REVIEW: Theatralia Jazz Festival. All Star Misterioso - A journey into the silence of Thelonious Monk

The cast of All Star Misterioso

Theatralia Jazz Festival. All Star Misterioso- A journey into the silence of Thelonious Monk by Stefano Benni
(Pizza Express Dean Street, 11th November 2015. Review by Alison Bentley)

The moods and music of Thelonious Monk were expressed in this poetic drama by Italian writer Stefano Benni and a fine band of London musicians. Monk’s Mood opened, played meditatively by pianist Robert Mitchell. Director (and singer) London-based Italian Filomena Campus explained that when they first put the play on at the Riverside Studios in 2009, they had tried to make the theatre like a jazz club. For tonight, Campus had translated and adapted Benni’s poetic drama to make Pizza Express seem like a theatre.

Campus acted as a narrator/director from the stage, introducing the theme of Monk’s life: ‘In the last 7 years of his life Monk stopped talking and playing, totally isolating himself from the world…’ (he died in 1982.) The music acted as a narrative too, as pork pie-hatted Orphy Robinson and Jean Toussaint joined in on vibes and tenor. Dudley Phillips’ bass held the groove of Well You Needn’t, and with no drums, the vibes really came into their own as a percussion instrument. Singer Cleveland Watkiss and Campus scatted with the band on a beautiful arrangement of Misterioso, leading into poetic soliloquies by Watkiss and Benni (the latter in Italian, and much appreciated by the audience’s Italian contingent.) Both were playing the role of Monk. Watkiss’ speaking voice was as rich and expressive as when singing: ‘Every silence is different from any other silence’; silence, said Benni, could be waiting for a friendly voice or a gunshot. Watkiss’ version of Green Chimneys was a reminder of his fine 80s album of the same name, his solo Jon Hendricks-like is its dexterity. Toussaint’s tenor was boppish and thoughtful, bringing to mind Monk’s Quartet with Charlie Rouse.

Epistrophy began to explore darker reasons for Monk’s silence, in Watkiss’ and Campus’ monologues: ‘the pain that lives between one note and the next,’ as Monk’s music was a ‘rock thrown into a pond where you watch the ripples.’ Benni’s lines imagined Billie Holiday responding to racist abuse in a club (‘I am black and beautiful my friend’) and Watkiss went to the heart of darkness of Strange Fruit, its indictment of racist lynchings accompanied by looped cries and whispers.

The second half began with an extraordinary solo from Robinson, hinting at a number of Monk tunes, as if he’d collected all the most dissonant intervals from Round Midnight before the theme emerged. Watkiss scatted the tune in delicate falsetto, Bobby McFerrin-like, then interwoven with the sax. ‘Black, white, black, lying on a bed of music that’s full of edges and splinters that won’t let me sleep,’ he intoned.

I Mean You lifted the mood, the piano thundering in quirky clusters, emulating the utter physicality of Monk’s playing- the audience especially loved this. Campus had translated Benni’s evocative poem Lullaby and set it to Monk’s waltz Ugly Beauty; she sang: ‘And after thousands of chords/ My fingers stop moving … and music will never be as before’; Benni and Watkiss joined her with patterns of words echoing and overlapping, like jazz riffs over bowed bass.

‘Saint Billie, Saint Bud, Saint Bird, what’s the point of talking? When you can play like that.’ An uptempo Misterioso illustrated the point; as everyone improvised, you had the feeling that the music was making sense of the world.

A powerful and moving performance, with Monk’s matchless music and superb musicians to lead you through.

Alison Bentley is a singer and teaches singing. Her music is on Soundcloud

LINK: Theatralia Festival Preview

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