Jason Moran: In All Languages

A look at the artistically exhilarating world of Jason Moran, jazz’s greatest young conceptualist

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Jason Moran performing with his Bandwagon trio at CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival 2010
By Melissa Mergner
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Jason Moran Bandwagon Trio (left to right): Nasheet Waits, Jason Moran and Tarus Mateen
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Jason Moran and In My Mind personnel at Town Hall in Feb. 2009

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On Oct. 28, 2007, Jason Moran, then 32, walked out alone onto the dimly lit stage of Washington’s Lisner Auditorium. On the overhead screen, black-and-white video flickered with still photos from Thelonious Monk’s rehearsals for his legendary 1959 Town Hall concert. As Moran sat down at the grand piano onstage, he placed a pair of black-padded headphones over his ears and the PA played Monk’s Town Hall Concert version of the tune “Thelonious.”

The same music was obviously coursing through Moran’s earmuffs, for he began playing along with the recording, not following the original so much as responding to it with improvised counterpoint at every turn, altering not only the harmony but the angular melody and rhythm as well. It was as if Moran were imagining what Monk might have sounded like had he lived to hear David Murray and Public Enemy.

The moment was revealing, for it encapsulated why Moran is such a crucial figure at this juncture in jazz history. There he was, listening to the past and improvising the future. He was wearing a dark suit that recalled 1959, but he was listening through the signature headgear of the hip-hop DJ. What came out through his fingers was as tuneful and inventive as Monk, as funky as hip-hop, as all-embracing as an iPod Shuffle and as singular as only an original jazz talent can be. “As a musician, I constantly have headphones on,” Moran says in In My Mind, the 2010 film documentary about his Monk project. “In a bus going to another city, I have headphones on, listening to music. When you’re in a practice room and you’re trying to figure out some line, some new piece of music, when you’re trying to hear everything and you have to listen to things over and over again, you’re constantly playing with headphones on; I am at least. Now I’m taking my practice routine and I’m putting it onstage for you to watch as an audience.”

And it’s not just Monk’s music coming through those rehearsal-room headphones. On his past albums, he has reinterpreted the music of everyone from James P. Johnson and Muhal Richard Abrams to Afrika Bambaataa and Björk. On his new Blue Note album, Ten, named to mark his Bandwagon trio’s first decade together, he responds to the music of piano mentors Andrew Hill and Jaki Byard as well as to classical composers Leonard Bernstein and Conlon Nancarrow. Moran even responds to Jimi Hendrix’s guitar feedback and to the infant babbling of his 2-year-old twins, Jonas and Malcolm.

In every case he has seized on certain sonic textures, certain pitch intervals and certain divisions of time and has taken those suggestions in directions the original artists never pursued. As he travels down those pathways, Moran pierces the bubble around jazz by reconnecting it not only to popular culture but also to the sounds of daily life. The resulting music refuses to resolve as neatly as “classic jazz,” or grow as abstractly self-referential as “avant-garde jazz.” Instead his music remains always suspenseful, always grounded.

In the cases of Hendrix and the twins, we can hear the audio source material on the track as if we were listening to both the headphone feed and the piano improvisation at the same time. Even on the Byard and Bernstein numbers, you can hear the ghost of the original tune walking side-by-side with the interpretation. “When I started using those elements eight years ago,” Moran says over the phone from his New York home, “it seemed unusual, but now it doesn’t even faze these 20-year-old kids; they take it for granted. It changes the repertoire, the arrangements, the rhythms; it continues the tradition. Charlie Parker used Tin Pan Alley tunes; John Coltrane played ‘My Favorite Things.’ It’s important that jazz reflect the culture around it, that it’s part of the now.

“Some bands are still devoted to the music of the ’50s, and we need that, too. It’s good that everyone’s tinkering with the art form, because we need it all. Some groups will always try to do the soft version of a popular song, but other groups will take it and morph it into something really crazy, the way [the M-Base Collective] adapted James Brown. It’s new material; it’s new soundscapes; it’s new reconsiderations of melody and rhythm.”

