Let’s get this out of the way first: I don't think T.S. Monk could have won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drums Competition, which I covered here. But I think he’d be the first to make that disclaimer. (Well, one of the first.)
Monk fils, who served as an emergency feed of personal history and family lore during the logistically complex semifinals on Saturday — you’ll be grateful to learn that his father gulped Pepsi, smoked Camels and pinched pennies — gave the first performance at the finals on Sunday. His unaccompanied solo, played on an electronic drum kit, was OK, and, under the circumstances, the essence of chutzpah. But then this is a guy who had no qualms about starting an invocation, on both days, with “Let’s get ready to Drumble!”
The drumble, as it were, came late in the game, well after the competition had been settled. As I observed in the paper, it involved a round robin of every member of the judges’ panel, along with Tipper Gore — and most importantly, Jamison Ross, whose strong, untroubled swing feel helped put him in the winner’s circle.
Since you’re reading this, I will assume you belong to the jazz-blog ecosystem, and have thus read some of the debate that preceded this year’s competition. Ethan Iverson, who pulled the pin out of the grenade, happened to be in D.C. last night, playing an album-release show with the Bad Plus. “After all my gloom and doom,” Iverson wrote, “I admit I kinda wanted to be there yesterday and tonight to check out the cats.” I wish he really had been there, though I suspect the experience would have bolstered, rather than disarmed, his core conviction.
One could easily make the argument that Jamison Ross, who holds down gigs with Carmen Lundy and Wess Anderson, represents a conservative pick by the judges. I probably would have made that argument, had I only seen the semifinals. Justin Brown, whom you might know from the Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet and the Gerald Clayton Trio, played a mini-set so authoritative and inventive that I picked him for the winner: he was working within a given framework but thrillingly and unpredictably so. Colin Stranahan was more muted, but I heard a lot of artistry in the fluctuation that he brought to “Fall,” the Wayne Shorter tune.
There wasn’t space in the official record to mention some of the other semifinalists who caught my ear, and why. There was the taut precision of Abe Lagrimas Jr., who used his toms to sketch the melodic shape of “Body and Soul.” There was the youthful readiness of Oscar Suchanek, a junior at the Berklee College of Music, somehow the only person to work in an Afro-Cuban clave. There was the sophisticated textural assault of Kristijan Krajncan, who also brought two original compositions, both worth hearing again.
But I had a pretty strong sense of who the finalists would be as soon as Mr. Ross closed up shop. (For some pertinent reflection on the predictive fallacy, see this post by Michael J. West, who caught the first half of the semis but had to miss the second, from which all three finalists were drawn.)
And what Ross did, quite simply, was make the band sound better, looser, more empowered. If I were Herbie Hancock, observing the finals, Ross would be the guy I'd enlist as a sub, even though his playing evinced only a shred of mystery and even less pure exploration. He's not a radical, not even an accurate reflection of what's happening in jazz drumming today. But of the 12 competitiors, he was the one who made every move feel both natural and consequential. I daresay Iverson would like the guy. The first-place finish was a feather in his cap, and a vote of confidence in his impending future — something I'm sure we can all get behind.