Curiosity may have killed the apocryphal cat, but it is a vital ingredient in the continuing maturation of an artist. Four years ago, when Walker Art Center commissioned jazz pianist Jason Moran to create the musical/theatrical hybrid "Milestone," he took the opportunity to explore the museum, and came away with an enhanced appreciation of conceptual art.
On Saturday, Moran returns to the Walker to perform another commissioned multimedia work, honoring the 50-year anniversary of Thelonious Monk's classic big-band concert at New York's Town Hall. Moran's 2005 residency at the Walker greatly influenced his approach.
"I consider Monk the reason I am a pianist and wanted to express my gratitude for what he has given me," he said by phone last week from his home in New York City. "The great thing about doing this show at the Walker is that it's where I learned about how the process becomes part of the form in conceptual art. Knowing that has allowed me to make this work much more of a personal dedication.
"I want to show the audience the historical process of making this music, both from Monk's standpoint and from my standpoint. At some points it will be me talking about how I first learned Monk's music, and at other points it will be images of Monk preparing for the Town Hall concert, along with audio of him discussing [orchestrations about] what should happen where. And at other points it will be the story of how his great-grandparents were slaves, and an exposing of who Monk was off the bandstand.
"It shows his process as an artist, and my process. Maybe the audience will see similar ground between what we do and their own professions."
And if they don't, well, there's always Monk's marvelous music, performed by a superb octet Moran has dubbed the Big Bandwagon. Personnel include well-regarded longtime cohorts of Moran such as drummer Nasheet Waits and trumpeter Ralph Alessi, and buzz-worthy newcomers like saxophonists Logan Richardson III and Aaron Stewart.
"I wanted a mixture," Moran says. "Usually a director will choose older guys to play something historical, but I want to play with these younger guys, too."
Moved by Monk's voice
With one exception, the song order is faithful to Monk's 1959 show and to the arrangements written by Hall Overton -- with, as we learn, plenty of input from Monk.
"There are these amazing reels of audiotape that this guy at Duke [University] found when he was investigating the work of photographer W. Eugene Smith, who had lent his loft to Hall Overton," Moran explains. "It has Monk describing how he wants Town Hall to go. We'll also show this rare interview with Overton and Monk, that has Monk talking about learning piano as a kid, watching his sister play."
The human immediacy of these moments will hold special relevance because Monk the person has over time become too easily cast as an iconic hipster and solitary eccentric. His career trajectory was as asymmetrically compelling as his music. He seemingly emerged full blown, without significant apprenticeship, his first records immediately bearing the quality and style of vintage Monk.
Without ever changing his approach, he was ignored, then feted as a major star on the cover of Time magazine, then ignored again, retiring quietly more than a decade before his death, leaving a compositional legacy second only to Ellington among jazz artists.
"If you don't want to hear me play, fine, but you need to hear these tapes," Moran says. "By now we have done this performance about 25 times and it is so beautiful to hear him talk every time -- he was a man of very deep and intellectual thought. He has been dead for more than 20 years now, and the further away he gets the more he becomes like Mozart, known only for the music. I want to keep him close to me, to cherish what he has contributed to my life and to the world."
As for process and concept, the one change Moran has made in the 1959 Town Hall itinerary is the inclusion of Monk's favorite hymn: "Sacred music was very important to Monk and I wanted to get that element into the concert. The hymn is called 'Blessed Assurance.' It's the one that goes, 'This is my story / This is my song.'"