Jason Moran: Out Front

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Jason Moran
By John Abbott

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"Feel free to do what you do," says Jason Moran as he steps onstage. "I've played in enough hotels and restaurants not to be bothered by a little chatter."

It's not a standard pre-gig pronouncement for the 28-year-old pianist, whose music usually commands silence and an open ear. But then, this isn't a standard gig. Moran is playing a solo set at a press reception for the Montreal Jazz Festival, at which he'll be appearing later in the summer. His audience at the Greenwich Village club Sweet Rhythm-producers, critics and industry folk-chuckles collectively at the wryly permissive note.

Standing at the microphone, Moran fulfills the central- casting archetype of a 1940s film noir: fedora slightly cocked, mustache neatly trimmed, trench coat belted casually at the waist. Like screen icons Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum and Alain Delon, he seems impassive and unknowable, observant and bemused. The chiaroscuro impression continues as he places a glass of red wine atop the piano, slides onto the bench and, without removing either hat or coat, teases out the unmistakable three-note prologue to-what else?-Erroll Garner's "Misty." Lacking only a halo of smoke, Moran seems plucked from another time.

The image colorizes as Moran plies his gentle abstractions, stretching but never abandoning the sentimental theme. Eventually he arrives at what seems a conclusive chord, only to shift out of Garner's tune into something else: James P. Johnson's "You've Got to Be Modernistic," which inspired the title for Moran's last album, Modernistic, 2002's solo piano tour de force. Gradually that jaunty melody, too, grows dreamy and diffuse. A feathery harmonic sequence momentarily evokes "Joga," the Björk ballad that Moran recorded for 2000's Facing Left; it actually turns out to be from an intermezzo by Brahms, which the pianist vaguely inhabits for a spell. Then, still with no interruption, he slips into another unconventional vehicle- Afrika Bambaataa's staccato, retro-futuristic hip-hop anthem "Planet Rock," which closes the set.

Moran has just covered over a century's worth of musical territory in barely a half-hour-and so naturally that it seems almost awkward to acknowledge the feat. He himself nods at the applause with just the hint of a grin-no big deal. A self-conscious progressive but hardly a provocateur, the pianist simply seems to be playing his way.

"Feel free to do what you do," he had said; Moran could just as well have been talking to himself.

"I don't want to be the average musician. I want to be the man who, 50, 60, 100 years from now, you're like, 'Man, he was really on another level. He was trying to come at it from a different perspective.'"- Jason Moran, March 1999

For an artist of uncompromising vision, Jason Moran has received a remarkable measure of critical favor. Each of his four albums on Blue Note has garnered accolades and high praise. Small wonder that Moran likens his career to a fairytale. He was still a senior at the Manhattan School of Music when Greg Osby signed him on for a European tour in 1997; the saxophonist had never heard him play, but drummer Eric Harland (Moran's high school classmate in Houston) had put in a good word. On tour, Moran and Osby discovered an uncommon musical kinship, and the latter soon became a mentor. It was through this association that the young pianist came to the attention of his record label. "I saw him for the first time with Osby," recalls Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall. "I scratched my head and said: 'He's really good; I'll have to go back down again.' They were playing at that time at Sweet Basil [now Sweet Rhythm]. And I came back a couple of nights later. I said, 'Look, you've got to be on Blue Note.'"

Moran wasted no time in recording Soundtrack to Human Motion (1999), an auspicious debut that Osby produced. At roughly the same time, he participated in a band called New Directions, led by Osby and featuring several other youngbloods on the Blue Note roster: vibraphonist Stefon Harris, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. In the liner notes to that group's self-titled album, Osby enthused: "I don't make a move without Jason. He's a dynamo." Moran seemed to earn this praise on the session, contributing four spiky new arrangements of classic Blue Note titles. He also joined Harris, then his roommate in West Harlem, on a crepuscular duet treatment of Sam Rivers' "Beatrice."