“The first time I saw his band,” says Jenny Scheinman, the lauded violinist who has collaborated with Moran, “I shut my eyes and I had a vision that a hurricane had just come through and the road was covered in bits of houses, uprooted trees and overturned cars, as if things had been torn up and rearranged.”
“My music dances on a lot of shores,” says saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who hired Moran for his quartet in 2007, “and Jason plays like that. He’s a young man with an old soul; he knows the ancients, but he’s also in the now. Though we come from a different chronology, there’s no gap—we just go into the music.”

In the summer of 2006, Moran got a commission from the San Francisco Jazz Festival to recreate Monk’s 1959 Town Hall concert. That fall he learned from New York Times critic Ben Ratliff that W. Eugene Smith’s photographs and reel-to-reel tapes of Monk’s rehearsals for that show were housed at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. So Moran traveled to North Carolina and found the center in an old house out in the woods. In the basement was a wall of CDs digitalized from Smith’s tapes. On another wall were maps of the Lower Manhattan lofts where Smith lived and Monk rehearsed, and of where the participants had dispersed all over the world. Moran sat at a long desk and listened to hours of tapes through, yes, headphones. “It changed my myth of Monk,” Moran acknowledges. “For a person who had only heard recordings, watched videos and met his son, I could only imagine what he was really like. I tried to write off his music as just how his hands fell on the piano, how he was feeling at the moment, but I found out that he thought out every voicing. He was conceptual about everything. There was no ‘Let’s just make a mistake.’ He was going for something—a certain timbre, a certain rhythm, a certain sound.”

After the opening number at Lisner, Moran took off his headphones and welcomed his band: his regular triomates in the Bandwagon, drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen, plus a horn section consisting of trumpeter Ralph Alessi, trombonist Isaac Smith, tuba player Bob Stewart, alto saxophonist Logan Richardson and tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III. Moran then led the octet through a jaunty reprise of “Thelonious,” a playful rendition of “Friday the 13th” and a somber reading of “Monk’s Mood.” “An evening of Monk’s music was something I was resisting,” Moran says. “I thought it was too close to my heart, that it was something I would keep at home or at lessons with my students. It wasn’t like Jaki Byard or Andrew Hill, because I thought I knew them really well and could do something new with their music. But Monk seemed so huge and distant.

“What finally helped me get over that hump for In My Mind was hearing Monk play Ellington and really making that shit sound different. He took on that history and made it sound fresh. That’s the challenge then: How can you play Monk and make it sound different? How can you play anything and make it sound different?”

On his landmark 2003 album, The Bandwagon, Moran proved he really could “play anything.” He made exhilarating jazz by improvising on samples of someone talking on the phone in Turkish, of someone else reading a stock report in Chinese and of his older relatives reminiscing. On his 2006 album, Artist in Residence, he used edited samples of visual artist Adrian Piper talking as the basis for several songs. “Every person who speaks with their throat is singing a melody in their intonations,” Moran explains, “and their speech patterns create a rhythm. It’s easier to hear it in a foreign language because you’re not distracted by the content. When you’re in a Chinese restaurant and you hear them shout content back to the kitchen, you hear the music. As a traveling musician, you hear languages you don’t understand all the time.

“Since I grew up with samples in hip-hop, the idea of splicing someone else’s voice or someone else’s music into a record seems so natural to me, because I’ve been listening to that since I was 8. As you get older and get into contemporary art music, they have different terms for it, but it’s the same thing. It just seems natural to chop up someone’s voice and manipulate them any way you want.”

Many of these experiments were the result of commissions. The three spoken-word pieces on The Bandwagon were part of Word, a series commissioned by Chamber Music America. The Adrian Piper pieces were commissioned by Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, the In My Mind concerts and documentary film by Duke University, SFJAZZ, the Chicago Symphony Center and the Washington Performing Arts Society.

