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October 2006

Jason Moran
Artist in Residence
Blue Note Records

For his seventh album, Jason Moran recorded new versions of pieces that three art institutions had commissioned from him. The music that the pianist created for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Dia Art Foundation and Jazz at Lincoln Center varies widely, so much so that it creates a feeling of incongruity when gathered in one 50-minute recording. In fact, during several listens to Artist in Residence, the same question kept nagging at me: With six four-star albums under his belt in six years, what convinced Moran that collecting this music was a good idea?

It’s not only that the music doesn’t coalesce; it’s also that it’s full of gimmickry. When Moran introduced a sampled voice at the onset of his 2003 album The Bandwagon, it was a neat idea, and it made you sit up and take notice. Here it smacks of cliché, like a joke told too many times. Don’t get me wrong: The music—especially Moran’s own improvising—is excellent. But it can’t overcome the spoken-word platitudes of “Break Down,” the trite speech of “Artists Ought to Be Writing” or, worst of all, the irritating scraping that absolutely ruins “Cradle Song,” a tune that attempts to find musicality and rhythm in a closely miked pencil but instead grates at the nerves and obscures the beauty of Moran’s playing.

This is too bad, because Moran’s group—which includes bassist Tarus Mateen, drummer Nasheet Waits, and, for this outing, guitarist Marvin Sewell—do their jobs here, and there are some neat things going on. Joan Jonas’ percussive toys embellish the childlike splendor of Moran’s gorgeous, unaccompanied tinkling on “Refraction 1.” Moran applies a Western motif and a bum-ba-dee-da rhythm (à la “Happy Trails”) on “Arizona Landscape.” Senegalese percussionist Abdou Mboup and trumpeter Ralph Alessi help swirl “RAIN” into a furious cyclone before it develops a funky swagger. And Moran, despite some underdeveloped compositions, lays down some beautiful passages on his solo tracks. But ultimately this music doesn’t belong together—and it certainly doesn’t belong with cheap slogans and scribbling pencils.

Originally published in October 2006
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