I caught pianist Jason Moran’s re-creation of jazz great Thelonious Monk’s legendary 1959 Town Hall concert Saturday night at the Walker’s McGuire auditorium. As expected, it was a great show—and Jason Moran should win some sort of jazz history award for making it happen. Moran put the show together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Monk’s Town Hall concert, which became one of the most iconic live recordings in jazz history, as well as pay tribute to the man whom Moran credits for getting him interested in the piano in the first place.
This is the sort of event that, if we were a country that really cared about educating our people about America’s musical history, should be mandatory listening in every school in the land. Moran and his eight-piece band didn’t just recreate the music of Monk’s 1959 concert, they did what they could to revive the spirit of the thing by summoning the ghost of Monk and his arranger Hall Overton through recently discovered recordings of the two jazz giants working out the format of the Town Hall concert on tape.
In between bursts of exquisite musicianship, the lights would come down and Monk’s voice could be heard on a scratchy recording, musing about various aspects of the sound he was after—how, for instance, he absolutely did not want a “big-band” sound because it sounded “too stiff” to him. Monk wanted what he called a “free sound” that allowed each musician to have some individuality and made room for the spontaneous combustion he clearly hoped to generate onstage that night—a combustion Moran and his crew captured quite brilliantly in their playing. (Incidentally, as a musician, if you’ve ever played a Monk tune, this is the only style that makes sense because his chord structures feel so elastic that they practically beg to be stretched and pulled. In fact, part of their greatness lies in the fact that they maintain their musical integrity so well and suggest so many possibilities without falling apart in the playing.)
Though the songs in the show fell in the same order as Monk’s original concert, Moran clearly gave his band similar instructions to let the spirit of the music move through them rather than try to nail the thing note for note. The show was more like an entertaining, performance-style lecture, with slides and video filling in bits of Monk’s biography as the show progressed. Moran’s personal connection to the music was also part of the show, as slides with text on them shared how Moran came to admire Monk’s music through his musically inclined parents.
One of the most admired young pianists of his generation, Moran created some exquisite moments by playing along with the music on the recording for a bit, then transitioning into live jams. At one point, Monk can be heard on the recording stomping out a beat with his feet. Moran looped the beat, and the band came in, playing over Monk’s rhythmic stomp and building it into a raucous, muscular escalation of a Monk favorite, “Little Rootie Tootie.” It’s hard to think of a better way to keep Monk’s music and spirit alive than by integrating him so completely into the fabric of the music. It’s a lesson the folks who attended won’t soon forget.