New York based musicians Tivon Pennicott of Marrietta, GA, Godwin Louis of Harlem, NY, and Melissa Aldana of Santiago, Chile were selected as finalists in the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone competition on Sunday afternoon before a near capacity crowd at the Smithsonian Institution’s Baird Auditorium inside the National Museum of American History. Fourteen saxophonists from around the world were selected to compete for $100,000 in prizes including cash awards and a recording contract with Concord Music Group.
The three finalists gave one last performance as part of last night’s Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Gala alongside some of jazz’s most recognizable names including the Competition’s judges—Wayne Shorter, Branford Marsalis, Jane Ira Bloom, Bobby Watson, and Jimmy Heath. Bassist Rodney Whitaker, pianist Reginald Thomas, and drummer Carl Allen served as the competitors' house band for both the semifinals and finals.
It is worth noting that only thirteen semifinalists actually performed. The contestant this writer predicted would win the first place prize, 21-year old Grace Kelly of Wellsley, MA, mysteriously dropped out of the competition at the last minute (according to her Facebook page, she dropped out over “contract disagreements”) leaving the door wide open for any of the remaining men or lone-standing woman to take home the event’s biggest prize. And, when the final prizes were announced last night at the end of the Gala, the lone-standing woman, Aldana, had won the prize making history as the Competition’s first female winner in a category for instruments. Pennicott and Louis received the second and third prize wins respectively.
The finalists performed two selections each at the start of last night’s Gala leaving the Competition’s judges to deliberate for one last time about the prizes. Though it was only clear following Sunday’s semifinals that Louis was a crowd favorite, going into the Gala performances offered a fresh perspective on the finalists and their talents. While Pennicott and Louis proved that they were definitely finalist worthy competitors, Aldana distanced herself from the competition during her performance of “I Thought About You.” Competition judge Jimmy Heath said during a “Before and After” session with Larry Appelbaum at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in 2011 and then again during an interview with this writer during an interview for the 2011 DC Jazz Festival that the way to tell if a saxophonist can really play is to listen to the way they approach a ballad. Does he/she play music that speaks to your heart, mind, or butt? Sitting there listening to her and watching the expression on Thomas’s face as he listened to her, it was clear that Aldana's playing spoke to our hearts.
But last night wasn’t just about the Monk Competition. Saxophone icon Wayne Shorter received the Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award while the late George Duke (January 12, 1946-August 5, 2013) was celebrated by an all-star line-up of his peers. Shorter, who gave a touching acceptance speech during the award presentation, had this message for musicians: “When you create, try to create what you want to be.” The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Fellows, Kurt Ellling, Roy Hargrove, Danilo Perez, Gerald Clayton, Marcus Miller, John Patitucci, Jimmy Heath, T.S. Monk, Herbie Hancock, and Brian Blade were among the artists to celebrate Shorter, while Ledisi, Take 6, Hargrove, Clayton, Miller, Ford, and John Beasley paid tribute to Duke. The Gala also included a bluesy performance from Cassandra Wilson.
The night ended with Aldana performing Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy” along with the Competition’s judges and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. Aldana will return to the Kennedy Center with her own group (possibly) in the 2014-2015 season.