Tolliver & Moran Do Monk at Town Hall, Part 2 (The Aftermath)

The “Monk at Town Hall” tribute-concerts on Thursday and Friday night (which I previewed in my last blog) were as riveting as I’d expected—in the case of Charles Tolliver’s re-creation of Monk’s 1959 concert, much more so. Tolliver transcribed the original concert off the Monk LP, assembled a top-notch 10-piece band to play the parts, and conducted the score with precision except to let the hornmen improvise their solos. It’s a risky enterprise to invite comparison to a classic (cf. Gus Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Psycho), but Tolliver roared into the ring and more than held his own. It wasn’t quite the marvel of the original—nobody can do all the things Monk did on the piano, and Tolliver’s drummer held back too much (Monk’s drummer, Art Taylor, splashed around the trap set, heightening the tension and release)—but it came very close. Stanley Cowell shadowed Monk’s piano runs with startling fidelity. Rufus Reid plucked the bassline with authority and soul. Several of the soloists rocked the full house—especially Howard Johnson on bari sax, Aaron Johnson on tuba, and the young Marcus Strickland on tenor sax, who outdid Charlie Rouse for sheer verve. The whole band plowed through these absurdly difficult tunes with crackling aplomb, swinging like crazy, as Monk might have said.

Jason Moran’s Big Bandwagon (an eight-piece extension of his Bandwagon Trio) aimed for something else entirely—a po-mo excursion into the genesis of Monk’s music, drawing on audio tapes of the ’59 discussions between Monk and his arranger Hall Overton, video footage from the era, and Moran’s musings of Monk’s influence on his own music. The concert could have been very twee, but Moran made good on his ambitions; it did what such pastiches are supposed to do—make you hear, and think about, the music in a new and thrilling way. The band wasn’t as polished as Tolliver’s, and Cowell had a more commanding grasp of the material; but Moran captured Monk’s jagged rhythms and spiky dynamics more naturally—maybe more so than any living pianist can.

Tolliver’s concert was broadcast live on WNYC (93.9 on the FM dial in New York, wnyc.org on the net). Moran’s was recorded and will be aired sometime later—but it really calls for a DVD produced by a video artist. Moran says he’s disinclined to go that route—he wants to keep it exclusively in the concert hall—but I hope he changes his mind; it’s worth preserving for posterity, too.

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