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“We’ve got the jazz stars of tomorrow,” boasted T.S. Monk (known for the occasion as Thelonious Jr.) at the start of last night’s Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition finals. Never has that statement rung more true; by the time the evening’s three stellar piano finalists had finished performing at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, it was next to impossible to call a winner.
Still, if you’d asked in a pinch, this writer would have chosen 22-year-old Los Angeleno Kris Bowers, who displayed just the right combination of chops, taste, discipline, and flash (and a pretty fair grasp of Monkisms on “Blue Monk”). He’d done the same at the previous day’s semifinals, and thrown in astonishing blues licks to boot. In the final, however, he one-upped himself, contributing the competition’s only genuinely moving performance in his sensitive reading of “The Summer Knows.”
The judges (pianists Herbie Hancock, Ellis Marsalis, Jason Moran, Danilo Perez, and Renee Rosnes) apparently agreed. Bowers, currently a Masters of Music student at Juilliard, won the world’s most prestigious jazz competition last night, and along with it a $25,000 scholarship and a recording contract with Concord Music Group.
Joshua White, from El Cajon, Calif., took second place honors, and University of Miami student Emmet Cohen came in third. This was a bit of a surprise: White, whom NYT’s Ben Ratliff accurately describes as “one of the competition’s most memorable musicians,” had performed his two songs in layers of knotty chords and suddenly broke free in the midst of the first. It was a risky move—-and it clearly cost him when the competition’s house drummer, Carl Allen, got lost. This writer was expecting White to take third as a result; likely, though, the judges were impressed with his chance-taking, a vital component of any jazz musician worth his salt. Cohen, however, did quite well, even if his playing was comparatively safe.
Oh, yeah. It was also the Monk Competition’s 25th anniversary, giving rise to a mammoth concert celebration with a tremendous cast of jazz stars. Included was a duet performance with Hancock and soprano saxophonist Wayne Shorter (who was not having a good night—-“So sharp he was flat,” said one observer); a Chaka Khan-led funk version of “A Night in Tunisia”; a magnificent ensemble performance of Shorter’s “Footprints” with the great Gretchen Parlato on vocal; a medley of Monk tunes; and, as the centerpiece, a tribute to Aretha Franklin sung by Khan, Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, Jane Monheit, and Jennifer Hudson. Franklin herself followed with a radiant performance of the jazz standard “Moody’s Mood for Love.” All of which was excellent, but it was the stars of tomorrow who made the evening.