Jazz pianist takes Thelonious Monk on a centennial spin

LEE — As the United States entered "The War to End All Wars" in 1917, America gave birth to four jazz greats who a century later remain the foundation for the music genre.

On Saturday night, the jazz repertoire of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk (born Oct. 10, 1917) will fill the First Congregational Church, the third of four centennial celebrations courtesy of Berkshires Jazz Inc. The 7:30 p.m. show follows the Ella Fitzgerald tribute in June during the Berkshire Gateway Jazz Weekend and last month, the Greg Caputo Big Band paying homage to drummer Buddy Rich, both concerts in Lee. The final 100th birthday gig honors Dizzie Gillespie as part of the week-long Pittsfield CityJazz Festival in mid-October.

The New York City-based Ted Rosenthal Quintet will put their spin on Monk classics as well as perform the band leader's original works influenced by the jazz greats, past and present.

"When I put a spin on [Monk's] music, it's sometimes doing something the musician didn't have in mind," said Rosenthal in a phone interview this week. "Monk's melodies are so distinct, they are also great for improvisation."

The pianist/composer and native Long Islander is backed up by Mike Rodriguez on trumpet, saxophonist Joel Frahm, Martin Wood playing the bass and drummer Jimmy Macbride. Rosenthal's 30-year career includes several stints in the Berkshires at Tanglewood and Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, among other local venues. He's also been in demand to support jazz vocalists such as Helen Merrill, Ann Hampton Callaway and the late Barbara Cook, according Rosenthal's website.

New England Public Radio's "Jazz a la Mode" host, Tom Reney, will introduce the ensemble. The renowned historian, writer and blogger of all things jazz is well versed in the music of Monk and Rosenthal.

Thelonious Sphere Monk was born in North Carolina, his family moving to New York City in 1922. A year later he took up the piano, primarily teaching himself to play jazz in his teens and and 20s. He would develop a unique improvisational style complete with distinctive suits, hats and sunglasses.

Monk's nearly 70 compositions include "Blue Monk," "Ruby, My Dear," "Well, You Needn't" and "Around Midnight," a Rosenthal favorite.

"'Round Midnight' allows me to do a piano solo, adding twists and turns to it," he said.

Monk is one of five jazz musicians to grace the cover of Time magazine: the other four being Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis.

Rosenthal's enthrallment with Monk took off in 1988 when he won the Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition at the age of 29. Five years later he released his CD, "Images of Monk," one of 15 albums in three decades of either original works or renditions of other jazz greats such as Bud Powell and Bill Evans.

In all, Rosenthal could cite a dozen late and current jazz legends who've influence him over the years.

"The spirit of their music is important and inspirational," he said.

Especially the four born a century ago — Monk, Fitzgerald, Rich and Gillespie — who can still draw a crowd no matter who plays their music.

"If you put Monk or Fitzgerald on a banner, that will sell more tickets," said Rosenthal.

Reach staff writer Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233


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