Arts Desk

Jamison Ross Wins Thelonious Monk Competition

Thelonious Monk CompetitionUpdate 3:50 p.m. Per Nate Chinen, Ross's song titles have been added below.

Speculating on the winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, even after the finalists have performed, is useless (as I've been reminded several times recently). It's also impossible to avoid, and at intermission the Eisenhower Theater was tittering with prediction chatter—including from this writer—suggesting every possible variation. But as the lights were fading for the second half, a gentleman behind me insisted to his companions, "It's gonna be Jamison Ross first, then Justin Brown, and Colin Stranahan third."

That guy needs to spend some serious time at the racetrack, because he nailed it. Jamison Ross, a 24-year-old Florida native who currently works as the drummer for vocalist Carmen Lundy, won $25,000 and Concord Jazz recording contract in last night's competition final.

I will now baldly speculate about what the judges might have been thinking—in other words, do exactly what I warned against above.

The three finalists—each of whom is already a busy professional musician—were all top-notch, as you might expect, but markedly different in their approaches. Justin Brown, probably the most prominent of the three (he works frequently with pianist Gerald Clayton and vocalist Gretchen Parlato), was also the chopsiest hit. He was brash, loud, and showy. Actually, "showy" doesn't cover it: Brown was gaudy, playing everything but the kitchen sink in his two-song showcase. It's a common tactic in the competition—which, surely, is a time to strut your stuff—but can be a dangerous one for an instrument whose main job is rhythmic support. Often in jazz, the question for even virtuoso musicians is not "can you?" but "should you?"

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Stranahan, who was not showy at all. He worked quietly, often with brushes, and sounding like he was working with brushes even when he wasn't. His first tune, Monk's "Let's Cool One," featured a bass solo by house accompanist Rodney Whitaker, with Stranahan's accompaniment closer to rhythmic breathing than percussive pounding. Even his own solo (in the second tune, which I didn't recognize) was remarkably subtle and restrained... and yet, his rhythmic and technical chops were unquestionable. That combination won me over to his camp. In retrospect, though, completely shying away from showmanship may have been a mistake.

Ross, on the other hand, struck a balance between taste and flash. When he sat at the kit he immediately produced a tambourine, a distinctive and resourceful choice, and played it for color—without overkill. When the band came in to play "Magnolia Triangle," Ross went into accompanist mode. The band, to some extent, is there to make the contestants look good, but Ross made the band sound good, exhibiting a fine ear as he followed pianist Geoffrey Keezer and saxophonist Jon Gordon's detailed solos with great care. His accents were strong and pointed without being overwhelming, and his solo on his original "Shrimp and Grits" showed off his prowess but didn't get in the audience's face. It was smart playing.

Hence while this writer was a disappointed Stranahan backer, Ross' win was richly deserved. Indeed, there's every reason to believe that all three of the finalists have long, fruitful careers ahead of them, and will probably develop reputations as among the finest drummers of their generation. Good on you, Jamison, Justin, and Colin!

Japanese pianist Yusuke Nakamura and his tune "Heavenly Seven" won this year's composer's competition—a contest that this writer has never understood, since "memorable" is apparently not one of the criteria for the winning piece.

In other news, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright played the drums, accompanying Chris Botti on stage before the winners were announced. Other things happened, according to my notes. But that was before MADELEINE ALBRIGHT PLAYED THE FUCKING DRUMS.

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