Pianist Jason Moran goes beyond Monk’s mood with “In My Mind”

Boston Globe, January 29, 2012

In 1959, Thelonious Monk played a concert at Town Hall, a prestigious New York venue. This was a special occasion. It was the first time that the great pianist performed with an orchestra, a 10-person group led by arranger Hall Overton. Monk was already famous, of course, in the jazz world. But this concert brought him out from the underground and put his music, until then played solo or in small groups, in a whole new context.

Fifty years later, in 2009, Jason Moran, one of today’s most innovative jazz pianists, addressed the Town Hall concert with his own eight-piece band at the same venue. It was not a reenactment (which a different band did the night before) but a multimedia experiment involving narration, graphic art, video, and still photography. Moran titled it “In My Mind.’’

The show took the 1959 program but modified and interwove it with new elements. Moran improvised while listening to Monk through headphones; later, the whole band donned headphones, playing Monk while hearing him. Moran took song snippets and sounds from an archival cache of Monk rehearsal tapes and looped them into the music.

Video showed the North Carolina hamlet where Monk was raised and where his forebears worked the fields as slaves. Incidents from Monk’s life, and Moran’s own musings, put the music in historical context but made it part of a completely modern art piece.

A critical success, “In My Mind’’ was made into a documentary but has been performed just a few times since its 2009 premiere. On Thursday the project comes to Jordan Hall with a twist: alongside Moran and his rhythm section, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, the balance of the band are Moran’s students at the New England Conservatory.

In the last two years, the hyper-achieving Moran has received a MacArthur “genius grant’’ and been named jazz adviser to the Kennedy Center in Washington, along with a full slate leading his own bands and playing with Charles Lloyd and others. But the Monk project feels special to him.

“Just spending an evening playing Monk’s music brings things back to the root,’’ Moran says. “And this is the first time we’re playing this music with – I shouldn’t call them students, but young musicians – so they get a taste of what it is to play Monk with a contemporary edge.’’

When Moran was first invited to take on the 1959 concert, the idea of simply re-creating it flashed through his mind for a second, and was instantly dismissed.

“I wanted to share more about what I felt about Monk, rather than just play his music,’’ he says. “Because I didn’t know if that was going to be enough for me; it wasn’t going to satisfy the therapy that I needed surrounding Monk.’’

It’s not that Monk traumatized Moran; rather it’s that his presence in Moran’s mind was at once so influential and so daunting. “Monk kind of posed a wall for me as a pianist, because his music demands that you have some style beyond his style,’’ Moran says. “And it’s very difficult to play his music and separate his pianistic style from his composition.’’

An archive of images and tapes made in the loft of New York photographer W. Eugene Smith, where Monk, Overton, and the band rehearsed, gave Moran a way into his own Town Hall project. Hearing Monk direct and discuss ideas was a revelation.

“What he was saying in those tapes, how to rehearse a piece of music, what is the intention of how to play it, the ideas that come out of him listening to his own music – people don’t get to hear this!’’ Moran says. “You don’t get to hear John Coltrane rehearsing ‘A Love Supreme.’ There’s no tape of that. But here there’s tape.’’

It showed how deliberate and specific Monk was, even more than Moran imagined. “And I’m a diehard fan,’’ he says.

“Everyone has their sonic vision of Monk, how he falls into their ears and minds. How he paints silence and uses space. He has these extremely corrupt lines – corrupt because no hand should move like that except his. But he intended all these things, he spent hours in the lab figuring out these structures. He was really like a chemist.’’

Moran’s own methods have something of the chemist to them as well, of course. That’s what NEC student Cale Israel, who plays trombone in the upcoming concert, discovered working through the material with the band.

“The way Jason’s music works is cutting and pasting different sections and tweaking things you wouldn’t think to tweak,’’ Israel says. “He cuts up parts of three or four tunes, you have multiple rhythms going and you have to play with them. I had to think, what the heck do I do with this?’’

Moran says it’s important to him to share with his students Monk’s Southern musical roots, all the way to evangelical and slave songs. At the same time, he hopes the multimedia nature of the project will remind them that music is just one part of contemporary art, and most of all, encourage them to innovate in their own work.

Israel, for one, is absorbing the message. “I think the concert is going to be a commentary on a lot of things,’’ he says. “On improvising, on being ourselves, and also about the way that we listen to music. Hopefully it will be kind of a humorous concert. It’s going to be Monkish.’’