The centenary of Thelonious Monk’s birth has received much deserved, sometimes surprising, attention. Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3 no less! [Listen on the BBC iPlayer, if you just happen to have been otherwise occupied each weekday between noon and 1.00pm]. The London Jazz Festival did its bit with a triple-header at London’s Cadogan Hall this Sunday just past, November 19th. Largely pulled together by saxophonist Toni Kofi (Nottingham’s finest) with the help of pianist Jonathan Gee, the ambition was to play every piece that Monk wrote, climaxing with a recreation of the 1959 concert at New York’s Town Hall, in which a selection on his best-known and most often played compositions was played by a 10-piece band in versions scored by Hal Overton.
The two afternoon concerts featured a constantly shifting personnel in varying small combinations, largely drawn from the various groups Kofi and Gee have been involved with over the years. No time for lengthy improvisation with all those tunes to fit in, the impression was of a musical kaleidoscope from which certain moments stood out: Byron Wallen prowling around the breadth of stage playing solo trumpet; Tony Kofi and Jason Yarde standing off to one side in shadow, each holding a baritone sax, before starting to play and moving slowly – almost menacingly – towards centre stage; Yarde, again, looping a succession of saxophone lines and overlaying them with slaps and yelps; Jim Rattigan on French horn and Andy Grappy on tuba providing a subtle and sonorous brass wall to first Yarde and then Wallen; Rattigan’s pin drop French horn solo.
Chatting to a couple who’d come up from Southampton in the interval – and Southampton was nothing; one person I spoke to had travelled down from Edinburgh, while his partner had flown in from Moscow – it was clear that, in amongst all that good music, all those musicians, the one person who had caught their eye was drummer Rod Youngs. And it was easy to see why. Originally from Washington DC, Youngs has much of the showman about him, without it ever getting in the way of the overall performance or detracting from those he’s supporting: he’s not brash; he’s not a latter-day Gene Krupa or a Buddy Rich. His rhythm is often springy and floating; his solos give due accord to moments of unsuspected silence, of spaces – of humour. If a drummer can be droll, Rod Youngs is droll.
On his web site it suggests one of his influences was Sid Catlett, and watching him I kept thinking further back to Zutty Singleton, then it was forward to the 50s and 60s and the great Max Roach. Youngs has played with Gil Scott-Heron and Jon Hendricks, with David Murray and Lee Konitz [now there’s a contrast], with Mica Paris and the Jazz Jamaica All Stars, and on this Sunday he played with everyone, from trios to the full band and he was never less than the absolute business.
Intriguing as the first two sessions were, there was always the sense that the Town Hall recreation would be – should be – the day’s crowning glory, and it was. The American trumpeter and arranger, Charles Tolliver, had reconstructed Hal Overton’s scores from the original lp, and they were played by an outstanding band, with a front line of Ed Jones on tenor, Jason Yarde on alto and Mike Yates on trumpet; Tony Kofi sitting behind and urging a huge sound from his baritone, with Dennis Rollins alongside on trombone, Jim Rattigan’s French horn and Andy Grappy’s tuba; Jonathan Gee was at the Steinway, Ben Hazleton on the bass and Rod Youngs on drums.
I know the original recording quite well, but not well enough to know to what extent, if at all, Tolliver’s scores differed, although there did seem to be more room for solos. There was a gorgeous sonority from the brass – shades of Gil Evans with Miles? – and some outstanding solos, with Ed Jones’ fluent, driving tenor, for me, the pick of the bunch. Although – wait a minute – Gee, who’d been good throughout, was tremendous here, beginning this set with a solo version of ‘In Walked Bud’ and continuing to play in a manner that recalled Monk in its sudden accents and angularities, while never losing the fluidity that’s natural to his own style.
But it was joyous, that’s the thing. That was the over-riding impression as you shuffled smiling up the aisle with the crowd and stepped through the doors and out into the night. A joyous, heartfelt tribute to a singular musician, a singular composer. What’s the expression? We will not see his like again. Nor hear it, either.