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Duke presents Charles Tolliver, Town Hall, NYC, 2/26/09

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NEW YORK -- Greetings from the Big Apple, where I'm covering celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Thelonious Monk's legendary 1959 Town Hall tentet show, (for background on the projects and these two shows, read this and this and this).

Last night's show was the Charles Tolliver Tentet playing note-for-note transcriptions from the Monk show, which was Feb. 28, 1959. Tolliver's star rose quickly in the late '60s, but he doesn't have the same profile of some other musicians of his vintage. Perhaps he deserves more--last night he led a fiercely intense (and star-studded) band through energetic readings of the charts, elecrtifying an equally energetic (and star-studded) audience.

Tolliver premiered the transcriptions at Duke last fall, and that show, while interesting, showed a certain roughness around the edges, and was outshone by some of the other shows in Duke Performances' "Following Monk" series. For the New York show, everything worked better, and the show struck a balance between excitement--as judged by the occasional shouts from the house--and solemnity, with many attendees speaking about the spooky, chilling magic in the air.

Tolliver spent most of the night conducting, picking up his horn for two solos during the show, which followed Monk's '59 setlist. Conducting the band, though, Tolliver made his delight clear, bouncing blithely with the music. Several players offered impressive solos, including the legendary Howard Johnson, trumpeter Kenyatta Beasley and alto saxophonist and Duke alum Todd Bashore.

As in the Page Auditorium performance, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland stole the show. On a quartet reading of "Rhythm-A-Ning," he took off out of the gate with several courses of raw power, playing acrobatic and challenging bebop lines but not distracting from the playful vibe necessary for Monk's music, one expertly set by the rhythm section of Stanley Cowell (piano), Gene Jackson (drums) and Rufus Reid (bass).

But Jackson and Cowell deserve the most credit. The charts require careful precision among the horns. Because of Monk's peculiar syncopations and angular melodies, the horn section becomes a thundering juggernaut when together and a muddy mess when apart. Tolliver kept them together, but what really pulled everything was a solid underpinning, and Cowell and Jackson worked as one all night. On "Friday the 13th," as Cowell launched into his solo, Jackson caught his eye. For the next chorus, it was as though one man were playing both drums and piano, as each anticipated the other's next move and deftly reacted. It doesn't get much better.

Despite a McCoy Tyner gig elsewhere in town, jazz royalty was out for the night. Saxophonist Paul Jeffrey, who was Monk's last saxophonist and ran the Duke Jazz Program for years, was there. "It was a great concert," he said. Fifty years and Monk's music being recreated in such a way--they captured his spirit."

Also there was Creed Taylor, one of the most important jazz producers of the 1960s and 1970s and, unbeknownst to me, a Duke grad. Hearing I was from The Chronicle, he said hello and introduced himself; I was flabbergasted. He was too, but by the music: "I was flabbergasted--the whole ensemble was such a powerhouse. It should be recreated often."

Bashore, the Duke alumnus, said although he enjoyed playing it in Page at his alma mater, the Town Hall concert was special: "It was great. Some fothe greatest musicians in the world, playing it with this band. There's nothing like playing here."

Also in the house: T.S. Monk, Thelonious Monk's son and a drummer; Bob Northern, French horn player at the original concert; New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff; Dan Willette of Downbeat, the leading jazz magazine; Jason Moran, who will play tonight's concert; and countless other musicians I didn't recognize.

Perhaps my personal favorite, though, was sitting two seats down from. He looked familiar, but I couldn't quite place him--until I realized it was Donald Fagen of Steely Dan! He was clearly into the music, moving in his seat and occasionally shouting encouragement. "I thought it was a really good representation of what Monk does," he told me after the show, adding (in the wry twist one might expect,) "It was really great as far as tributes go."

Check back soon for transcripts of my interviews with Tolliver and Moran, as well as a wrap-up of tonight's show.

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