Jason Moran Says Yes to Releasing Music His Way

Jason Moran’s indie label Yes allows him full, freewheeling artistic rein

Cover of Jason Moran album The Armory Concert on Yes Records

Moran’s breaking away from Blue Note and forming Yes Records with his wife, the opera singer Alicia Hall Moran, wasn’t a matter of creative restraint. Indeed, the hallmark of his nine Blue Note albums (1999-2014) was that they never repeated themselves. Nobody came away from 2010’s Ten thinking that a hip-hop-and-electronica-laced tribute to Fats Waller (2014’s All Rise) was the inevitable next step. The issue, then, was of ownership—and, if you like, whim. Yes allows him to put out whatever he wants, whenever he wants, without executive approval. It may run counter to the best practices of the (not-so-healthy) record industry, but if anything it reflects a writ-large lesson Moran learned from the late Blue Note head Bruce Lundvall: Trust your instincts.

If the product Yes has released thus far is any indication, the rest of us should trust Moran’s instincts too. The Armory Concert, Moran’s 2016 debut on his label, comprises a surpassingly gorgeous solo concert the pianist put on in March of that year. It’s a program of entirely new music, by turns sensitive (“Veterans”), percussive (“Reanimation”), abstractly manic (“All Hammers and Chains”) and, in a paean to his wife, “Alicia,” oddly inquisitive. It’s Moran’s second solo release, though one might hesitate to categorize it alongside 2002’s Modernistic. That album found the pianist contextualizing his influences. The man who made The Armory Concert has digested those influences thoroughly and is now wholly himself.

But he’s hardly breaking away from his past. Twenty-seventeen’s first Yes release was Thanksgiving at the Vanguard, featuring Moran’s long-running trio, the Bandwagon, with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. Actually, the album is a collection of “long-runnings” in Moran’s career. It was recorded, as its title suggests, during his Thanksgiving run at New York’s Village Vanguard, a years-long tradition. It also features a new installment in Moran’s signature “Gangsterism” series of compositions, this one a hyperactive and startlingly metamorphic one called, yes, “Gangsterism at the Vanguard.”

If there’s any constant throughout the Yes releases, it may be their proclivity for constantly keeping us guessing. Neither The Armory Concert nor Thanksgiving at the Vanguard could prepare one for the stunning pair of trio experiments that followed. BANGS, an October 2016 date with cornetist Ron Miles and guitarist Mary Halvorson, is as “out”-leaning as its personnel suggests. Much of it sounds completely spontaneous and no doubt is, though the abstraction, including eerie soundscapes and sudden trajectories, can obscure the fact that these performances have written compositions at their core. The album is also grounded by delicate melodic constructions from Miles (“Cupid”) and Halvorson (“White Space”).

Then there’s MASS {Howl, eon}, Moran’s “score” to two related paintings that artist Julie Mehretu created for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 2017. While it often has the atmospheric wash of a jazz film score (augmented by its being recorded in the same cavernous Harlem church where Mehretu painted), it is indeed organized as a Catholic mass not unlike Mary Lou Williams’. But that feature is belied by the persistent pulse of Moran’s Fender Rhodes, Jamire Williams’ drums and the electronics on which cornetist Graham Haynes doubles.

Yes’ brand, then, has been that of Moran himself: the understanding that traditionalism and futurism are friends, not foes.