But it was "Commentary on Electrical Switches" that most clearly augured Moran's path to come. He dedicated his impressionistic ballad to the pianist Jaki Byard, who died just as New Directions was hitting the road. It was Byard who had drawn Moran to the Manhattan School of Music, and though Moran also studied privately with Muhal Richard Abrams and Andrew Hill, it was Byard who served as his guide. "Commentary," which finds Moran in compassionate triologue with Waits and Mateen, is a fascinating performance in retrospect-the earliest documentation of a group that would eventually deliver the pianist's most advanced concepts and most personal statements. Even during this initial encounter, on a track lasting less than three minutes, the trio sounds quite a bit like a band.

The chemistry didn't go unnoticed. "I basically played with Jason for the first time on that New Directions tour," remembers Waits. "After the tour was over I listened to one of the recordings. I was like, 'Wow!' It was really telling when we as a trio were playing, with the type of things we were doing. It was something special that was happening not only because of the freedom being used, but also the common language between us three. It was unspoken; it was very organic."

Yet the Bandwagon, the trio that would grow out of this rapport, didn't coalesce then and there. Moran's first album actually featured Osby, Harris, Harland and bassist Lonnie Plaxico. The pianist was still working primarily as a member of Osby's quartet; Waits and Mateen were both in demand elsewhere. In 2000 the three reunited for Moran's sophomore album, Facing Left; the following year they welcomed distinguished guest Sam Rivers on Black Stars. Both albums were highly and rightfully acclaimed. But the full eruption of collective energies evident on their newest album, The Bandwagon-taped last fall during the trio's Village Vanguard debut-was still to come.

"Members of the Creative Class engage in work whose function is to 'create meaningful new forms.'"-Richard Florida, April 2002

Jason Moran still lives in the prewar apartment building of his late-college years, overlooking Riverside Park and the slate-gray Hudson River below. The surrounding neighborhood, with its mix of low-income housing and renovated co-ops, conveys the sense of a place in quiet transition. Cars line the curbs, and residents linger on their stoops-but the chaos of Broadway, one long block east, seems at some remove.

Two days after the Montreal press party, Moran answers his apartment door clad in a Mets T-shirt and faded jeans. He no longer occupies a one-bedroom with Stefon Harris; Moran is two doors down from his old apartment, in a long eight-room unit he shares with his fiancée, the classical soprano Alicia Hall. Their home is an oasis of sleek modern accents, sharp and immaculately clean. (Moran has guests remove their shoes at the door.) In the living room, Bauhaus furniture coexists with a wall of records, art catalogs and vintage magazines. Moran enthusiastically identifies himself with the "New Harlem," a relatively recent upsurge of creative capital uptown. But he also notes that, having lived here a decade, he might be ready to leave the city for a return to his home base in Houston.

Sinking into an Arne Jacobsen black-leather chair, the pianist describes the evolution of the band dynamic. "It's gotten stronger, but at the same time stayed real loose. Once we really started to play together, we realized how much we could do with dynamics, how much we could do with time, how much we could do with cues within the music. And how much we could do with repertoire, as far as changing what the jazz repertoire is. We had a lot to say about that, because we all listen to so much different music that it would be silly to keep ourselves confined to playing Thelonious Monk's music or Tommy Flanagan's arrangements. We wanted to take it where we thought it could go."

For the Bandwagon, that destination falls outside the bounds of genre. Their set list can juxtapose Byard, Björk and Brahms without judgment or pause. It's a strategy uncommon in jazz performance but standard-issue in DJ culture, where turntablists draw upon an endless catalog of sources, blending textures and mixing moods. In fact, hip-hop is the lingua franca of the Bandwagon, in as great a measure as jazz. Moran, Waits and Mateen all grew up during the dawn of the DJ, and Mateen is an active part of the hip-hop community, having worked with the likes of OutKast, Goodie Mob and TLC. So it makes as much sense for the trio to "sample" Afrika Bambaataa (who himself co-opted Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" to build "Planet Rock") as it does to recast a 1930s Ellington tune. As befits a band of this era, their repertoire resists hierarchy and the construct of "authenticity" in favor of new hybrid sounds. "The only reason we played this song 'Later' by Duke Ellington," Moran observes, "was because he had a part in there that I had to sample. Then I got hip to the theme. I wanted to sample him before I wanted to play the song."

