Hot Jazz at the Bijou

Harold DuckettOur Town Arts

A student evaluated UT course MUC0125 taught by Vance Thompson, director of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. It read: “8 Quizzes that are Tests – 10 percent of your grade each one. Two mandatory music concert papers. You have to pay to get into the concerts, stay the whole time and then write a paper on it. He’s got an arrogance about him, and it’s supposed to be a super easy elective for freshman to get an easy A. He makes it harder than it needs to be.”

No, he doesn’t, kid. Everything in life worth anything takes a bit of work. Really good things take a lot of work.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra’s concert at the Bijou Theatre last night, with guest pianist, composer and arranger John Beasley, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Thelonious Monk’s birth and the rich body of work Monk created, filtered through Beasley.

How much of the music one heard last night was Monk and how much was the creative inventiveness of John Beasley riffing on Monk shifted back and forth in the pieces Beasley and KJO played. The consistent part was the pure quality of it all.

Many of the arrangements the KJO usually plays are written by Thompson. They have an internal luminance, a light that comes from inside the sound, not unlike the music of the great American composer Aaron Copland. It’s both the orchestra, as a whole, and the collective tone of the KJO’s first-rate musicians, several of whom took solo turns last night, notably tenor sax player Greg Tardy in a tune called “Skippy.”

“Skippy” began as Beasley’s dreamy piano solo that was shattered by an uptempo brass rush in the chorus, then became Tardy’s brilliant, rip and tear tenor sax solo.

The show opened with a run at Monk’s tune “Epistrophy,” that started out with a rattling foundation in the reeds that was soon buried underneath pounding piano elements and hard-edged brass.

A tune called “Gallop’s Gallop” followed, with its twisted and tangled melody. Then came “Ask Me Now,” with lazy soprano sax runs played by Mark Tucker and a complex solo from guest drummer Kendrick Scott.

And there were more: tunes called “Light Blue,” “Little Rootie Tootie” and “Ugly Beauty,” a kind of waltz piece with a sassy attitude.

As much as this concert was a celebration of the music of Monk in the smooth hands of Beasley, it was also a showcase for the kick-butt musicians of the KJO.

There was a hot-flowing liquid solo from trombonist Tom Lundburg and a later one that had more ice in it, played by trombonist Don Hough. David King outdid Memorex with a crystalline soprano sax solo and Will Boyd drove nails in his sax solo.

If the difference between the great big band jazz orchestras and the ones who work just as hard and have just as gifted a collection of musicians is only the reach of their fame, the KJO’s playing of a Monk tune called “Evidence” showed that, at least in the KJO’s case, the gap is narrowing.

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