This was the eighth performance of about twenty events curated over ten days by pianist Ethan Iverson and Duke Perfomances executive director Aaron Greenwald. The agenda was to have five pianists play every one of Thelonious Monk's approximately 60 compositions as one part of the Monk@100 Festival on October 17-26.
The first 30 of these were presented at this afternoon concert; the remaining 30 were featured at the same venue on the following day and are not reviewed herein.
The pianists involved were Iverson, Orrin Evans, Chris Pattishall, Jeb Patton, and Ernest Turner. Two Steinway grand pianos were set up in apposition on the stage. The acoustics and ambiance of Durham Fruit & Produce Co., a newly renovated space, recently converted from an industrial building into a vibrant arts space, are superb; in fact, these Duke Performances are the first events to be held there.
Following an eloquent verbal introduction by Iverson, who is best known for his association with the avant-garde trio The Bad Plus, he introduced the concert with Monk's composition "Crepuscule with Nellie." The playing of this eloquent ballad involved Monk's unique style of bebop rhythmic phrasing with slightly off-beat, yet swinging, accents that are characteristic components of the genre that he co-created in the 1940s and 50s with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, and many others.
The format of the concert – more than two and a half hours that might have benefitted with a brief intermission – consisted of alternating solo and duet performances. These were uniformly well-rehearsed considering the nuances and complexity of Monk's works. The pacing of the pieces was arresting and thoughtful; for example, having Evans join Iverson in a duet following his introduction piece with a very up-tempo version of "I Mean You" set the thoughtful tenor for the whole proceedings. Evans particularly evoked the dynamic spirit of Monk on the piece "Bemsha Swing," at least as this reviewer remembers him during his only known visit back to his birth State of North Carolina; coincidently it was on his birthday on October 10, 1970!
One of Monk's slow blues pieces, "Misterioso" was played with exquisite feeling by Turner, as was Monk's ode to his first sweetheart, the classic "Ruby My Dear" rendered by former Duke graduate Patton. Pattishall demonstrated what can be achieved on one of Monk's pieces entitled "Humph" based on the chord changes of the ubiquitous jazz standard "I Got Rhythm" by George Gershwin. Pattishall was also most impressive on the very complex and subtle piece entitled "Teo." Since this was a jazz concert it goes without saying that every piece contained improvisation, which makes the duet renderings all the more impressive.
There were several pieces played that are rarely heard. For example, Monk wrote "Green Chimneys" for his son, and it was rendered most sensitively by Evans; Pattishall and Iverson similarly delivered a very melodic version of "Introspection." Iverson played the least Monk-ish (on the surface) piece of the concert, "Bya-Ya," with understated, clever rhythmic and melodic variations that gave the piece unexpected character.
The concert concluded appropriately with a rendition of "Blue Monk" with five pianists playing together, i.e. three on one piano and two on the other; this took some skill and surely an interesting rehearsal!
The Monk@100 Festival continues through October 26. See our sidebar for details.