Paying Homage to a Master

Moran and Monk: jazz's

Monk is wild. Monk is smart. Offbeat yet sophisticated, Monk is bent-beautiful. Twenty-five years after his death and nearly twice that long since his heyday as thepianist-composer of the bebop and postbop eras, Thelonious Sphere Monk is universally respected among traditionalists and avant-gardists alike. His compositional depth ranks on the magisterial level of Duke Ellington and his tough, angular playing is in a class unto itself. Contemporary jazz pianists and forward-leaning composers all try to come to terms with Monk, even if most fail to capture the joyfully barbed spirit of his vision.

Of all the hotshot youngbloods on the scene, Jason Moran is perhaps best poised to do justice to his hero's legacy in the upcoming SFJAZZ reenactment of the 1959 recording The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall. This album marks the one time that the legendary artist set his sound in the big-band context. While the record is a must-have for jazzheads, the critics are torn — some say it's a booming testament to the muscle of the tunes; others feel that the orchestra somewhat constricts the music's free-flowing geometry. Yet it's a good bet that Moran will be able to tap both the power and openness of titles like "Friday the 13th" and "Off Minor" to make them soar like they're supposed to.

The Brooklyn pianist is the man for the job because he's no copycat. On numerous CDs since 1999, Moran has established himself as an ambitious, uniquely talented composer-improviser rooted in the old-school yet very much of the present (check his "Gangsterism" series for his clued-in aesthetic). Monk was like this, too. All of jazz and then some (his whole self: body and soul) lives in his music, which is why it still means so much to so many.

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