Thelonious Monk "doesn't have to use long, single-noted runs to say what he wants to say ... He knows what scientists and mathematicians know: Basically different musical problems can only be solved by basically different methods," wrote Frank London Brown in a 1958 profile for Downbeat magazine.
What better place to celebrate this spirit of experimentation than MIT?
The MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble's "Tribute to Thelonious Sphere Monk" on Friday, Dec. 14 at 8 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium features the world premiere of "Knom" ("Monk" spelled backwards) by French jazz composer Magali Souriau, who will perform as guest pianist. The work fuses three Monk compositions: "Bye Ya," "Epistrophy" and "Little Rootie Tootie," and includes visual surprises.
Recognized as one of the most influential figures in jazz, pianist and composer Thelonious Monk (1917-82) wrote music whose spare style and unusual harmonic sense reached from bebop to the abstractions of modern jazz. Frederick Harris, music director of the Festival Jazz Ensemble who organized two previous tribute concerts at MIT for Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, called Monk "the logical next step in the pantheon of great American composers."
Souriau, whose music has been described as free-form and impressionistic, is known for her unique composition style. Harris described it as a meeting of Ellington, Debussy, Monk and Gil Evans, if they were asked to collaborate on a film score. "Her music is highly melodic with a simplicity of line, but depth of soul," he said. Her recent appearances at the Jazz Standard and Birdland in New York received impressive reviews.
Because Souriau recently became a mother, she was unable to travel to MIT from her home in New York before the concert to work with the Festival Jazz Ensemble. Instead, all 16 members of the group crammed into Harris' office for a teleconference with the composer, who spoke about her music, sang and played her pieces via speakerphone. The group is planning another session before the performance.
A 1994 graduate of Berklee School of Music and a former student of Festival Jazz Ensemble founder Herb Pomeroy, Souriau also composed "The Tale of the Skyswimmer," which will be featured on the ensemble's new CD to be released in January. The piece, featuring Pomeroy as trumpet soloist, was composed for MIT's 70th birthday tribute to him last spring.
For the Dec. 14 concert, the group will revive its tradition of playing works by ensemble members with the premiere of a new funk tune by senior Chris Rakowski called "Peanut Butter and Jelly." The second premiere, Alon Nechushtan's "Frost and Fire," is inspired by Ray Bradbury's eponymous short story. Nechushtan, who hails from Israel, is studying at the New England Conservatory. Works by Hal Crook and Charles Mingus also will be performed.
Admission to the concert is $3 at the door. For more information, call x3-2826.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 12, 2001.