Jason Moran Mixes It Up with Skateboarders at SFJAZZ Center

Halfpipe in a concert hall

Jason Moran's Bandwagon plus live skateboarding, SFJAZZ Center, May 4, 2013
Jason Moran

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I can’t remember the last time I caught a jazz performance where I literally had no idea what to expect, so Jason Moran and SFJAZZ got points right off the bat for averting all the usual moves that come with commissions. In his first season as one of five resident artistic directors responsible for programming four-night blocks at the SFJAZZ Center, Moran used half of his allotted assignment, May 4 and 5, for a collaboration between his celebrated trio the Bandwagon (augmented by Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker) and a host of San Francisco skateboarders. Equipped with a halfpipe custom built by George Rocha and transported to the center in 16 separate pieces, the steeply raked Miner Auditorium felt more like a sports arena than a concert hall, complete with photographers from Thrasher magazine and ESPN on the sidelines where floor seats had been removed to make space for the immense structure (a feature designed to facilitate dance concerts). Chatting before the event, Blue Note honcho Don Was captured the evening’s sense of apprehension and anticipation, noting, “This is the most dangerous show in jazz.”

With the band seated behind the halfpipe, which spanned 35 feet and stood 5 feet high, the musicians ceded the field of vision to the skaters, a dynamic exacerbated by Parker and Tarus Mateen (on electric bass) performing seated. Opening with what Moran called “a meditation upon this beautiful ramp,” the band played a slow, roiling crescendo that built to “Restin’,” a striking minor-key piece from 2005’s Same Mother. Emerging one by one from backstage, the skaters mostly took solo turns on the halfpipe, gracefully carving the ramp five or six times and executing increasingly elaborate slides, grinds and aerials. Moran moved over to a Rhodes and the Bandwagon eased into Souls of Mischief’s “93 ’til Infinity,” a canny nod to the great Oakland hip-hop collective Hieroglyphics. Were the skateboarders responding to the band? Was the band interacting with the skaters? It was hard to tell, though the sound of the wheels on the ramp’s surface created a sonic link between the halfpipe proceedings and the Bandwagon. During Nasheet Waits’ drum solo, the skaters definitely seemed to take bigger risks (and wipe out more dramatically), while Mateen’s bass solo brought the energy down a few notches.

“It’s such new territory to have something new to stare at,” Moran said in a phone conversation a few days after the halfpipe performances. “I work with a lot of artists who demand a visual aesthetic, and this was an instance where I was really looking at them a lot. It felt more like when I work at home, practicing with the TV on or staring at a painting. What I loved about the two nights was the energy they have with each other, how they play off of and egg each other on. The second night they started doing jumps off the back of the ramp.”

The skaters’ willingness to mix it up extended beyond the halfpipe. After a bumptious run through Monk’s “Evidence,” one of the skaters, Alex Wolslagel, migrated over to the piano and sat in with the band, playing rippling right-hand figures in respectable time while Moran held down the groove on the Rhodes. About an hour into the performance, Moran gave the guys a breather (and they were all guys, a fact pointedly noted by music writer Rachel Swan). As the band softly played Moran’s “RFK in the Land of Apartheid,” the skaters passed around a cordless microphone and offered brief, surprisingly sweet self-introductions. Amidst a lot of vague assertions that skating and jazz are cut from the same cloth (“It’s all expression,” Jabari Pendleton said), they sought to counter the perception of skaters as outsider ne’er-do-wells.

All nine hail from out of state and spoke of being drawn to San Francisco by its reputation as a skaters’ mecca, a fact to which Moran can attest. Growing up in Houston, he and his older brother hung out with “a bunch of black kids into skateboarding and hip-hop. A good friend had a ramp, so we’d be over there skating, making beats and finding samples.” They’d watch skate videos made in San Francisco, and on several family vacations to the Bay Area they found their way to the legendary skate spot EMB and the shop Skates on Haight. He raised the idea of bringing skaters into the new center in his initial discussions with SFJAZZ Executive Artistic Director Randall Kline, and the sold-out shows ended up drawing a small but conspicuous contingent that arrived at the theater on their boards. With everyone in jazz fretting about attracting younger audiences, Moran may have figured out a surefire way to connect with new audiences. He’s eager for further skate collaborations, and he reports that inquiries have already come in from the Kennedy Center. “It will definitely resurface,” Moran says. “We’ve got this beautiful ramp now and this could be an annual SFJAZZ event. This got people working on some ideas, and I’m staying in touch with some of the skaters.”