The Arlington was packed for this Sunday matinee with the world’s greatest jazz big band, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO). Dapper as always in a dark suit, orchestra leader Wynton Marsalis came out with a sextet for the opener, a classic New Orleans ragtime tune by Artie Matthews, “Weary Blues.” Marsalis blew a brief, puckish statement on his trumpet, and then let the clarinet do its thing. Once the full 15-piece band got onstage, it was time to explore the musical world of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk. Monk’s seemingly off-kilter yet mysteriously precise brand of bebop remains among jazz’s most precious legacies. The JLCO are preparing for a radio broadcast in which they will examine the composer’s music, and on this afternoon, with the exception of the opener and the encore, that’s all they played. No sacrifice though; Monk’s music opens more fully with extended listening, and even those unfamiliar with his idiosyncratic angularity and dissonant harmonies were converted by this presentation.
Highlights included an inspired solo by Marsalis on “Green Chimneys,” fantastic arrangements of “Bye-Ya” and “Epistrophy,” and a supercharged “Criss-Cross” that played up, down, inside out, and sideways with the original melody. Monk developed his style in Manhattan by coming out of the “stride” school of James P. Johnson and straight into direct competition with Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and the other early bebop geniuses. More than any other artist of the bop era, Monk created his own musical world, and it is fitting that the JLCO, which is dedicated to preserving the living spirit of the jazz tradition, should devote so much creative energy to refashioning this man’s music for the 21st century.
Pianist Dan Nimmer handled the complex melodies and arrangements with rhythmic authority. Basie-esque unison vamps flitted through the asymmetries of Monk’s waltz-time ballad “Ugly Beauty,” until Ellingtonian section chords hauled them away. After so much rich exposure to the music of Monk, the encore, Duke Ellington’s “Portrait of Mahalia Jackson,” came as yet another pure draft of refreshingly cool spirit.