2012 Thelonious Monk International Drums Competition
It can never be said that the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz does anything halfway. Held annually at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, this year's competition and gala concert was ambitious and extravagantequal parts a celebration of jazz drumming, a salute to women's past and present contributions to the art form, and a promotion for the Institute's many programs.
Lasting well over two hours, the event unfolded like a beautifully orchestrated tapas banquet. The feast covered not only a wide range of musical styles, but also explored, through the speeches and awards, the Monk Institute's multifaceted programs and broad international reach. As with any such affair, while you may never get enough of your favorite dish and there is always one you don't particularly like, at the end of the night you can look back on both an evening of satisfaction and new experiences.
Dedicated to the drum set this year, the two-day competition brought 12 young drummers from around the worldincluding Germany, Hawaii, Israel, and Sloveniato vie for the Institute's illustrious and lucrative prizes, which include grants for further study and a recording contract with Concord Jazz.
The drum competition proved both a fine musical display and a chance to delve into a greater theme, in this case the history and defining importance of the drums to jazz. Before introducing the finalists, pianist Herbie Hancock reminded the audience that the drum set is a uniquely American instrument fusing together components drawn from multiple cultures, the rhythms and special language of which form the foundation of jazz. T.S. Monk, Jr., who as a drummer proclaimed the evening particularly close to his heart, would return to this point throughout the night. However, nothing could more concretely underscore the special treatment that the drums received than the complex logistics undertaken by the Kennedy Center staff to allow each finalist to perform on his own set instead of simply swapping out cymbals and snare, as is so often the case for the traveling percussionist. All evening, drum set after drum set was wheeled on and off the stage in a visual reminder of how, when given the chance, drummers carefully construct their instruments to build a personal sound.
Winnowed down to three finalists who performed in front of a packed audience, each of the players performed two pieces accompanied by pianist Geoffrey Keezer, bassist Rodney Whitaker and saxophonist Jon Gordon. The three finalists took starkly different approaches.
Hailing from California, Justin Brown erupted immediately with a big, bravura sound, his sticks dancing rapid fire over the instrument. In sharp contrast, Coloradan Colin Stranahan chose to accentuate the drum set's subtler capacities. Using a combination of supple brushwork and precision, Stranahan built patient solos and provided colorful accompaniment, displaying particularly adept cymbals work.
In the end, however, neither of these approaches impressed the expert panel of judges as much as first place winner Jamison Ross' naturally swinging approach, genuineness, and solid grooves as he performed New Orleans drummer James Black's "Magnolia Triangle" and an original, "Shrimp and Grits."
Asked about taking first prize, Ross replied from behind a mile-wide grin, "I am speechless. I love music so competition is not really what it is about. I just have fun and I played with those guys like they were guys I was playing with at a club on Saturday night."
Leavened by this sense of fun, Ross's deft playing, willingness to take risks, and rhythmic strength had instant appeal and will be interesting to watch develop in coming years.
In addition to the instrumental competition, each year the Monk Institute presents a composer's award designed to emphasize the importance of new compositions to the continued vitality of jazz. Considering Thelonious Monk's seminal work as a composer and the evolution of his then-controversial writing into today's standards, it is particularly fitting that the Monk Institute takes such pains to encourage new musical exploration in this way.
This year's winner, Japanese multi-instrumentalist Yusuke Nakamura, studied in both Japan and the U.S. before settling in Tokyo, where he fronts his own jazz quartet while also performing with a traditional string ensemble. Performing with drummer Masaki Imura and bassist Misaki Arai, Nakamura's winning composition, "Heavenly Seven," unfolded with sumptuous emotive color, the finely woven textures belying its complex structure.