Beyond Elasticity

Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience with Moreno, who set up shop in New York precisely a decade ago. You noticed him on tour with Joshua Redman’s Elastic Band, or backing the neo-gospel powerhouse Lizz Wright. Maybe you’ve heard him carving up “Suspicion,” the most aggressively syncopated track on Identity, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s 2005 MaxJazz breakthrough. Or you landed on Moreno’s MySpace page and heard samples from Between the Lines, his own accomplished and auspicious new debut.

Moreno hails from Houston, the wellspring of so much recent talent in jazz and R&B. Last year when I visited his alma mater, the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, jazz director Warren Sneed cited him as a success story, alongside drummer Kendrick Scott and a few others. Moreno matriculated at the New School in New York with the highest scholarship the institution had ever awarded a guitarist.

Jazz lore is full of lone-wolf theories, tales of preternaturally gifted individuals tearing onto a scene. Moreno’s experience attests to the ascendancy of a more collective model, something like an open-door fraternity of ambition and taste. His cohort at the New School included pianists Robert Glasper, a fellow HSPVA alum, and Frank LoCrasto, who graduated a few years later from Booker T. Washington, the equivalent magnet school in Dallas. He also fell in with saxophonist John Ellis, an adopted New Orleanian and finalist in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition.

Moreno’s sideman sessionography mainly involves this stylish and well-studied peer group. He appeared with Glasper on the 2000 debut by neo-soul crooner Bilal, briefly a New School colleague, and he and Ellis made a joint cameo on “Mood,” the simmering title track of Glasper’s pre-Blue Note debut from 2003. He contributed along with LoCrasto to Pelt’s Identity. When LoCrasto released his strong debut last year—When You’re There, also on MaxJazz—it was only natural that Moreno would be on it.

You could form a fairly three-dimensional picture of Moreno by evaluating these and other supporting roles on record. His love of atmospheric coloration shines not just on “Mood” but also throughout LoCrasto’s album, which includes a handful of smartly chamberlike compositions. For a taste of his floating grace over irregular meters, try “First Step,” which appears on Can’t Wait for Perfect (Fresh Sound New Talent), by tenor saxophonist Bob Reynolds. Look to Metamorphosis (Kindred Rhythm), an album by tenor saxophonist and percussionist Yosvany Terry Cabrera, for some spiky assertiveness in a postmodern Afro-Cuban setting. Then consult Ellis’ eminently listenable By a Thread (Hyena), which touches upon everything from loopy swing (“Umpty Eleven”) to slinky funk (“Lonnie”), with guitar uplifting every track.

Two years ago in JT, guitarist Pat Metheny gave David R. Adler this appraisal of Moreno: “A really talented guy who impressed me beyond the notes, for his general feeling, and what he’s going for.” His final four words are key. There are many other guitarists out there pushing toward a modern ideal, but none with the precise coordinates that Moreno has charted. For what it’s worth, he’s less ethereal than Kurt Rosenwinkel and less astral than Ben Monder, though you could surely make a case for their influence. Listen to Moreno’s solo on a live rendition of “Forward and Back” (the MP3 is available at mikemoreno.com), and you might be reminded of Rosenwinkel at first, if only for his spacious phrasing and luminous tone. But the evocation doesn’t last because of the way Moreno shapes his improvisation. “What he’s going for” is the distinguishing factor.

It should be no surprise that Moreno has earned the admiration of a growing contingent outside his circle. Or that he’s been busy. One night this spring, he performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater with trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and then headed nine blocks south on Broadway to play a midnight show at the Iridium with alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw. The latter show began with a standard, Cole Porter’s “I Love You.” Moreno, taking the first solo, started with an elaboration on the melody and circled steadily outward, indulging his technique thoughtfully and fleetingly. Guitarist Mike Stern was in the house, having played an earlier set, and I cornered him for his thoughts. “He plays beautifully, man,” Stern said. “He’s so incredibly lyrical, and he’s always reaching for something.” (That last part sounds familiar.) Stern added that he had invited Moreno over to his house to play duets. “I told him I transcribed some of his stuff,” he said, grinning.

The drummer at Iridium was Kendrick Scott, whose World Culture Music label launched earlier this year with The Source, Scott’s debut as a leader. Moreno plays a prominent role on that album, but it’s the label’s second release, Between the Lines, that signals his arrival. Each of its eight tracks is a Moreno original, and together they attest to an intelligent yet easygoing progressivism. Which is not to deny a few flashes of influence. “Still Here,” an acoustic duet with pianist Aaron Parks, calls to mind some of Metheny’s work with Lyle Mays; the harmonic contours of “Old Wise Tale” suggest Wayne Shorter, as the title appears to acknowledge. Still, the identity that coalesces over the course of the album is Moreno’s, and it conveys a remarkable sense of conviction. Clearly he knows that there’s value not only in what he’s reaching for, but also in the act itself.

Originally published in July/August 2007

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