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Sketches, Blurs, and Resonance: In My Mind

There’s little debate about Thelonious Monk’s place in the jazz pantheon, yet Jason Moran is not content for Monk to just be revered. In My Mind is Moran’s multimedia exploration of the continued presence—and present-ness—of Monk, in particular his landmark 1959 Town Hall big band concert. What often makes Monk’s piano playing so incredible is […]

There’s little debate about Thelonious Monk’s place in the jazz pantheon, yet Jason Moran is not content for Monk to just be revered. In My Mind is Moran’s multimedia exploration of the continued presence—and present-ness—of Monk, in particular his landmark 1959 Town Hall big band concert.

What often makes Monk’s piano playing so incredible is his almost infinitely malleable sense of time, how he could stretch and pull apart the rhythm of a song to its very seams yet remain firmly in the pocket. Moran and the rest of the rhythm section—Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums—transferred this concept to the entire section and took it as the foundation for all of their interpretations, resulting in a skillful and subtle pushing and pulling of time that always kept each other—and the audience—on their toes.

For the most part, unfortunately, the work’s visual elements lacked the subtlety that marked so much of the evening’s music. For instance, at one point Moran cut back and forth between live video of the band and fractured collages of 1959 newspapers, which didn’t leave much to the imagination. An exception, however, was a digitally-weathered, almost stop-motion slideshow of Moran’s studio, as he described his musical history, one intertwined with Monk’s own. (He was introduced to Monk’s music when he learned about a plane crash that killed a family friend and it was this music that made him want to take the piano seriously.) The half photograph, half-sketch images not only blurred the lines between these two different life stories, but also the process of influence that In My Mind foregrounds both as representation and end result.

In the end, I found that the evening’s best moments actually had very little to do with the work’s visuals, one which was intentional and the other which most likely wasn’t.

The first was the work’s opening, with Moran walking on stage and donning headphones. Soon the opening notes of “Thelonious,” the first song on the original record (The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall), dimly fill the hall; it was like the audience was in Moran’s mind, overhearing the explorations and results of his working through the past as he vacillated between doubling and embellishing Monk’s piano lines.

The second was near the middle of the performance, after the performers had walked off stage following a particularly pointed comparison between Monk’s slave grandparents and his own beating at the hands of police. Recorded music accompanying the visuals made Nasheet Waits’ snare rattle with sympathetic vibrations. This normally annoying occurrence—a snare that the drummer forgot to switch off ruining a particularly intimate moment—actually crystallized In My Mind nicely, the music from the past serving as a catalyst, both literally and figuratively, for the creation of something new.

(Like my colleague Mark, I’d also like to thank Michelè and everyone involved at the Walker for giving me the opportunity to write about this year’s concerts. I’m excitedly anticipating another slate of impressive concerts next year.)