Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition Finals & All-Star Gala Concert at The Kennedy Center by Francine Schwartz

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On Monday, September 16, 2013, the Finals of this year’s Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition took place at The Kennedy Center. This famous event is not only an opportunity to hear some of the best young musicians in the world, but a fundraiser for students and educational programs. Always a sell-out, some of the people I talked to have been attending every year since the beginning. One audience member said she only missed it one year because it took place in California, and another said that he had come for 27 years, “ever since it was free.”

Melissa Aldana performs at the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Paul Morigi/Getty Images for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.
Melissa Aldana performs at the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Paul Morigi/Getty Images for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.

Each year there is a focus on a different instrument, and this year was the saxophone. All of the semifinalists are under 30, but some of them have already achieved a great deal professionally, including the three finalists.

Each semifinalist performed a 15-minute set with a rhythm section, before a judges’ panel composed of illustrious saxophonists: Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Watson, Jane Ira Bloom, and Branford Marsalis.

There was such a high level of talent that the semifinal pool consisted of 14 contestants, rather than the usual 12. The semifinal competitors included Braxton Cook, of Silver Spring, MD.; Sam Dillon, of Great Neck, New York; Lukas Gabric, of Villach, Austria; Andrew Gould, of Long Island, New York; Michael Griffin, of Sydney, Australia; Danny Janklow, of Los Angeles, California.; Mike Lebrun, of Framingham, Massachusetts.; Clay Pritchard, of Denton, Texas; and Dean Tsur, of Timrat, Israel.

The three finalists were Tivon Pennicott, Godwin Louis, and Melissa Aldana. All three were amazing young performers and quite diverse stylistically. At stake were over $100,000 in scholarships and prizes, including a $25,000 first place scholarship and guaranteed recording contract with Concord Music Group; a $15,000 second place scholarship; and a $10,000 third place scholarship.

Tivon Pennicott, a tenor sax player, gave an excellent performance of Thelonious Monk’s “Ugly Beauty.” Godwin Louis, playing an alto sax, offered the melodic, more emotive and less technically challenging first tune, “The Shadow of Your Smile.”

Aldana, a tenor player who was the eventual winner, offered a complex arrangement that faltered at times but displayed considerable improvisational talents. She has become the first female sax player ever to win, playing “Ask Me Now,” which turned into a bluesey rendition. Ms. Aldana, only 24, represents the second generation of her family to enter the semifinals. Her father, the well-regarded Chilean saxophonist Marco Aldana, was a contender in 1991

All these players displaying style that were strikingly different from what was heard at the semifinals the day before. The semifinals were streamed online at MonkInstitute.org and JazzCorner.com, and the finals are now available on line as they were taped as a documentary for BET/Centric television.

Following the three finalists’ performance, we were treated to an All-Star Gala Concert with some of the biggest names in jazz, including John Beasley (Musical Director), Brian Blade, Terri Lyne Carrington, Vinnie Colaiuta, Roben Ford, Kurt Elling, James Genus, Herbie Hancock, Roy Hargrove, Jimmy Heath, Ledesi, Branford Marsalis, Marcus Miller, T.S. Monk, John Patitucci, Danielo Perez, and Take 6.

Also performing were the Thelonious Monk Institute National Performing Arts High School All-Star Jazz Sextet, who were given a rousing response by the audience. The All-Star gala concert honored Mr. Shorter, a longtime board member of the Monk Institute, with a lifetime achievement award. There was also a tribute to George Duke, who recently died and had originally been scheduled to be the concert’s Musical Director.

My favorite pieces were the “Fall”/Footprints” medley, played by Herbie Hancock on piano, Branford Marsalis on sax and Roy Harbison and John Patitucci. Ledisi’s performance of “You Never Know,” was joined by Take Six and offered a joyous and erotic change of pace. The close harmony of Take 6 introduced a callipso beat and had the audience clapping along. The finale offered “Please Set a Date,” a rhythm and blues tune, with John Beasley, Marcus Miller, Vinnie and Robben Ford, and Jimmy Heath with Gingerbread Boy.

The event was an awesome display of the range of musicianship and talent pool that exists today, as well as the camaraderie of these great musicians, many of whom have known each other for most of their lengthy adult lives. These young musicians are being welcomed into their elders’ ranks and we look forward to hearing more from them as they advance in their careers.

Melissa Aldana congratulates fellow 2013 Monk Competition finalists and friends Godwin Louis (left) and Tivon Pennicott. Paul Morigi/Getty Images for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.
Melissa Aldana congratulates fellow 2013 Monk Competition finalists and friends Godwin Louis (left) and Tivon Pennicott. Paul Morigi/Getty Images for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.

Running Time: Three hours, with two 10-minute breaks.

Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition Finals & All-Star Gala was a one-night-only performance on Monday, September 16, 2013 at The Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For future events, check their calendar of events.