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Jason Moran: Black Stars

Thirty-seven years ago, Sam Rivers helped bolster the debut Blue Note album of a Boston drum prodigy named Tony Williams. While pianist Jason Moran’s no newcomer, the 77-year-old Rivers is doing the identical thing for Moran’s latest Blue Note date. Rivers’ unyielding personality and commitment to extending jazz’s frontiers has always been inspirational to young players. The 26-year-old Moran has resisted the easy lure of the young-lion mentality and concentrated on making highly personalized music. His teaming with Rivers on Black Stars ensures that it won’t be another trip down memory lane.

Rivers’ can still deliver lengthy, furious and agonizing solos on tenor, soprano or flute, though tenor remains his top instrument. His playing on “Foot Under Foot” immediately establishes the date’s framework and agenda. Moran’s trio includes two other assertive, skilled youthful players in bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. They aren’t content to sit back and let Moran set the pace. Instead, they engage, confront, interact and counter his leads. This interaction and tension results in songs that can be dashing, hushed or explosive.

Although Rivers can easily take over any situation, he doesn’t try to dominate these songs. Moran’s capable enough as a player and bandleader to retain control. Sometimes he adds splintering, attacking clusters; on other occasions, he’s more melodic or sentimental, playing tender phrases or cute lines to ease the pace. Mateen and Waits add excellent contributions, especially Waits, whose work on the ride cymbal and drum set is often reminiscent of the edgy qualities Williams provided on Spring. Still, this is Moran’s album, even on those tunes where Rivers offers monster tenor or soprano solos. Moran’s never overwhelmed or undone by Rivers solos, and smoothly glides between being the session leader and retreating into the section.

Despite having a great stylist like Rivers aboard, most of the disc’s songs are less than six minutes. They place a premium on disciplined, condensed statements and quick reaction and response. The trio and Rivers never encounter any problems in meeting the test.

Moran also gives a great lesson to many of his peers via his cover of Duke Ellington’s “Kinda Dukish.” He doesn’t depart from or distort the song’s familiar melody, yet he finds something new to say while playing it. Midway through, Moran takes the music into a totally different direction, crafts a definitive statement, engages the other members, then smartly concludes the number. His treatment is a repertory performance without turning the song into a relic. This approach should be carefully studied, absorbed and utilized by musicians seemingly obsessed with making jazz a musical fossil.

Originally Published