‘A lot of music and a big spread’

Is a jazz concert that consists of Thelonious Monk tunes and reworkings of numbers from a Broadway musical too much of a stretch?

Ted Rosenthal 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ted Rosenthal 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Most level-headed people might think that a jazz concert with two seemingly disparate parts isn’t a good idea. Then again, jazz is a definitively improvisational art, and what matters isn’t necessarily the nature of the source material, but what you do with it.
This Friday’s Jazz at the Opera House series concert (9:30 p.m.) features 51- year-old American pianist Ted Rosenthal fronting a show that includes interpretations of Thelonious Monk tunes and a second half of reworkings of numbers from the Broadway musical The King and I.
On the face of it, it may seem like a stretch too far.
But not according to Rosenthal.
“I can understand why people might wonder about that, about marrying the two together,” he says, “but the character of Monk’s music is so strong that it can stand up to unorthodox arrangements and reworking the way I wanted to take it.”
Rosenthal is equally confident that the numbers from The King and I stand up to improvisational scrutiny.
“Jazz musicians normally take standards and numbers from different musicals, not just one. But I knew that The King and I had enough really good numbers in it for a whole program.”
Rosenthal knows what he is talking about. His 13- album discography as leader, to date, includes a CD devoted to 10 numbers from the musical and another called Images of Monk in which Rosenthal brings his wealth of jazz experience and solid classical music education to bear on some of the mercurial bebop founding father’s oeuvre.
In fact, despite being born long after the early days of the modern jazz era, Rosenthal has a surprisingly strong link with artists who were there, or thereabouts, when modern jazz evolved in the 1940s.
One of his first teachers, pianist Tony Aless, performed sideman duties with iconic bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker, and he later studied with legendary innovative pianist Lennie Tristano. The latter tutelage was more a matter of luck than anything.
“It was something of a fluke. My mother was looking for a piano teacher for me, and someone said there was a pianist who lived down the street from us,” Rosenthal recalls. “At the time I didn’t realize just how important Tristano was to the development of jazz. It was only about a year later that I understood who he really was.”
Rosenthal was introduced to the magic of Monk’s music through saxophonist Paul Jeffrey.
“Paul was in Monk’s last big band [in the early 1970s], so that was a link for me with Monk.”
Rosenthal subsequently entered the 1988 Thelonious Monk Competition, the most prestigious contest in jazz, and won it. “That helped kickstart my career and brought me a lot of attention,” says Rosenthal, “and I just continued studying and playing Monk’s music.”
INTERESTINGLY, WHILE Rosenthal has a solid grounding in both the classical and jazz worlds, Monk was largely self-taught even if he had very wide musical interests.
“I think Monk was mostly interested in being an individual, regardless of the material that brought him to that point. The aesthetic of that time was not to sound like anyone else.” Even so, it is not easy to equate Monk’s output with that of a pianist such as Rosenthal, who has a rich classical education.
“Yes, the emphasis in Monk’s music was very much on rhythm, but it lends itself to reworking.
His music is very identifiable and and you can play around with it.”
Rosenthal, who performed at the Opera House last year when he accompanied iconic octogenarian singer Helen Merrill, with whom he has worked for many years, says he was initially taken aback when the jazz series’s artistic director Nitzan Kramer asked him to incorporate both parts of this Friday’s concert.
“Nitzan said he’d heard different projects of mine, and that he wanted me to do Images of Monk and The King and I. I said that’s a lot of music and a big spread, but I like a challenge.”
Over the last 25 or so years, Rosenthal has played and recorded with some of the jazz world’s leading artists, including bass player Ron Carter, drummer Billy Higgins and trumpeter Tom Harrell, and he has worked on a very wide range of projects.
He has written and performed a piano concerto which incorporates written and improvised sections for the soloist – an unusual approach for a jazzbased program. Classical musicians are not generally known for the ability to improvise.
“Well, it is really a matter of me improvising on piano and the others supporting me,” says Rosenthal. Even so, the pianist says he revels in large-ensemble surroundings.
“It is a lot of hard work, but it is wonderful being completely wrapped up in that world, and surrounded by a full orchestra.”
With such a wide range of works under his belt, Rosenthal is something of a demanding leader.
“I look for people who come from different backgrounds, and I appreciate variety. I need to have people with me who can handle all the different things I write,” he says.
Rosenthal will perform the Monk part of Friday’s concert with a trio of Martin Wind on bass and Quincy Davis on drums, with saxophonist Joel Frahm and trumpeter Mike Rodriguez joining in for the The King and I slot.
“They can all deal with all of that,” says Rosenthal. “I think it will be an interesting and entertaining show.”
For tickets and information: (03) 692-7777 or www.israel-opera.co.il