For over a year now, the Bandwagon has begun its sets with a prerecorded collage of sampled sounds. A Bela Bartók chorus collides with a Robert Johnson blues, which in turn leads to spoken-word fragments by, among others, the actor John Gielgud and Minister Elijah Muhammad. (Also in the recorded mix are Moran, Waits and Mateen themselves, each playing his instrument in heated exchange.) Hip-hop advocate Kevin Powell, citing this collage in a recent panel discussion, marveled at its place in a jazz setting: "He literally has a tape that he made in his house. And that's hip-hop to me."

For licensing reasons, this MiniDisc intro was cut short for the new The Bandwagon CD. But Moran exercised similar impulses elsewhere on the date. "Ringing My Phone (Straight Outta Istanbul)" features a sampled phone conversation between two women in Turkish. What's remarkable about the performance is the fact that Moran uses the material not as an accent or supplement, but rather as a compositional blueprint: the trio matches the cadence and tonality of the conversation, essentially note for note. The resulting tune is serpentine and syntactically complex-but somehow free-flowing and organic, tied as it is to human speech.

Unveiling "Ringing My Phone" at the Vanguard last fall, Moran's crew met with a sharp, collective intake of breath at first-then provoked an exhilarated applause. ("Infospace," a less engaging piece based on a stock report in Chinese, met with a much more tentative response.) Moran borrowed the transcriptive conceit from the Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal and executed it with the help of a grant from Chamber Music America. The songs are literally exercises in translation, across languages, media and cultures. And Moran-whose other pieces in this series utilize Italian, Norwegian, Japanese, Dutch and French-insists that the experiments are less cerebral than communal. "Each person speaking has a melody," he contends. "Every person in the world." He adds: "I don't necessarily know what everybody's saying on the tapes, but the mood of the voice and how it can be transmitted through music is part of the fun. It really opens us as musicians to entirely new rhythms, and new spatial areas [in which] to play."

Moran wears this openness as a second skin, and given his background, it's not hard to see why. Growing up in a comfortably middle-class African-American section of Houston, the pianist was witness to an entire spectrum of creative endeavor.

In fact, he's a textbook representative of the demographic identified by economist and urban scholar Richard Florida, in his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class. Moran's parents took him to symphonic concerts and museum exhibitions; the arts weren't an extravagance so much as a fact of everyday life. "My father collected a lot, had a lot of sculptures," the pianist reminisces. "He also collected furniture. He'd buy a Bauhaus book and turn the page and say, 'See, that's the chair you're sitting in right there.' That had a big effect on me. For me, an artist should have the understanding not only of his own art, but every other art around him. So it is the understanding of opera, it's the understanding of the symphony, it's the understanding of going to see ballet. It's the understanding of theater, of literature, of painting, sculpture. Everything. Not to confine yourself just within music."

That ethos of expansiveness governs the Bandwagon's embrace of nonmusical influences. Moran, a devoted film buff, has long worked in what could be called a cinematic vein. Soundtrack to Human Motion actually plays like the abstract score to an imaginary film. The album's first track, "Gangsterism on Canvas," introduced a fragment of melody that would come to serve as Moran's leitmotif; it appears, in one form or another, on each of the pianist's albums. On Facing Left he interpreted selections from The Godfather and Yojimbo, with depth and élan. On the new disc he overlays the ballad "Gentle Shifts South" with a recording of his grandparents tracing their family lineage, for a strikingly cinematic effect. And lately the pianist has leapt more literally into the fray, composing original music for independent shorts. His score for Chris Dillon's All We Know of Heaven took top honors at the First Run Film Festival this spring; Seith Mann's Five Deep Breaths, also scored by Moran and screened at First Run, won best short film (and later showed at Sundance, TriBeCa and Cannes).

