Saturday, December 06, 2014

Monk Gala at the Dolby Theatre - DownBeat

Los Angeles' Dolby Theatre is home to the Academy Awards. Despite its rather uninspiring surroundings, the theater has a perpetual association with Hollywood glamour and an enormous space to fill (the stage is large enough for a regulation-sized basketball court.). The Thelonious Monk Institute's annual competition and gala capitalized on both of those fronts, presenting a show heavy on extravagant celebrity cameos and more first-call players than it knew what to do with.

Trumpeter Marquis Hill won the 2014 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, held Nov. 9. The finals of the competition were part of a star-studded gala that featured performances by up-and-coming jazz musicians, first-call professionals and celebrity guests.

The competition aspect of the evening was presented early on with trumpeters Adam O’Farrill, Billy Buss and Hill performing two tunes each. Pianist Reginald Thomas, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Carl Allen formed the unbeatable backing trio. O’Farrill and Buss opened their sets solo, waving flickering bursts of swing and rapid-fire bebop. Hill opted to close his set with a solo spotlight, showing a masterful command of melody with his rendition of “Polka Dots And Moonbeams.”

The three young finalists were then left to sweat it out until the end of the evening, when the winner would be decided by a “murderers’ row” of trumpet-playing judges: Quincy Jones, Randy Brecker, Arturo Sandoval, Jimmy Owens, Roy Hargrove and Ambrose Akinmusire, winner of the 2007 Monk Trumpet Competition.

Between the competition and the verdict, a cavalcade of jazz giants and Hollywood icons graced the stage in a glittering, nonstop parade. Actor Kevin Spacey kicked off his appearance with a competent and charismatic performance of “Fly Me To the Moon,” backed by an ensemble that included guitarist Kenny Burrell, trumpeter Jon Faddis and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts.

The concert continued with a performance of “Flying Home” that featured a front line of saxophonists Jimmy Heath, Joshua Redman and Wayne Shorter with vibraphonist Stefon Harris and pianist Herbie Hancock (who holds the title of Monk Institute Chairman).

At the gala, the institute honored President Bill Clinton with the 2014 Maria Fisher Founder’s Award, given to an individual who has made major contributions to the perpetuation of jazz and the expansion of jazz education. Past recipients include Heath, Shorter, Dr. David Baker, Clark Terry and Quincy Jones, who presented the award to Clinton.

“I fell in love with jazz when I was about 6,” Clinton said. “I started playing saxophone when I was 9. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was going to a summer camp and playing 12 hours a day until my lips bled. I would come home and sit in front of my old Victrola and watch those 33 rpms go around, and I would play the grooves off the record and wait for the next edition of DownBeat magazine to come out and read every article.”

Following his off-the-cuff speech, the president was slow to leave the stage, shaking hands with Burrell and talking for a moment to a seated Shorter. Clinton was clearly in the presence of his heroes. He walked to the wings to watch Dianne Reeves deliver a soulful rendition of “Our Love Is Here To Stay.”
A tribute to Horace Silver exemplified the marquee theme of the evening. Pianist Kris Bowers, the 2011 competition winner, had the honor of holding down the piano bench alongside Faddis and Redman but wasn’t given a solo, missing a great opportunity to showcase what Clinton had earlier described as the institute’s ability to find the “next generation of jazz giants.”

Hancock returned to the stage to provide what he called “this evening’s jazz lesson,” which was a surreal collaboration with pop artist Pharrell Williams, who appeared in his signature oversized hat. Along with bassist Ben Williams and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, the group stretched out on Williams’ mega-hit “Happy,” offering a cross-genre performance that was more novel than educational.

Two hours after performing, Hill, 27, was crowned winner of the competition, receiving a $25,000 music scholarship and a recording contract with the Concord Music Group. The award ceremony led to a blowout jam that closed the evening. Seventeen soloists, including Spacey and a neon-clad Hargrove, took a chorus apiece on “Every Day I Have The Blues.”

With the stage flooded by Hollywood stars (among them Goldie Hawn, Don Cheadle and Billy Dee Williams) and chart-topping pop artists (including John Mayer, Queen Latifah and Chaka Khan), musical giants like Heath, Burrell and Shorter served as the greatest house band any jazz artist could ask for. It was a flamboyant event befitting its surroundings in the home of the Oscar awards show, but worlds away from the day-to-day life of almost any jazz musician.

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