Thelonious Monk is celebrated as one of America’s best composers and piano players. He made numerous contributions to the world of Jazz with his unorthodox improvisational style that featured dissonances, abrupt piano strikes and angular melodic twists. Thelonious Monk was a jazzman that pushed the envelope; because of this his music has endured. He would have turned 100 years-old late last year, so the Chicago Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series dedicated last Friday night to him.
To start was the first female (and South American) instrumentalist to win the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition: Melissa Aldana. Making her Orchestra Hall debut, Aldana and her quintet delivered on the big stage; making the big room seem more like an intimate club. Melissa Aldana’s tenor saxophone solos were rich with complexity and texture. Hearing how she articulated one note into the next showed a young talent in command of her instrument; and only getting better. Aldana proved that she is one of jazz music’s rising stars and a legacy to greats like Monk. Tip of the hat to drummer Tommy Crane, who provided a spirited back-beat the entire set.
Now that the audience was warmed up, it was time for the main event: John Beasley and his MONK’estra. Beasley has taken Monk’s songs and reimagined them with orchestral arrangements on two albums (whose titles make them easy to remember): John Beasley Presents Monk’estra Vol 1 and John Beasley Presents Monk’estra Vol 2 (which was nominated for a 2018 Grammy). On Friday night, Beasley brought a 15-piece orchestra with him to Orchestra Hall. He took turns playing the piano and conducting them from the front.
The group took Monk’s original songs and blended in a wide variety of genres including big band jazz, Caribbean jazz, hip-hop and contemporary synth sounds. How can this be done? How can you mix jazz songs Monk wrote over 50 years ago with modern genres and manage not to break them? Beasley answered the question from stage, “Monk’s music is very pliable.”
The perfect example of this was the song “Breaks Sway”, which started with drummer Terreon Gully’s hard hip-hop beat. It then moved to a synthesizer solo from Beasley himself and then on to a solo from special guest: Grammy Award winner Gregoire Maret.
Maret soloed on a harmonica, a very rare instrument choice in the jazz world; one that Thelonious Monk would likely approve of. Maret’s solo was fluid, crisp and energetic. It took the audience on a ride that was both unexpected and thoroughly enjoyable.
This mix and matching of new styles with Monk’s songs sounds like an experiment gone wrong, however that is exactly the type of artist Monk was. He was unorthodox. He was a risk taker. He pushed the boundaries. The genius of what John Beasley is doing with his MONK’estra is capturing the spirit of Theolonious Monk and bringing it into the new millennium. The audience on Friday night at the Chicago Symphony definitely appreciated it.
To learn more about the Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series, click here
Photos provided by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.