Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Keyed Up for a Jazz Classic ; Celebrated Composers Put Their Own Stamp on Thelonious Monk's 'Round Midnight Variations'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Keyed Up for a Jazz Classic ; Celebrated Composers Put Their Own Stamp on Thelonious Monk's 'Round Midnight Variations'

Article excerpt

In music, the theme-and-variations format is as old as the hills, but sometimes it can seem fresh and new again.

Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight Variations" is one example.

Twenty years have passed since the death of the jazz composing genius and eccentric, and to celebrate, Italian-born pianist Emanuele Arciuli has asked 20 composers - including Milton Babbitt, William Bolcom, John Harbison, and Aaron Jay Kernis - to write variations on one of Monk's most renowned jazz themes.

The homage to Monk will be performed at Columbia University's Miller Theatre in New York on Nov. 14 (see www.millertheatre.com), and it will also feature the world premiere of a new work by distinguished American composer George Crumb.

Arciuli, who divides his time between performing and teaching at the State Conservatory of Bari, Italy, and at the University of Cincinnati, says he chose "Round Midnight" as the theme because "it's typically American, ... and it's very difficult to write variations to because of its complexity."

Even so, all of the composers leapt to the challenge, albeit for different reasons. In homage to Monk, Crumb called his suite of nine pieces "Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik" ("A Little Midnight Music").

"I fell in love with Monk's little tune with its bewitching melodic curve and its poignant, almost Chopinesque harmonics and quote fragments," Crumb says. "I hope that some of the fey magic of Monk spills over into my overall conception."

Arciuli says he loves all the variations that were produced. "Each piece is different from the others, so I have to change myself, like a chameleon, which is the most exciting part."

Constant change was an implicit part of Monk's own artistry, which can be heard on a series of reissues from Sony Legacy (C2K 63905, CK 63536, CK 85812, CK 86564).

Legendary soprano sax player Steve Lacy, a Monk colleague, says, "I've played [the song 'Round Midnight'] with Monk a number of times, and each time it was always variations. Monk told me he wrote it when he was 18, and that song alone paid for the education of his kids."

Acclaimed young composer Aaron Jay Kernis was attracted by other reasons than the song's educational payoff. He describes Monk as the most original keyboard artist and jazz composer.

"[From] a style seemingly born out of quirks and awkwardnesses," says Kernis, "he created a voice of great flexibility and refinement. …

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