This fall, I started my last (2nd) year studying at the Monk Institute program down in New Orleans, Louisiana. We’ve had some cool experiences in that program this year so far. Each month, a visiting artist comes and does a week-long residency at the Monk Institute and they give improv/composition classes, as well as giving history/listening sessions. Sometimes they even play with us in class which is one of my favorite things about when a visiting artist comes to the program. The first visiting artist we had this year happened to be one of my favorite jazz musicians of all-time, guitarist John Scofield. His recordings as a sideman and a leader have been among my favorite since early on in my introduction to jazz music. He’s played on so many great recordings as a sideman like Herbie Hancock’s “The New Standard” and Joe Henderson’s “So Near So Far – Musings for Miles”, and I’ve been a big such a big fan of his own records as a leader as well. So, having him here in New Orleans giving classes and lessons for the week was really exciting for me. While he was here, he would he would join in playing with us on the majority of the pieces that we played in class. It is always a wild experience to me to hear someone play up close that you’ve listened to so much on recordings before that. John’s an awesome improviser, and it seems like his own unique voice comes through on every piece he plays on. We also got to read a bunch of his original compositions during the classes, which was a great learning experience. He writes really cool tunes! It seems like each one has something unique about it, with great and memorable melodies. It was an inspiring week, and a great way to start the year.
Shortly after that, the Monk Ensemble traveled to Washington, D.C. to be a part of the annual festivities surrounding the international instrumental jazz competition that the Monk Institute puts on each year. This year, the Monk competition featured vocalists. We attended the semi-finals, which took place at the Native American museum in D.C., and then the next day we went to the finals which were housed at the Kennedy Center for the Arts. The semi-finals are cool because the judges and some of the gala performers are around – this year Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter could be seen milling around the museum when they had a free moment or two. (Last year was the bass competition, and one of my favorite memories from that year was watching Charlie Haden try out some of the semi-finalists’ basses back-stage after that part of the competition was over.) The next day was the finals – it turned out that I knew some of the vocalists that made it to the top 3 competition finalists either from school or through other friends, so it was cool to get to hear them perform some of their pieces on the concert. In addition to the vocal competition, each year’s gala concert features a set of music by some of the artists associated with the institute – This time Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath, and Terence Blanchard were among the groups that were performing there, so you could imagine the energy level in some of the groups they were a part of! As part of the gala program, the Monk Ensemble is also given the opportunity to play a tune on the concert, and this year we were joined by legendary trumpeter/vocalist Clark Terry (who is now over 90 years old!) and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. We performed Clark’s own composition, “Mumbles”, which is kind of a comedy sketch/blues. I tell you what, the man has still got it! It was just as funny to hear him perform that tune as it was on videos I’ve seen of him doing that sketch in other places decades ago. For me, though, the highlight of the concerts at the past two Monk competition galas that I’ve been to has been listening to the other groups that perform there – Last year Herbie played with Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter on a version of “Speak No Evil”, and I just remember that the rhythm section was swinging so hard on that tune that it was ridiculous! Herbie also played on a few tunes at the concert this year, and it seems like he always plays with such an amazing amount of energy – he’s also always so in-the-moment, reacting to ideas that appear in the music as it goes by as well as introducing lots of interesting ideas for the rest of the band to play off of. He is such an inspirational musician, and is still playing so great even at age 70.
Other than things related to the Monk program, I’ve been enjoying life as a whole and have been listening to some new music recently (some of which is on CD’s I’ve had for a while but just haven’t listened to much). Hank Jones and Charlie Haden’s “Steal Away” CD has been playing in the car recently, which is a collection of hymns and spirituals that they arranged and recorded as a duo. The sounds that both of those people get on their instruments is so rich, I love listening to them play together. It’s unfortunate that we lost Hank this year, the last of the living Jones brothers (Elvin and Thad are missed too), but it was a blessing that he was with us so long – Hank was 91 when he passed! Not all jazz musicians live that long.
I’ve also been way into the new internet radio program called Pandora. If you aren’t already hip to it, it’s really awesome! I love the fact that their library of music is so expansive (covering not just pop music, but a broad range of jazz and classical as well as folk/singer-songwriter music). It’s a great tool for discovering new artists that you may not have heard of before and for getting familiar with artists that you’ve heard a lot about, but just haven’t checked out a lot yet. It also brings back a little bit of that vintage-radio flare that makes you feel like you’re a little bit more connected to the rest of the world than just listening to recordings on your own music player by yourself – even though there’s no radio host present on Pandora and it’s a computer that’s making the choices that a human disc-jockey would normally make. I guess that’s a little bit sad in a way too, but given the fact that it’s almost impossible to find a real jazz radio station in a lot of American cities nowadays, I guess it’s the next best thing! (The closest thing my home-town has to a real jazz station is the University of North Texas radio station, but as soon as you get a little bit south of Dallas you can’t pick it up anymore on a lot of car stereos! My friend also does a jazz radio show on Sundays in the Dallas area, but that’s only once a week for 3 hours). So, the age of the internet is largely taking over, but fortunately there’s a lot of great resources on it to take advantage of. The recent live recording series from the Village Vanguard that can be found on NPR’s website, for example, is awesome – Kurt Rosenwinkel has a quartet-set from a year or two ago that is stellar which can be downloaded from that site. I’m sure there are many other great concert recordings there too.
Well, I’ve managed to type a lot more than was probably intended for a blog, so I guess I will sign off here for a while. I’ll end this note with a video that you can watch that’s posted on You-tube of the Monk Ensemble performing earlier in the summertime in Shanghai, China with guest soloist Herbie Hancock. (The Monk Ensemble is: Nick Falk – drums, Hogyu Hwang – bass, Victor Gould – piano, Billy Buss – trumpet, Godwin Louis – alto sax, and me – tenor sax).