Pianist Jason Moran's passion for Thelonious Monk's rich legacy is well-known. So it isn't surprising that Moran, the Kennedy Center's director for jazz, will celebrate the Monk Centennial on Sunday night in the company of arguably Monk's finest interpreter, pianist Kenny Barron.
Though classically trained, Barron fell under the sway of Monk's genius as a Philadelphia teenager in the late '50s, listening to the local radio station and his older brother's stash of 78 rpm records. What immediately stood out, Barron recalls, was Monk's sense of pianistic freedom. "He could just pluck notes out of the air and have them make sense," Barron says. While the jarring accents and curious cadences Monk favored have since become cliches in the hands of lesser artists, Barron has always brought a subtle touch to the composer's repertoire.
"I want to retain certain aspects of his style, like his playfulness, but I'm careful not to imitate him," says the 74-year-old National Endowment for the Arts jazz master. Barron has recorded many of his favorite Monk compositions, both on his own albums and those he made with Sphere, a widely acclaimed quartet that featured two of the late composer's band mates: saxophonist Charlie Rouse and drummer Ben Riley. In Barron's view, Monk's ballad "Ruby, My Dear" is "one of the most beautiful pieces ever written," but there's no shortage of delightful contrasts. "Some of his melodies were really tricky," he says. " 'Trinkle, Tinkle' and 'Four in One,' those were finger-busters. Some said Monk didn't have any technique — oh, yes, he did!"
Show: Sunday at 8 p.m. Thelonious Monk Centennial Celebration at the Kennedy Center. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org. $20-$59.