Jazz’s Hancock Competition Returns, Crowning an Electrifying Rising Star

Jahari Stampley, a 23-year-old pianist from Chicago, won the prize as the genre’s premier coronation ceremony for young talent was held for the first time since 2019.

Last weekend, the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz International Competition made its return after a four-year hiatus at the Perelman Performing Arts Center in Lower Manhattan. The competition, previously named for Thelonious Monk and known for nominating the next jazz stars, typically switches between instruments every year. However, during its absence, the music industry has seen a lot of old thinking go out the window. Jazz’s future, actually its present, looks brighter than it has in at least 50 years. In April 2022, Jon Batiste won album of the year at the Grammys, becoming the first jazz musician below retirement age in decades to receive the honor. Young improvisers like him are less intimidated than ever by jazz’s gloried history, and are venturing into fusions and multimedia projects.

Although the Hancock Competition has done an excellent job of maintaining its relevance over the years, it must now answer the question of what use the new generation has for a grand contest-cum-gala, where the only keyboard is a grand piano, and the house band is made up of older, neoclassical jazz musicians. During the semifinals on Saturday afternoon, when 11 pianists under 30 competed, there were moments of wonder and excitement. However, many of the musicians were long on chops but short on distinction. Predictably clever tune choices abounded, with a lot of Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk, and even some George Gershwin. At one point, it even seemed as if there was a rule against bringing in one’s own original tunes, which was not the case.

Adding to the difficulty, the house rhythm section did not provide much help. The drummer, Carl Allen, is proudly agnostic about most styles of drumming that go beyond a 4/4 swing feel. Over the two-day event, he seemed as committed as ever to his principles. Thus, the competitors were subjected to an additional criterion of nuance: they could either double down on the swinging-bop feel or do their best to wriggle out of its grasp, while still projecting a crucial appearance of band symbiosis.

Despite the challenges, Jahari Stampley, a virtually unknown pianist from Chicago, had a style that was both timeless and unmistakably his own. With his tall, wiry frame hunched over the piano, his style arrived like a lightning bolt. He played a razor-sharp blues by Buddy Montgomery, a rhythmically stacked Geri Allen tune, and a classic Black American spiritual in the semifinals. He seemed to have as much in common with pianists steeped in Black classical and 20th-century gospel, such as Artina McCain and Courtney Bryan, as he did with the idiosyncratic jazz lineage he has assembled for himself, which includes fast-fingered expressionists like John Hicks and Don Pullen.

Stampley’s sound is built around fluttering, arpeggiated motifs that he carries across keys and the full range of the keyboard, and refers directly to an African inheritance, reminiscent of the patterned plucking of a Malian kora or a Zimbabwean mbira. Most importantly, his playing felt unforced, as if powered from an internal engine. He is an artist one would want to hear again and know more about, and it seemed possible that a star was being born.

Stampley, 23, grew up in a musical household in Chicago, has toured with Stanley Clarke and released his debut album last month. He recently completed a tour with his own trio, featuring his mother, D-Erania Stampley, on synthesizers and saxophone, and Miguel Russell on drums and synths. (Stampley plays drums, too, and they all trade off on instruments. He also designs iPhone apps, and did all the visuals for his own LP.)

At the finals, while the other contestants — Paul Cornish, 26, of Houston and Connor Rohrer, 23, of Mechanicsburg, Pa. — wore tailored suits, Stampley came clad in a patterned shirt, loosefitting corduroy pants, white shoes and a head wrap. His energy was both intense and private. He was coping with a deep bereavement: A close friend had died on Saturday. The next night, he chose to play a lovely, modulating Hicks ballad, “After the Morning,” as a tribute, and an original, “Prelude Entrence,” in his allotted two-tune set at the finals.

Cornish, who won the American Jazz Piano Competition in 2018, more than proved his mettle, sounding impressively contemporary and stylistically chameleonic — but perhaps too chameleonic. To its credit, the contest’s all-star panel of judges — Herbie Hancock himself, Bill Charlap, Orrin Evans, Hiromi and Danilo Pérez — wanted something more than versatility.

Rohrer showed his talents well, too, packing welcome dashes of dissonance into clustered harmonies, with a push-and-pull hesitation that made it impossible to be bored. But he might have made a few too many references to the classic contemporary-piano touchstones: Bill Evans, Hancock and Chick Corea. This too was not what interested the judges.

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