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Tribute To The Music Of Thelonious Monk

Pianist Thor Polson, percussionist Theresa McCoy, and bass player David Miller perform during A Tribute To The Music Of Thelonious Monk at La Baguette Music Cafe in Ashland, OR on Nov. 4, 2016

A Tribute To The Music Of Thelonious Monk: An Evening of Happy, Joyful Music

– by Lee Greene

On Friday evening, November 4, 2016, I reveled in the guilty pleasure of enjoying an evening of exquisitely performed music of Thelonious Monk by the trio of pianist Thor Polson, double bass player David Miller and percussionist Theresa McCoy to a packed house at Ashland’s La Baguette Music Café. I confess the guilt part because I am so far behind in my review writing and posting that I should have been glued to my desk working and had no business being out instead attending yet another concert (my humble and sincere apologies to those deprived of my reviewer’s attention by my foray to this Monk tribute instead). The pleasure part is almost totally attributable to the extraordinary work of this trio of fine musicians, though I must also acknowledge that their performance resonated with, and drew me back deep into, my past, when as a struggling student, I would find relaxation and relief from life’s problems by listening long into the night to the jazz strains of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, and yes, Thelonious Monk.

It should not be any surprise that when these three consummate musicians get together, the result is some exceptional and memorable music. Ms. McCoy can do anything with anything that can be used to generate percussion, and is ever-present throughout the Southern Oregon music scene – principal timpanist for the Rogue Valley Symphony, conga anchor for the terrific dance band, ¡Salsa Brava!, percussionist/drummer for Charles Guy & Sonido Alegre, drummer for David Scoggin & OPUS 3, a percussionist for the Britt Festival Orchestra, everybody’s first choice when looking for some percussion in Southern Oregon (shameless plug: I’m singing in a glorious Siskiyou Singers choir & orchestra concert presentation of Joseph Haydn’s Maria Theresa Mass in December, and guess who’s providing the percussion- Theresa McCoy, of course!). David Miller is the dean of double bass players in these parts- principal bass for Rogue Valley Symphony, primary bass musician for Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions, bass player for Jefferson Baroque Orchestra, Ashland City Band, Chicago Chamber Orchestra, Rogue Music Theater, Camelot Theatre, Rogue Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, and on and on; performing for just about anyone who needs a bass contribution (I’ve caught him in all manner of ensembles, supporting musicians like local pianists Tatsiana Asheichyk, and of course, Thor Polson) – always a valuable enhancement to whatever musical performance Mr. Miller is contributing to. Then there is Mr. Polson. No less than the area Steinway representative, Tom Lowell, who should surely know, vouches that Mr. Polson is the best jazz pianist around. Mr. Polson can not only be caught regularly performing jazz stylings at La Baguette Music Café, but also teaches piano (jazz & classical) at Mr. Lowell’s Medford Piano Studios & Showcase. So, take three musicians (piano, bass & percussion) at the top of their games, put them together, and what do you get? In this case great jazz!

Trying to write about that great jazz, I am reminded of the immortal Louis Armstrong’s famous quote: “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” You have to hear it, you can’t really appreciate or understand it, by just reading about it. Nothing I write here can do it justice or take the place of hearing it. I will offer a few comments just to try to provide some insights of what made Friday evening’s Monk tribute so special and memorable. But I realize that nothing I write will come anywhere close to approximating the experience of hearing the extraordinary jazz performance, so after my earnest but futile effort to talk about this Tribute To The Music Of Thelonious Monk, I’ll provide you with the invaluable, singular privilege of actually hearing one of the pieces.

Some background: Thelonious Monk is the second-most recorded jazz composer, after Duke Ellington. [Wikipedia, Thelonious Monk,] Monk “had a unique improvisational style and made numerous contributions to the standard jazz repertoire . . . .” [Id.] “His compositions and improvisations feature dissonances and angular melodic twists, and are consistent with Monk’s unorthodox approach to the piano, which combined a highly percussive attack with abrupt, dramatic use of silences and hesitations.” [Id.]

