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New Monk jazz school students heat up Hub

Reynolds D. Graves | 6/24/2009, 9 a.m.
Alto saxophonist Godwin Louis performs during a set by the six musicians accepted into the 2011 class of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance Ensemble at Café 939 on Wednesday, June 17, 2009. Berklee College of Music

The newest members of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance Ensemble showcased their talents at Café 939 last Wednesday night, serving up a debut that would have made the pianist proud.

The three-horn sextet accepted into the institute’s Class of 2011 features five Berklee College of Music graduates and one recent graduate from the Manhattan School of Music.

After enduring a rigorous application process, Billy Buss (trumpet), Nicholas Falk (drums), Victor Gould (piano), Hogyu Hwang (bass), Godwin Louis (alto saxophone) and Matt Marantz (tenor saxophone) were handpicked by the institute’s admissions panel to study at the Monk Institute at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Students accepted to the institute receive full-tuition scholarships toward a two-year master’s degree, as well as the opportunity to work with Grammy Award-winning trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, the institute’s artistic director.

Blanchard, who has served as artistic director for about 10 years, said that one of the institute’s goals is to get students to focus on their strengths as a part of a collaborative whole.

“We look to use techniques that allow students to sit down and develop ideas,” said Blanchard.

Members of the new class have studied under some of the best in the business, including Greg Osby, Jimmy Heath, Billy Preston and Branford Marsalis. With the members performing all over the world, Berklee assistant vice president for public affairs Rob Hayes said it was a tall order to get all six together for a one-night set.

One of the Monk Institute’s goals is to try to reinvent the stimulating environment that jazz greats like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and others created when they often visited with each other at Monk’s home during the 1940s and 1950s. In those sessions, the jazz legends fed off one another’s ideas and energy, composing some of the greatest pieces in the history of the genre.

A similar spirit of teamwork and collaboration was evident in the ensemble’s first-ever concert, which included a mix of original tunes written by each of the members and selections from the Monk songbook.

Before finishing up the set with a take on the classic “Monk’s Mood,” a number of compositions arranged by the band members received their first live test run in front of the sold-out crowd. Pianist Gould’s contribution filled the café with a smooth three-horn swing accompanied by Marantz’s smooth tenor sax.

Other compositions included Marantz’s “Quiet,” alto saxophonist Louis’ “Brown Steam” and bassist Hwang’s “The Resistance,” each of which featured room for a considerable amount of improvisation.

Hwang, who studied in his native South Korea before attending Berklee, said he is looking forward to writing more, specifically for three-horn arrangements. He’d like to become a professional musician, either as an inside man in a group or a band leader.

“Maybe I will try to teach,” he added.

Hwang and his fellow ensemble members will have the opportunity to do just that. In addition to teaching music to middle- and high-school students in the New Orleans area, institute students have traveled on official State Department tours and performed in India, France, Egypt and Vietnam alongside greats like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

“Performance is also a large part of their study,” said Blanchard. While studying in New Orleans, institute students often play at Snug Harbor, a restaurant, bar and club that showcases performers on a cabaret-style stage.

Giving back to the community and positively influencing others interested in music, especially younger students, is a key element of the program, according to Blanchard.

“This is not just your cookie-cutter band,” he said. “They are more than just functional jazz musicians; they will also contribute to the art world.”