Monk
International Jazz Piano Competition, last weekend,
kept going past them — a spectator starts to wonder
what the institute’s real purpose is. 

Nevertheless, the semifinals of the Monk Institute’s
annual competition, which happened Saturday afternoon
in the auditorium at the Smithsonian’s Museum of
Natural History, remain a fascinating index of what
young jazz musicians in the mainstream are sounding
like, and of what judges choose to reward year by
year. The contest is open to musicians under 30, and
this year the instrument was piano; the heavy-duty
contest judges were Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill,
Danilo Perez, Renee Rosnes, Billy Taylor and Randy

The winner was Tigran Hamasyan, a 19-year old Armenian
pianist currently studying at the University of
Southern California, though as an undergraduate, not
within the Monk Institute program. His performances,
in both the semifinals and the finals, were intensely
searching, and stubborn in their intuitive force:
jazz, for him, is about constantly moving around the
rhythmic accents in a piece of music so that nearly
every bar seems to be in a different time signature
from the last. 

His concept of style, as he revealed in the standards
“Cherokee” and “Solar,” had something to do with Keith
Jarrett (as did the sound of so many other pianists in
the contest), with his long-phrased, almost
intemperate melodic improvising; it had to do with Mr.
Hancock, too, and his sense of order and harmonic
vocabulary. But Mr. Hamasyan’s particular kind of
nonstop rhythmic reshuffling seemed his own.

Those who lost were piles of promise. Victor Gould, an
18-year-old with a lovely, mysterious sense of time,
drifted around “You and the Night and the Music,”
leaving phrases half-turned and drawing out the house
rhythm section, the bassist Rodney Whitaker and the
drummer Carl Allen, to help him finish phrases. Aaron
Parks, 22, who has been heard for four years in Mr.
Blanchard’s band, used strong arrangement ideas and
leaned hard on solo-piano performance to show the
judges what he could do. 

And Gerald Clayton from California, also 22 and the
son of the bassist John Clayton, came to destroy: his
playing had huge, authoritative presence, an Oscar
Peterson-like style, highly controlled touch and
dynamics and rhapsodic, episodic soloing. (The
audience broke into applause during his solo.) 

Had he won, it would have cast a different light on
the whole enterprise. Any musician can use the $20,000
prize money (half of it earmarked for some kind of
academic study), but Mr. Clayton seemed fully formed.
Mr. Hamasyan was, excitingly, not.

At what point will jazz just crumble under the weight
of the glib encomiums paid to it? During Sunday
night’s gala concert at the Kennedy Center, former
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright talked about
how “the power of jazz enhances our cultural
diplomacy,” and another former secretary of state,
Colin L. Powell, theorized that the qualities that
made effective international relations were “the same
as those that create a good jazz band.” 

On Thursday night, at a half-hour White House
performance presented by the institute, with the
president and the first lady as hosts — which will be
seen in February on PBS — Laura Bush gave a speech
about jazz as “an American cultural treasure.” No art
should have to live up to such clichés.

Sunday’s concert included a short, tenebrous duet
between Mr. Hancock and Wayne Shorter, as well as a
number by Mr. Blanchard’s students from the Monk
Institute graduate program, playing adventurously in
up-to-the-minute mainstream jazz idioms. 

But the institute saves prime spots for showboaters
who aren’t necessarily jazz performers. Anita Baker,
at Thursday night’s event, sang “My Funny Valentine”
before the president, and on Sunday Stevie Wonder was
awarded the institute’s Maria Fisher Founder’s Award
for public service. Flanked by Ms. Albright and Mr.
Powell — in the kind of surreal tableau this event
provides annually — Mr. Wonder dedicated the award to
his mother. “I don’t think she was a Republican,” he
added, impulsively. “I’m just trying to keep it real.”

Then he performed a drawn-out version of the standard
“Midnight Sun,” playing harmonica and singing. The
rest of the band was Mr. Hancock on piano, Ron Carter
on bass, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums and Mr.
Blanchard on trumpet. (Not bad.) But it became overly
eccentric, and Mr. Wonder tried some awkward scat
singing; despite the booming power of his voice, the
performance fell apart. 

The program for the finals competition and gala
concert recycled old news clips implying that
record-company bidding wars follow the announcement of
the winner. This is not true: the bigger labels are
barely signing new jazz artists these days, and the
excellent last two winners, the singer Gretchen
Parlato and the guitarist Lage Lund, have yet to cut
much of a profile.

But whatever happens to Mr. Hamasyan, the contest
brought him around people like the judges and the
contest’s rhythm section, and brought them around him.
That’s good enough. 


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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