Monk wrote “about 70” compositions. [Id.] The Polson-Miller-McCoy trio played 22 of them on Friday evening, nearly a third of Monk’s entire catalogue! (Jaw dropping!) The program included: Light Blue; Evidence; Misterioso; Bright Mississippi; Stuffy Turkey; Rhythm-a-ning; Ba-I ue Bol iva r Ba-I ues-a re; Locomotive; ‘Round Midnight; Skippy; Crepuscule with Nellie; Green Chimneys; Shuffle Boil; Pannonica; Off Minor; Ugly Beauty; 52nd-Street Theme; Functional; Bye-Ya; Ruby, My Dear; Think of One, and as an encore: Well, You Needn’t. It was a very representative and fair sampling of Thelonious Monk’s body of work, and encompassed an extensive variety, ranging from the unaccompanied piano piece, Crepuscule with Nellie, and piano prominent Green Chimneys and Ugly Beauty to the bass solo feature numbers, Stuffy Turkey, Skippy and Shuffle Boil, to the drum solo highlighted Evidence, to the weaving interplay among the contributors’ solos of pieces like Bright Mississippi, Rhythm-a-ning, Off Minor, Bye-Ya and Think of One. Much of the program was in the “Bebop” style that Monk came to be identified with, yet there was also room for a ballad like Ruby, My Dear. Mr. Polson, who introduced each piece, announcing the title, and providing some background about them, put it nicely, stating his own feeling about the music, seconded and approved with nods & exclamations by the rest of the trio, and in fact expressing the reactions of this writer and most of the audience: “This music is filled with joy! I’m just a conduit for the music running through me. That’s [Bye-Ya] an extremely happy piece!” That was the tenor of the music over the entire course of the evening: joyful, happy, upbeat. (No wonder it was such an effective salve so many years ago for a young, struggling student!)

Of course, I took notes during the performances – pages and pages and pages of them. But I won’t bore you with ALL of that here. Just a few highlights. First, as I already noted above, all three musicians were at the top of their game. No slackers here. Again and again, one piece after another, my notes reiterate that the ensemble and the performances were “tight”, as in not sloppy, no hesitation, all three musicians in sync with one another, and nobody missing a beat, late on an entrance, off tempo; all near perfection all through, no glaring flubs – through 22 challenging Monk unorthodox compositions with dissonances, melodic twists, dramatic silences and hesitations. Very impressive! Loved the percussion work on Evidence, but I wasn’t the only one, as attested to by the big smile on Ms. McCoy’s face after its conclusion. Terrific solo work on the bass at the beginning of Stuffy Turkey (and nice drum flourish at the end). Very lively piano riff on Ba-I ue Bol iva r Ba-I ues-a re. Killer performance of ‘Round Midnight, THE most recorded jazz standard composed by a jazz musician. [Wikipedia, ‘Round Midnight (song),] That’s what it’s ALL about – all three musicians contributing first class jazz licks. (Stay tuned, cause that’s the piece you’ll get to listen to if you make it to the end of this article.) First half of concert concludes with Skippy – very fast, and well done Bebop. Says Mr. Polson: “. . . makes the band sweat blood!”

Second half of the concert begins with the piano-only Crepuscule with Nellie: Mr. Polson gets to show off his awesome keyboard prowess while his partners sit on their hands and smile. Next up, Green Chimneys – everybody gets some solo work, all well done, and smiles all around the stage at the finish. Then, Shuffle Boil, nice bass and piano solos, ends unexpectedly abruptly – dramatic use of silence indeed! Off Minor – solos for everyone, Ms. McCoy remarks “We’re off the map now!” (Suspect that’s a GOOD thing – as in each relying on honed, gifted, instincts.) Again features a sudden abrupt conclusion! Ugly Beauty – another piano solo only piece. Lowell was right! That Polson sure plays a mean jazz piano! 52nd-Street Theme – another popular jazz standard, lively and really moves along, with snappy percussion well done by Ms. McCoy. The really joyful, happy Bye-Ya featuring a series of back and forth passages between bass and percussion, without piano. Very tight and in sync!  Slow the pace a little, with the ballad, Ruby, My Dear. Program concludes with Think of One: everybody gets a solo, but the piano passage really moves and Ms. McCoy sports a BIG smile observing Mr. Polson playing it, then goes to town on her own solo parts. When it ends, the crowd erupts into raucous applause, everyone on their feet, catcalls & whistles! Obviously, an encore must follow. It’s the oft played jazz standard, Well, You Needn’t. The trio are playing it without sheet music – they all just KNOW it, and it flows, each participant into it and on it. May be the best performance of the evening – the music really and purely flowing through each musician, conduits one and all.

Now that you’ve successfully endured all my verbiage, which adds nothing truly notable to the great musical performances presented by the Polson-Miller-McCoy trio, it is finally time for you to actually enjoy some of the music for yourself. I happily and joyfully offer you pianist Thor Polson, bass player David Miller and percussionist Theresa McCoy performing Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight recorded live November 4, 2016 (recording used with permission):

If you have a hankering to hear some live jazz in person, Thor Polson next plays at La Baguette Music Café, 340 A St, Ashland, on Saturday, November 12, 2016 from 10:30 am to 12:30 pm, and following that, every other Saturday at the same time.