First Annual Thelonious Monkfish Jazz Festival

When I last spoke with Scott Goulding about Thelonious Monkfish, the Asian restaurant/jazz club for which he serves as music director, he shared his grand vision for the still-evolving Central Square spot. “I see Monkfish becoming a concert venue in the future, where the events will be ticketed and the talent being brought in won't only be the best this city has to offer, but will also include the best New York City and international jazz musicians.” Barely eight months removed from a significant expansion, Thelonious Monkfish has a ways to go before Goulding and owner Jamme Chantler have to think about setting up velvet ropes and hiring a security detail. But the First Annual Thelonious Monkfish Jazz Festival, which runs through this weekend, offers a glimpse of what the venue’s future could look like. Over the course of 11 consecutive nights, the club has featured live jazz from an array of local and regional performers, with widely varying styles and an international flair.

Goulding proposed the idea to Chantler, and timed the festival to coincide with Jazz Week in Boston (and more broadly, national Jazz Appreciation Month – affectionately known as “JAM”). “I thought having it during Jazz Week would be perfect, since there always seems to be a raised awareness to jazz during that time,” Goulding explains. “I wanted to have some of the living jazz legends we have right here in the city, some of the more recently established artists, and some up and coming, even some from NYC.”

The festival kicked off last Thursday with New York-based pianist Kevin Harris and his trio. Their contemporary sound is rich and complex, blending traditional jazz with classical influences and Cuban rhythms.

Friday nights at Monkfish belong to the Yoko Miwa Trio, even during jazz festivals. It’s always a delight to hear Yoko play, and the festival atmosphere seemed to bring out the band’s most vibrant and energetic sets. Yoko stole the show by paying tribute to Prince with a poignant solo version of “Purple Rain.”

I couldn’t make it to Monkish on Saturday, so I missed noted recording artist, writer, educator, and all-around jazz legend Jerry Bergonzi. The saxophonist’s quartet, featuring renowned trumpeter Phil Grenadier, headlined the festival and by all accounts brought the house down.

Brazilian singer and guitarist Teresa Ines took the stage on Sunday evening, with sultry but relaxed vocals that recall the style of Brazilian greats like Astrud Gilberto and Joyce Moreno. “It’s something you don't hear often around here unless it's a band on tour from Brazil,” remarked Goulding, who attended Ines’ performance. “Not only do I have a love for Brazilian singing and music in general, but it's a vital part of the history of jazz, so I thought it was important to include it in the festival.”

And while you’re taking in all that jazz, there are a few new cocktails on Monkfish’s menu. The Zombie Elixir is a riff on the Jack Rose, made with Laird’s Apple Jack, homemade grenadine, and lemon juice, with sweet vermouth giving it some added body.

Jalapeño-infused tequila makes the Heat Wave Margarita a spicy twist on the traditional recipe. The peppery heat doesn’t overpower the flavor, and pineapple juice balances things out with a little sweetness.

There’s also a new signature drink for Yoko. Yoko’s Blue Tear has been shelved in favor of Yoko’s Peach Perfect, which combines muddled peach, bourbon, peach schnapps, lemon juice, cinnamon-infused maple syrup. It’s sweet but packs a punch – just like the artist for whom it’s named.

The jazz festival is a testament to Thelonious Monkfish’s evolution. For much of its five-year tenure, it was a small restaurant that had to push aside a few tables to accommodate performers. Today it has a dedicated performance space capable of hosting nightly live music with artists ranging from local to legendary. The regular schedule resumes next week, but one can’t help but feel that Monkfish’s growth has only begun.

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