Monk Ensemble Debuts at Berklee
That the newest edition of the Thelonious Monk Institute ensemble would make its debut performance at Cafe 939 before heading off for two years of intensive graduate-level studies together in New Orleans seems fitting. Five of its six members—trumpeter Billy Buss '09, alto saxophonist Godwin Louis '08, pianist Victor Gould '09, bassist Hogyu Hwang '07, and drummer Nick Falk '06—are Berklee graduates.
The Berklee bunch and their band mate, tenor saxophonist Matt Marantz, a Manhattan School of Music graduate, recently tore through an impressive hour-and-a-half-long set of originals and their arrangements of Thelonious Monk compositions for a nearly full house at the Berklee-run performance space on Boylston Street. Next up will be two years of full-time collaboration under the guidance of Monk Institute artistic director Terence Blanchard and high-profile visiting artists-in-residence such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and John Scofield.
"This current crop is extremely talented," says Blanchard, who with fellow judges Jimmy Heath and Gary Burton chose the class of 2011 ensemble from the 28 young musicians whose taped performance samples had earned them a live audition. "I look forward to them doing some great things."
The great things in store for them most immediately include regular gigs at the renowned club Snug Harbor in New Orleans, teaching trips to local middle and high schools, and pursuing master's degrees from the Monk Institute's host institution, Loyola University New Orleans—an option all six ensemble members expressed leaning toward taking advantage of backstage that night at Cafe 939. And, of course, the close personal attention they'll be getting from some of the jazz world's greatest luminaries.
"We get to study with some of the world's best composers," notes Louis. "Guys like Herbie Hancock. Terence Blanchard, who is one of my favorite writers. I would definitely love to learn writing from them."
Buss says he is looking forward to working with the ensemble itself as much as anything. "For me, it's more of an opportunity to join up and collaborate with my peers and people who have a different take on music than I do," he says. "I think if anything I'm going to be learning with the band more, taking Terence's advice and his lead and really working with the band itself to make a large statement in the jazz world."
Walter Smith III, himself an alumnus of both Berklee ('04) and the Monk Institute ('07), says that refined compositional skills was the main thing he took away from the Monk program. His advice for the incoming class members: "Patience. You're with the same people all the time, every day, and it's a challenge in itself to keep actually working through the whole process."
Nearly half of the students chosen for the Monk program since it began in 1995 have come from Berklee, a fact Blanchard was unaware of but not surprised by. "They probably have," he says, chuckling, when the statistic is mentioned to him. "I haven't monitored it, but I wouldn't be surprised."
Hal Crook, who has taught ensemble classes at Berklee for years and has also done artist-in-residence stints at the Monk Institute, agrees with Blanchard that it's unsurprising that Berklee supplies many Monk ensemble members. Berklee's international reputation means it attracts many of the best, most serious jazz students in the world, and those students receive top-notch training from high-caliber professionals once they get there.
"Berklee is like a Mecca of education for students interested in doing music at the level that these Monk kids are," says Crook. "Berklee primes the pump musically, gets them ready to excel in that kind of situation, and does it exceptionally well. When you look at the curriculum at Berklee, and the faculty, there's not much difference between what they're going to get at Berklee and what they're going to get at the Monk Institute."
Blanchard mentions Bill Pierce and Ron Savage as two standout Berklee faculty members he himself has longstanding professional ties to. But those ties don't affect who gets picked at the Monk Ensemble auditions.
"First of all, I'm not in the loop with all that," he explains. "So I don't know if these kids go to Berklee, go to Juilliard, where they're coming from. And I love that, because then I can make an honest decision.
"What we try to do," Blanchard continues, "is just bring in the best students we can find, try to make a decision based on their performance that day. And I think it's to Berklee's credit that they have five out of the six. But we feel no pressure in terms of any of that stuff. For us, it's all about trying to find the most uniquely talented students and giving them a chance to go further in their development."
Listen to an interview with the ensemble on the BIRN.