Great American Jazz Piano Competition
April 7, 2005, Florida Theatre, Jacksonville, FL
by Shelton Hull
The Jacksonville Jazz Festival has always been immediately preceded by the Great American Jazz Piano Competition, except for a year or two in which the Festival did not occur, being a period of transition between organizing regimes. In those years the Piano Competition went on still, such is its own value to the region’s arts and music scene. This year was no different. The Finalists of 2005 were a credit to themselves and the event.
The rules: Each of the five competitors played a single three-song set. At least one song in each person’s set must be a solo performance, while the others were done in a trio setting with bassist Richard Drexler and drummer Danny Gottleib. Finalists were selected by judges who picked from unlabeled recordings, “blind” to the performers’ identities. Now those judges — David Benoit, Terence Blanchard, Keith Javors, Jessica Williams and Pamela Williams — were sitting in the theatre’s front row, seeing their selections in person for the first time, along with an audience whose reaction was a factor.
Many of the great pianists were overtly or obliquely referenced during the night: Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Michel Petrucciani, Bud Powell, Jess Stacy, Lennie Tristano, McCoy Tyner. Rarely, however, were the references made in a way that really distinguished the interpreter from the interpreted. Too often were the melodies processed through the style, as opposed to the reverse.
After preliminaries, MC Noel Friedline (a notable jazz product of Jacksonville) brought out the first finalist. Brooklyn’s John Chin opened with nerves rattling through an Ellington Blues, “I’ve Got It Bad.” He warmed up a bit after getting the night’s first pop for an eighth-note run, laid over a loping, anglicized groove. The first spot was a hard one because there were four sets that followed. He will hopefully be back next year, higher up the bill. His was the least effective run that night, despite real talent and a plausible set-list. “Cry Me a River” segued into “Giant Steps” with a twinkling glissando. Chin’s strengths were mostly buried by his material.
Song selection would play a decisive role in the evening. Jesse Green changed his set-list completely at some point after the old one had been printed, and the results were mixed. His strengths would have thrived in the context of “Green Dolphin Street” and “Alone Together,” one of the most sumptuously sublime ballads in jazz. As it was, his first two songs (whose tunes the reviewer failed to catch) were decent mid-tempo romps, but his attack seemed to lack psychology: What emotions was he trying to elicit, if any? It may have been the stress of his switch-up. Technical command was scarcely a problem for anyone in the contest, but emotional resonance was a persistent bugaboo.
Green’s failure to grab the listener early in his set is worth noting, in part, because his finale, a truly boss rendition of “Caravan,” was arguably the single best performance of the night. That song has been processed through hundreds of eminently creative minds over the years, many of which were pianists. Joe Gilman crafted a highpoint in contest history with “Caravan” in 2002, using his hands to manipulate the instrument’s innards. Green woke up the crowd, which worked to the advantage of the next performer.
Ayako Shirasaki was the runner-up in this competition last year, and she entered as the favorite to win in 2005. She also held the center position, which is quite workable if one has skills. Shirasaki has skills to spare, but mercy is not her methodology. Her song selection was perfect: “Four in One,” “Embraceable You” and “It’s All Right with Me.” It made for an effective capitulation of her style, borne out in very different tempos through consistently dynamic melodies. There is a solid tradition of great jazz pianists who happen to be Japanese women — Aki Takase, Junko Onishi — and Shirasaki is a part of it. Her debt to Monk, of course, is openly acknowledged, right down to the way she took her hand off the keyboard to emphasize the pauses between certain notes.
Like fellow Brooklynite Chin, Bennett Paster seemed not to bring his best stuff to the stage, though he was the first to play an original composition, “Jabali,” at the end of his set. Again, everything was done well, but it didn’t quite resonate in the way he’d need to win the competition. He remained mostly in that mid-tempo groove that dogged most of the pianists that night. Not the best possible use of his position.
Benito Gonzalez drew the coveted final position on the bill. His music would be the last thing the judges heard before deliberation, which gave him a shot at dislodging Ms. Shirasaki on the inside track to victory. He would need chops; anything less than a great set would bring minds back toward the middle, where memory naturally situates. His own piece, “Starting Point,” was a bold, dramatic means of introduction to a robust, sharply incisive style with more body movement than the other four pianists combined. The other Monk tune (“Evidence”) actually escalated the intensity. This was a perfect example of emotional resonance — he brought the audience into the action, making them feel invested in the execution of his vision. His solo take on “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” evoked the memory of Art Tatum, in that is was “more” than a ballad.
After an intermission set with Friedline, Drexler, Gottleib and tenor saxophonist Juan Roland (whose articulation is almost as good as his tone), the announcements were made. The only scandalous aspect of the decision-making was that Shirasaki finished in fourth place, just above Mr. Chin, which is ridiculous because clearly the competition came down to Shirasaki versus Gonzalez. The musicians and audience at first thought “first runner-up” meant second place, and they appeared uniformly shocked when the truth of it became apparent. Shirasaki took the snub (which must have been deliberate) with typical dignity, though I’ll not be surprised to see her competing there in the future. The screw-job undermined what was otherwise a well-deserved victory for Benito Gonzalez, who won $3,500 and a Saturday morning set at the Jazz Festival itself, where hopefully a brilliant new talent can blossom in the commercial sunshine.