Tolliver & Moran Do Monk at Town Hall

It’s a bad idea to gin up expectations, but two concerts this week at Town Hall in New York City are worth the risk. Each commemorates Thelonious Monk’s big-band concert at the same Town Hall on Feb. 28, 1959—exactly 50 years ago—but in very different ways. This Thursday, Feb. 26, Charles Tolliver leads a 10-piece band on a straightforward (if that word can describe anything related to Monk) re-creation of the concert. The next night, Feb. 27, Jason Moran leads an octet on a bold re-conceptualization of the event, a sort of post-modern audio-video collage that aims to capture the spirit of Monk’s music while also tapping into its hidden roots and their links to Moran himself.

The Town Hall concert was an oddity for Monk, one of only a few times that he stretched some of his quirky masterpieces—“Thelonious,” “Friday the 13th,” “Crepiscule with Nellie,” “Little Rootie Tootie,” “Off Minor,” and “Monk’s Mood”—onto a big-band canvas. It drew mixed reviews at the time, but the resulting album—recorded on Riverside--has long been regarded an irresistible classic. The arrangements were penned by Hall Overton (I use the word “penned” advisedly; the ideas were clearly Monk’s; Overton was more a facilitator), but the parts were lost decades ago in a household flood.

As a teenager, Tolliver attended the ’59 concert, and now he has transcribed the performance off the original LP. The CD reissues, he told me in a phone conversation last week, weren’t clear enough to let him hear the French horn and tuba parts. (A new digital remaster, released last year under the “Keepnews Collection” rubric, sounds a bit better than an earlier CD, but still not as transparent as the half-century-old vinyl.)

Tolliver may be the ideal candidate for this role in another sense. He’s an accomplished, adventurous trumpeter, composer, and arranger who mixes avant-tinged harmonies with jaunty melodies and propulsive rhythms—a description that, from a different angle, suits Monk as well.

His contribution to the 50th-anniversary party will be a strict rendering of Monk’s concert—even beginning with the four quartet songs (which were left off the original LP, though tacked on, as welcome bonus tracks, on the Keepnews CD) before the whole band struts onstage. One difference: The horn players will improvise their own solos (this is still jazz, after all), though Stanley Cowell, on piano, will recite Monk’s solos. The trick in playing Monk is to capture both his precision and his playfulness; Cowell, who has been playing with Tolliver for over 30 years (they co-founded the Strata-East record label in the ‘70s), seems suited to the part as well.

Jason Moran is delving deeper into the source and parsing it out with a zig-zaggier blade. Moran is the most versatile and virtuosic jazz pianist our time; just 34, he can play every era, every genre, true to the source, while still stamping it with his own distinctive signature. (His 2002 CD, Modernistic, may be the best solo piano jazz album of the last couple decades.) A few years ago, he learned of the tape recordings that the photographer W. Eugene Smith made in his loft on 6th Avenue, from 1957-65. Hundreds of jazz musicians dropped by that loft, to chat and play, and Smith put it all on tape. Among them were Monk and Overton (the latter lived in the same building), who spent hours discussing the arrangements for the Town Hall concert. (The band also rehearsed in the loft, and those sessions are on the tapes, too.) A gleefully obsessive historian named Sam Stephenson guided Moran through the archive—which is located at Duke University, which also commissioned Moran’s re-composition—and scattered through Moran’s concert are snippets from those tapes. In one moment, while pacing the floor, Monk breaks into a dance of the rhythm from “Little Rootie Tootie” (these songs were in the man’s bones); Moran turned this tapdance into a tape loop and runs it in the background, as a one-man drumkit, while he plays the song.

Stephenson also took Moran and a video crew down to Newton Grove, the area around Duke where Monk’s ancestors were slaves 150 years ago. On a screen we watch footage of this land while onstage Moran and the band play a slow, melancholy version of “Thelonious.” “We think of Monk as a contemporary musician,” Moran said in a phone conversation, “but this is part of who he is, and what he plays, too.”

Moran and his band have played their Monk tribute in 10 previous concerts, though this Friday will be the first time that I'll have seen it. Future performances are scheduled in Minneapolis, New Haven, France, and Poland. The concert will be videotaped by engineers from Duke, though Moran has no plans to issue it on DVD. So go see it, and seeing it where Monk played it may tingle with a special resonance. Order tickets at the “external link” below.

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