On Ten, six of the 13 tracks result from commissions or soundtrack assignments. “Crepuscule With Nellie” is from In My Mind; “Old Babies” continues the Word series; “RFK in the Land of Apartheid” is the theme song from a documentary of the same name; the gospel-flavored “Blue Blocks” was commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for its exhibit of quilts from Gee’s Bend, Ala.; “Pas de Deux—Lines Ballet” was commissioned for new choreography by Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet; and “Feedback Pt. 2” was commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival. “I like getting commissions, because they have broadened what I write about,” Moran says. “It gives you a reason to write something you might not write about otherwise. Another good thing,” he adds with a chuckle, “is it forces you to get it done.

“The Monterey Jazz Festival folks wanted something that reflected their own history. Their suggestion was to do something on John Lewis, which was a good idea, but I didn’t have a strong relationship with that music, and I didn’t want to force anything. But I did have a strong relationship with Jimi Hendrix, and he had a history with the festival. For a jazz musician, Hendrix is not that much of a leap; he was a great guitarist, better than most rock musicians. But I wouldn’t have gotten around to it if not for the commission, the same way I might not have gotten around to Adrian Piper.”

Moran created “Feedback Pt. 2” by extracting each instance of feedback from Hendrix’s set at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and stitching those moments into a continuous line of electronic spitting and sputtering. Against that background, Moran’s Bandwagon trio plays an elegant, melancholy ballad with brushes and spaced-out bass notes. Eventually the feedback’s agitation infects the trio, pushing them into rattling phrases before they recover their equilibrium. “For us,” Moran writes in his press notes, “performing the piece onstage was like having a séance with his spirit.”

In My Mind is a séance with Monk. At Lisner, Moran was interviewed on the video screen about hearing Monk for the first time. He had been a 13-year-old kid in Houston, a hip-hop fan taking Suzuki piano lessons, when he had heard “’Round Midnight” on his parents’ bedroom stereo in 1988. “After my sons’ birth,” he said in the video, “it was the thing that most changed my life.” It wasn’t long before the teenager bought a Monk album, Monk’s Music, with his own money.

It opened with a hymn, “Abide With Me,” which made him wonder why he had spent his scant funds on church music. It was only after he understood the connection between that hymn and the album closer, “Crepuscule With Nellie,” that it all started to make sense. And even though he’s a prolific composer in his own right, Moran continues to revisit Monk, Byard and Hill.

“As an African-American,” Moran says, “I know our history is not really promoted, so it’s important for me to promote it. Here are people who played their instruments and had an impact on people around the globe. That sounds simple, but it’s really monumental. Every artist has a trial to overcome, but these people did it in a time when things were fucking crazy. That’s part of my history in America. I want to own it in my music and never have to apologize for it. I use the burden of the past as a good thing rather than a bad thing, because the lesson I take from these musicians is that you can do whatever you want.”
One of the most dramatic moments at Lisner came when the overhead video showed images from Newton Grove, N.C., of an overgrown field that had once been the plantation where Monk’s great-grandparents were slaves owned by Archibald Monk. A field recording of Rwandan drummers played alongside audio samples of legs brushing through the tall grass, while Moran’s band reprised “Thelonious” and segued into a mournful, horns-only version of the old hymn “Blessed Assurance.”

The show closed with “Crepuscule With Nellie,” the one tune from In My Mind that found its way onto Ten. This tender ballad for his wife is one of Monk’s best-known numbers, but Moran found a way to completely reinvent it. “The way most pianists play, from Bach onward, is they play a melody in one hand and answer it in the other hand,” he says. “What I tried to do was isolate all the answers Monk played in that piece; then I got rid of the melody and focused on the answers. There’s this sculptor, Rachel Whiteread, who casts negative space; instead of a bookcase, she’ll create a sculpture of the negative space around the bookcase. That’s what I was looking for, the negative space.

“The challenge for every pianist is not to fall into Monk’s phrasing, his touch, because they are as much a part of the music as the notes. That’s why it was exciting to hear Fred Hersch’s Monk record [1998’s Plays Monk], because he put his own thing on it. That’s what I was trying to do.”

Originally published in October 2010

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