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March 2005

Jason Moran
Same Mother
Blue Note Records

Jason Moran got the title for his new album, Same Mother, from his wife's comment that jazz and blues share a common mama. That's true, but they have different daddies.

Like any two half-brothers, jazz and blues are bound by family and divided by rivalry, and the temptation is to paper over those complications by telling one lie (they have nothing in common) or by telling another (they have everything in common). Moran resists that temptation on his new disc, which works the boundary line where the similarities and differences bump up against one another.

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Johanna Goodman

Jason Moran

When Moran crafted a jazz improvisation based on a tape of a woman reading a Chinese stock report, as he did on 2003's Bandwagon, he didn't replicate spoken Chinese and he didn't use the tape as a mere embellishment to a conventional jazz tune. He used the tape's sound and feel as the starting point for his own harmonic, rhythmic and melodic creations. On Same Mother he does the same thing with the blues.

What he yanks out of the blues is not the handful of gimmicks that most people pull-a 12-bar form, a sassy sexuality, a guitar lick, a loud, high-pitched climax. Moran digs deeper, down below middle C, where a whole language of vocal slurs, push-and-pull rhythms, droning overtones and barely intelligible growls hint at a forgotten music of dread and grandeur. That rumbling bottom is the first thing you hear on Same Mother, as Moran's banging left-hand and Nasheet Waits' rolling drum patterns introduce "Gangsterism on the Rise." This is the latest in Moran's series of "Gangsterism..." compositions, originally a variation on Andrew Hill's "Erato" and varied more and more on each Moran album. This time it's colored by the blues, mostly by a tumbling low end that evokes New Orleans carnival parades and Mississippi fife-and-drum picnics. But this is far from a conventional blues, for the pianist's gutbucket left hand spars with his abstracted right hand as if the music were being torn between instinct and thought, between mistress and wife, between barroom and classroom, without either side getting the upper hand.

You don't need a guitar to play the blues, but it sure helps, and Bandwagon (the road trio of Moran, Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen) is joined by guitarist Marvin Sewell for much of Same Mother. Sewell was an integral part of Cassandra Wilson's experiments in reconciling half-siblings jazz and blues, and the guitarist helps Moran push that research and development even further. (Jazz critics are reluctant to give female vocalists credit for conceptual innovations, but Wilson's rethinking of the jazz-blues relationship on albums such as Blue Light 'Til Dawn and Belly of the Sun was a genuine breakthrough and made possible Moran's current triumph.)

Moran, who grew up in Houston, had two cousins who played in Albert King's band, and the pianist nods to that early influence by remaking King's staple "I'll Play the Blues for You" on Same Mother. Sewell captures King's stinging tone and lyrical phrasing, and the Bandwagon trio gets the deliberate but rocking groove of King's Stax Records period. Two and a half minutes into the seven-minute tune, however, the quartet shifts from imitation to deconstruction and reconstruction. The groove splinters into different pulses; the melody becomes more questioning and less swaggering, and the harmonies veer off into tangents. It's as if Moran appreciates the down-to-earth questions posed by the blues but isn't always satisfied with the genre's easy answers.

Something similar happens on Moran's own composition, the uptempo boogie "Jump Up," which generates a finger-snapping momentum, falters, recovers, falters and recovers again. The trio version of Mal Waldron's "Fire Waltz" takes a different approach; instead of transforming blues material with a jazz treatment, it does the opposite. It begins with a gentle lyricism but is gradually taken over by key-pounding blues riffs and funky bass lines. It segues across the bridge of a bass solo into a quartet version of an excerpt from "Alexander Nevsky," where Sergei Prokofiev's movie music is given a new spin by Sewell's Delta slide guitar and a quote from the Beatles' "Yesterday." The album-closer, "Gangsterism on the Set," begins with a gospel-piano motif and then undermines its lofty sentiments with a hip-swiveling grind in the lower register.

The rest of the album is quieter, more meditative. "Aubade," credited to both Moran and Andrew Hill, suggests what a romantic French art song might sound like if it were played on country-blues guitar and juke-joint piano, perhaps by Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr in the 1930s.

On Moran's melancholy ballads, "G Suit Saltation" and "Restin'," Sewell employs a fat, sustaining electric-guitar tone to sound like the missing singer. The pianist's darting right hand dances nervously around the guitarist's vocal-like lines, seemingly unsure whether to give in to fatalism or resist it-always the crucial dilemma in the blues. He overcomes on the first tune and surrenders on the second. "The Field" is the slowest and saddest of all, a solo-piano piece that borrows from gospel funeral music but that replaces the usual sentimentality with a stark, fractured appreciation of death's horror.

The story here is not that Moran tackled the blues-almost every jazz artist sooner or later makes a blues album. Nor that the Bandwagon trio plays with astonishing virtuosity and rapport-has the decade produced a better, tighter trio? No, the story is that Moran has once again demonstrated how jazz can reinvigorate itself by reaching beyond the usual show tunes and hard-bop rewrites to find new material for improvisation. Whether the material is classical music, hip-hop or blues, the trick, Moran implies, is to recognize the family resemblance between jazz and its musical relative without mistaking them for identical twins. After all, the best conversations happen when two people have a shared background but different opinions.

Originally published in March 2005
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