"Artists feed from other arts," Moran insists. "I just saw a thing on Merce Cunningham. He was collaborating with Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage. That's fucking crazy! For three people who are so monumental to just happen to be working together. For me, that's one of the best examples of what art is supposed to be. And you know, that was not uncommon then. Now it actually is uncommon. But I think it's really coming soon, the next movement of sound in music. We did a concert at the Studio Museum in Harlem in conjunction with this exhibit, 'The Challenge of the Modern.' And it was amazing to perform and be surrounded by paintings. It was just good to be in another environment."

"I want to keep the musicians on their toes, they want to keep me on my toes, and we want to keep the audience on their toes. We don't want them to know all our moves."-Jason Moran, May 2003

The Village Vanguard, probably the most iconic jazz haunt on the globe, is simultaneously "another environment" and the same old place it's always been: triangular, dusk-scented and steeped in jazz lore. On the first night of the Bandwagon's inaugural Vanguard engagement, history hung palpably in the air-expectant but also relaxed and unforced. Moran, in hat and coat, strode comfortably and casually onstage. (This time he offered a disclaimer about the hat: "I'm not fronting; I'm cold. It's chilly up here.") He triggered his sampled intro, and then the group was off, tumbling into "Another One" with a precipitous, choppy propulsion.

Whatever the various forces at play in the Bandwagon, the fact remains that its means and methods are those of jazz. Waits and Mateen form a rhythm section as distinctive in our time as Ron Carter and Tony Williams were in theirs. Moran ducks and lunges like a welterweight, but never strays far from jazz piano orthodoxy-although it should be noted, and has been, that his muses (Byard, Monk, Abrams, Hill) form a rather unconventional nexus of influence. Performing "Out Front," Moran and company put the Byard tune through its paces, starting in a stride realm and then careening through a catalog of tempos, starting and stopping, restlessly shifting gears. It's a powerful demonstration of swing that never settles; there's a sense of edgy displacement even during the toe-tapping portions of the tune. "It's on the high level of telepathy now," Mateen says laughingly of the interplay. "To the point where we finish each other's sentences. Then onstage, there are so many moments where we play things harmonically or rhythmically, and I'm like, 'I thought I was just about to do that by myself, but we all did it together.' And it was like nothing we had ever done before."

Moran is enthusiastic about The Bandwagon, which captures the group in full force during its six-day stint at the club, November 26 through December 1, 2002. But, he also notes, "the best night we did, we didn't record. Thursday night was just amazing! We were like: 'Wow, we really made some statements tonight.'"

From the kitchen comes an unexpected commentary: "It's so nice to hear you say that." Alicia Hall peeks around the corner, pancake mix in hand. "Because Thursday night was Thanksgiving."

Moran grins. "And we got engaged on that Thursday."

Hall disappears around the corner again. "In history I want to be responsible for his favorite night of music," she calls from the other room. "Is that on tape?"

It's a lighthearted moment, and a reminder: For all the progressive ambitions and conceptual rigor, Moran is mostly concerned with personal expression. "When I started performing a lot," he muses, "I had this notion that anytime you play music, it should be music that you really love. 'Planet Rock' is a song I've loved over 20 years. It's not something new. These people that I taped, they're people that I actually know. One piece is my grandparents talking; that's my family history when I play that piece. That's not just some people saying people's names. Those are my ancestors. So the music is very much a part of my bones."

Which isn't to say that Moran waits for inspiration to reveal itself. "I have a grant proposal I'm going to write for the group," he says, "for a project called 'Storefront.' It's where the band leases a storefront somewhere for a month. And we are the working band in this storefront from 9 to 5 p.m.-like a job. So we go hang out there, and whether we play music or watch TV, there will be seats set up so people can come in. And maybe a couple of nights out of the week there will be free concerts. And artists will be welcome to come in and interact."

Part installation, part community outreach and part performance art, the idea jibes perfectly with Moran's creative conception. Yet he speaks about it matter-of-factly, like everything else. "I just think this is a way to bring the art out. It's always about exposing the art, and creating it at the same time."

Originally published in September 2003

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