Not Enough of That Jazz

Thelonious Monk was an inspiration for countless avant-garde artists. Too bad a birthday homage to him came up short.

Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev

There are two kinds of birthday parties: the ones you attend to be polite, and the ones you attend because you adore the person of honor. Thelonious Monk's 95th birthday party was the second kind - the celebration took place at Tel Aviv's Levontin 7 club last week.

"Our exalted teacher," as saxophonist Erez Barnoy dubbed him Wednesday night, was a genius without whom jazz would be diminished. He died 30 years ago, but his music, pardon the cliche, will live on. It will intrigue, amuse, challenge, enthuse, move and drop jaws for many years to come.

The force behind the modest birthday party (four groups each played a short set ) was a great love for Monk. The decent-sized audience at Levontin provided a positive vibe. It was simple: We came to a party to enjoy Monk's wonderful compositions played live.

Much of the time, we got what we came for. Only toward the middle of the evening did we feel the need for the innovative, stormy, maverick elements that made Monk an inspiration for countless avant-garde artists. But the birthday party didn't come through.

Soprano saxophonist Yuval Cohen, who opened the evening with his trio partners - contrabassist Avri Borochov and drummer Yonatan Rosen - played Monk's music with a thin, clear sound and an abundance of joy. Their music was traditional but uninhibited - typical Monk.

In one tune, "Reflections," it seemed the three musicians were trying ever so hard to express the eccentric side that was such a beloved part of Monk's work. Cohen suddenly stopped the ballad's melodic flow, waited two or three seconds, then continued as if nothing had happened. Why? Because. To plant a bug in the system.

The best of the bunch

One of the great things Monk did was to show that the strangest music can also be the most beautiful - it could be that the pause in "Reflections" was Cohen's tribute to this dimension. Either way, the trio's performance was the best of the three sets I saw. (Disclosure: I didn't see the fourth set by Hillel and Ilan Salem. They came on stage at around 11:30 P.M. )

Pianist Nitai Hershkovits accepted the not-so-simple task of saluting Monk in a solo piano set. Hershkovits is an excellent musician, one of Israel's best young jazz pianists. But his brief performance came up short. Of the five segments he played, only one was by Monk; two others were tunes Monk liked to play even though he did not compose them. The other two were original works by Hershkovits.

And the original pieces were totally unconnected to Monk. With their soft monotonous floating, they sounded more like a dialogue with American Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. Their presence that evening was surprising, and their lack of belonging marred the entire set.

Ahead of the third set, a surprising need for modernist interpretation surfaced - a need that was not met by Erez Barnoy and his quartet. They played Monk's music in a traditional manner that was engaging, but Barnoy's fleshy saxophone playing was too fleshy for my tastes.

Despite these reservations, there were some impressive moments in the quartet's set: Hila Kulik, a young pianist from Monk's school; the dizzying piece "Four in One" (a Monk work that's rarely performed ); and the creative mash-up "Rhythm-A-Ning," with a segment by Dexter Gordon.

Thelonious Monk's 95th birthday party, Levontin 7, Tel Aviv, October 10

Soprano saxophonist Yuval Cohen. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Soprano saxophonist Yuval Cohen. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum