Thelonious Monk Institute of Performance Jazz Ensemble
By Patricia Myers
An international jazz ensemble performed two polished concerts, including cameo sit-ins by New York drummer Lewis Nash, during the third anniversary weekend of The Nash concert venue that is named in his honor.
High-octane energy and invention were delivered in sophisticated evergreens and original compositions by seven post-graduate fellows of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance/UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. The two-part event began with an afternoon history-of-jazz master class that was as informative as it was entertaining.
But it was the evening concert that proved the combo’s impressive level of proficiency in the art of jazz. Playing familiar charts of the legendary Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Thelonious Monk, the youthful aggregation delivered with inventive finesse. They also performed their own compositions.
The opening selection was “Table 11,” a lively original by trombonist Ido Meshulam (Bat-Yam, Israel) that featured solos by the composer and both his horn-mates, alto saxophonist David Otis (Downey, CA) and tenor saxophonist Daniel Rotem (Jerusalem, Israel). Another Rotem chart, “Always There,” featured solo spots for Otis and Meshulam, supported by the rich resonance of acoustic bassist Alex Boneham (Sydney, Australia) and solidly propelled by drummer Christian Euman (Chicago, IL).
Monk’s “I Mean You” featured vocalist Michael Mayo (Los Angeles, A) wordlessly emulating a fourth horn; Nash guested on drums with his entertaining brush work, punctuated by bass-drums accents and exhilarating cymbals technique. “Sophisticated Lady” attained a fresh newness via the duet of pianist Carmen Staaf (Seattle, WA) and singer Mato, her chromatic changes enhancing his melancholic style that injected a few Mel Torme-esque nuances. Drummer Euman offered his “Short Song” in a medley with Rotem’s “You Used to Tell Me That You Loved Me.”
Amid all this impressive playing and writing, the exciting composition by Meshulam, “The Land of the Lobotomites,” was my best-of-show. This ear-bending project featured trombonist-composer note-sparring with Otis on soprano sax; pianist Staaf’s angular format added bursts of energy in support of Meshulam’s electronically created octave self-harmonies; the three horns then coalesced in intricate harmony to take the exciting chart to a satisfying close, the “wow” factor vibrant from start to finish.
Earlier in the day, the ensemble presented a free master class on the history of jazz eras that was demonstrated by playing the music of each period’s prevailing style, from Kid Ory and Louis Armstrong to big-band swing to bebop, bossa nova, avant-garde and fusion. The class ended with a segment for local music students playing charts with the combo, followed by a QA session.
During their Arizona stay, the Monk Institute fellows visited central-city schools for “informances” that combined performances with information at history-of-jazz assembly programs. They also conducted music clinics and provided individual lessons for students at Camelback, Central, Trevor G. Brown and Thunderbird high schools, Herrera Middle School and Arizona School for the Arts. “The fellows talked to students about how a jazz ensemble represents a perfect democracy,” said Daniel Seeff, the institute’s West Coast director and program director.
“They cited the important values that jazz represents: teamwork, freedom with responsibility, unity with ethnic diversity, the correlation of hard work and goal accomplishment, persistence, and the vital importance of really listening to one another. When young people hear this important message from musicians closer to their age, they are often more likely to tune in.”
For the tour, Seeff worked with longtime Arizona arts-advocate Karen Scates, who has been affiliated with the institute for several years; she obtained financial support for travel and lodging, and helped set up concert dates and the schools schedule.