WASHINGTON, D.C.For its 25th anniversary edition, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz's international competition returned to its roots by featuring its namesake's instrument. And though the event has yielded terrific finds in category winners from singing (Teri Thornton) to saxophones (Joshua Redman), the Monk piano contests have discovered such now-established mainstays as Ted Rosenthal, Jacky Terrasson and Eric Lewis.
In what's turning out to be a banner year for jazz piano recordings, it wasn't unreasonable to expect something special from the 13 semi-finalists going for the gold Sunday afternoon at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History. (The gold," by the way, is $25,000 and a deal with Concord Records.)
To be sure, it was a diverse group, sharing little beyond youth and virtuosity (the latter of which was declared alive and well" in jazz piano by T.S. Monk Jr., co-founder and trustee board chairman of the institute). They ranged from 15-year-old Beka Gochiashvill from the Georgia Republic to Tanzania-born Harold O'Neal, who's already collected gigs with the likes of Greg Osby, Bobby Watson and Nicholas Payton. Their collective destiny was in the hands of a characteristically stellar judging panel comprising Herbie Hancock, Ellis Marsalis, Jason Moran, Danilo Perez and Renee Rosnes.
The rules: Each competitor had to play three tunes with bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Carl Allen. One of the tunes had to be a Monk composition; the others could be traditional standards and/or an original competition. In essence, the overflow crowd packing the museum's Baird Auditorium (which included Aretha Franklin, this year's recipient of the institute's Maria Fisher Founders Award) was gathered to hear 13 consecutive sets, broken by a 20-minutue intermission. Only those dedicated to the art form from love or duty or both could get through such a marathon and there seemed to be more than usual in the room. A good thing.
Throughout the program, especially its first half, one wondered how Hancock in particular felt about watching so many of these young keyboardists recycling so many of his licks and progressions. Among the few exceptions was Justin Kauflin, a blind Virginia Beach native, whose black-lab-mix service dog reclined gracefully by his owner during the latter's renditions of Monk's Bright Mississippi" and Ellington's I Got It Bad." Kauflin's soloing had more shape, heft and narrative rigor than most of his peers. The audience seemed to appreciate his approach more than the others, though it's possible they were also wildly applauding who he was as much as what he played. But it was Kauflin's immediate predecessor on stage, Emmitt Cohen, who scored the most points with the judges. A senior at the University of Miami (a.k.a Dah You"), Cohen showed admirable poise, deft timing and engaging dynamics on his Monk piece, Think of One" and an original composition, Dark Passage."
The heavier hitters came out in the second half, spearheaded by 22-year-old Kris Bowers, who's studying for his masters at Juilliard. Bowers, Los Angeles born-and-bred, had many of the same qualities in style and approach as Cohen, but proved more agile and daring, especially on Blue Monk," where his shifts in tempo and harmony were carried out with such emphatic aplomb that the first big whoops of the day were summoned. The reaction induced one to make a mark besides Bowers' name on the program. One way or another, one felt, he would be in the final mix.