L.V. Rogers student Soren Hvenegaard (centre) was busy rehearsing with some of the members of his Thelonius Monk octet this week. Photo: Will Johnson

Happy 100th birthday, Thelonious Monk!

L.V. Rogers student spearheads ambitious jazz tribute

It all started three years ago, with a casual remark from Soren Hvenegaard’s social studies teacher Brian DeMontigny: “Did you know today is Thelonious Monk’s 97th birthday?”

“He knew I was interested in jazz, and right away after he told me that I thought, ‘well, that gives me three years’,” the L.V. Rogers student told the Star this week, while rehearsing for his upcoming Thelonious Monk tribute concert at Shambhala Hall on Oct. 13 at 7 p.m.

The teenage musician had already been floating the idea around of doing a tribute to Monk, a legendary jazz pianist and composer who died in 1982, but now he figured he had the perfect time to perform it: his 100th birthday.

While sitting in his L.V. Rogers classroom that day he came up with what some would call an outrageously ambitious plan — to spend the next three years arranging and preparing an eight-person jazz tribute featuring some of Nelson’s heaviest hitters.

It’s a project music teacher Tim Bullen characterizes as more appropriate for a “fourth-year performance major at Berklee” — a sentiment echoed by Hvenegaard’s close friend and mentor, saxophonist Clinton Swanson, who he’s been meeting with him weekly for five years.

“This is a huge project, like what someone would do for a Master’s thesis. He’s learned a notation program on the computer, taken that on himself,” he said.

“It’s one thing to play the tunes, but he’s also done all the arrangements, and he’s done this pretty much on his own — he’d bring the charts into our lessons and go, ‘What do you think?’”

Swanson didn’t doubt his student’s ability to pull it off, partly because he’s already seen what the kid can do.

Hvenegaard currently plays bass clarinet in the B.C. Honour Concert Band, lead alto saxophone in the L.V. Rogers band, baritone saxophone in the Playmour Junction big band and bass clarinet in the Nelson Community Band.

“He’s doing tons of music, and he’s totally dedicated his life to it. It’s amazing.”

He was immediately game to be involved and he’s thrilled to share the stage with the other six musicians Hvenegaard enlisted, including saxophonist Kiyo Elkuf, trumpet player Ron Butler, trombonist Matt Weber, pianist Gilles Parenteau, acoustic bassist Rob Fahie and drummer Steven Parish.

“To do a jazz tribute like this, it’s a real honour because Monk was a genius and it’s inspiring to work on this type of music.

“I like him because he’s so distinctive, you can hear him play one or two notes on the piano and you know it’s him,” Swanson said.

But the real local expert on Monk is Hvenegaard, who has pored through old records, watched documentaries that feature his live performances and studied his work note by note.

He feels drawn to him because of his outsider status.

“Some people think of him as a sideshow freak, but he’s actually a very serious composer. When I was watching Ken Burns jazz documentaries, I was struck by watching him play — it’s really kind of amusing,” said Hvenegaard.

“His playing style is so hectic, it’s sometimes disjointed, and if you watch you’ll see he won’t reach for the keys, he holds up his hands away from the keyboard until the instant he feels like he has to play the note — it’s like he’s playing a game of whack-a-mole.”

But Monk, according to Hvenegaard, was no joke.

“After World War II, that was a time in jazz music when there was a lot of change happening. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had new ideas that involved much faster chord changes, lots of chord extensions and stuff like that — Monk was one of those, but he was the most unique and the most misunderstood.”

But if he has his way, that won’t be the case anymore.

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