Seven months after announcing its unprecedented collaboration with the Music Center, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz surfaced with its first public concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a lollapalooza of major jazz names and comers. Yet, oddly enough, it took the participation of an interloper from another world, Stevie Wonder, to lift the music into a higher gear.
One had nearly forgotten what jazz sounded like in the Pavilion; prior to Wynton Marsalis’ concert 11 months ago, the lords who run the place hardly ever booked the stuff. The Monk Institute’s first concert, a benefit for its Los Angeles public school programs, launched smoothly, with good sound and only brief setup interruptions between groups. Indeed, hearing the magnificently rich tenor sax tone that the first performer, Joshua Redman, produced in the hall reminded us of a hitherto wasted acoustical resource. (Alas, Redman only had time for one number before rushing out to Catalina Bar & Grill for a gig.)
There were reprises of familiar groupings from the recent past — the triple-bass tandem of Christian McBride, Ray Brown and John Clayton doing a jaunty “Mack the Knife”; institute artistic director Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter offering one of their cerebral, deeply introspective probes on piano and soprano sax; pianist Brad Mehldau doing his Bill Evans-inspired thing with bassist Charlie Haden providing lively interplay. There were glimpses of the institute’s future with the Jazz Sports L.A. Big Band and Combo, the latter featuring an astoundingly fluid, baby-faced bop guitarist named Benji Lysaght.
Yet it took the participation of Wonder, who sometimes extols the joys of jazz in his work (“Sir Duke”), to remind us of the sheer verve and uplifting power that the music can have. First, backed a bit nervously by the Jazz Sports L.A. Combo, he made the jazz standard “Midnight Sun” his own, the tune’s chromaticism fitting his own vocal style like a glove. Then, in tandem with Hancock, Wonder fired up the quartet of Kenny Burrell, Patrice Rushen, Brian Bromberg and Ndugu Chancler with a rendition of his marvelous little-known “Crazy Letters,” doing a rare jazz piano turn himself in a bombs-away manner.
Finally, the concert ended with a smashing jam session on Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” with sassy, tasty solos from Burrell, Shorter, Wonder (on harmonica), Rushen, Oscar Brashear and a scatting Dianne Reeves. Though future concerts may be hard pressed to offer this quantity of star power, it was a promising launch.