It is not incorrect to call Alicia Hall Moran an opera singer. After all, she did understudy Audra McDonald in the 2012 Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess, and starred in the national tour that followed. It is, however, an incomplete definition. Moran, the wife of pianist Jason Moran, intends for her second album, Here Today (YES), to make that clear.
“I really had to make something that sounded like me and looked like me,” she says. “I wanted to listen to the lessons of the great makers of things, but that led me to this place where I only started to listen to myself. And myself is in a lot of places.”
Here Today is also in a lot of places—often at the same time. It’s a wholly original free association of opera, chamber music, jazz, soul, freeform improvisation and musique concrète, all of which blend and separate at will. The material mostly comprises Moran’s own compositions, but also includes covers of Nina Simone (“Feeling Good”) and Billie Holiday (“God Bless the Child”) as well as a mashup of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and the Habanera from Georges Bizet’s Carmen—an excerpt from Moran’s acclaimed “Motown Project.” (Another excerpt appeared on her 2015 debut, Heavy Blue, a somewhat subtler collection that balances covers and originals.)
Musicians on the new recording include a string trio, classical guitarist Thomas Flippin and the free-jazz trio Harriet Tubman (guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer JT Lewis), along with Moran and her husband, both of whom play piano. Moran’s classically trained voice moves between different styles and techniques—from robust arias to breathy insinuations—revealing extraordinary musical erudition. “I’ve had a thorough education—I know a lot,” she affirms. “This record is about me not allowing myself to strive for mastery in stereotypes that, even in their perfect form, don’t address the real life I’m actually having. This is me not in a box. Every second on the record I’m feeling it, and I think that’s why the album holds together even though I’m tracing through a wide course of things. Any one of those songs on a different day is my favorite song, and every single one speaks to the center of me.”
That center is as rich as she implies. Moran, 44, has a degree in voice performance from the Manhattan School of Music, and operatic mentors including Adele Addison, Hilda Harris and Shirley Verrett. Yet she also studied composition at Barnard College and Columbia University. Moreover, her maternal great-granduncle was the composer-arranger Hall Johnson, generally acknowledged as one of history’s most important writers of African-American spirituals. It’s a legacy that was impressed upon her from her childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area: She is named for Johnson’s mother, Alice, who first taught him spirituals.
The Motown songs her parents loved constituted another musical facet of her world. When she met Jason Moran at MSM, he added more. “He brought me into his lesson with Jaki Byard and I watched them play piano, four hands,” she recalls. “I had the experience of sitting in Jaki’s house and watching him play, hearing him talk. Then I had the experience of living with Jason and hearing these records in my house.”
All of these experiences nourished her creativity, as did others. “I had piano lessons my whole childhood. I was in a marching band in middle school. I’ve been on a precision figure skating team.” She laughs. “And I grew up in the suburbs! And I’m black! That has a sound too.
“I could sing ‘Summertime’ all around the world—and I have—but nobody, as much as they might love how you sing it, is gonna see you when you sing that song,” she adds. “How much of that could I keep doing?”
“Summertime” was particularly inspiring to Moran. Parsing her signature Porgy and Bess aria, she discovered an interpretation of it as a portrayal of economics in black America. At the same time, she discovered that no amount of performative nuance could express economic subtext in the lyrics of “Summertime”—certainly not in an opera, where there was no talking, between songs or anywhere else. Her solution on Here Today was to carefully select classic songs to cover, then surround them with original songs that amplified her interpretations of those songs. (Moran does not include “Summertime” on the album, though she touches on economics with her song “2 Train to Wall Street” and the abstraction “Black Wall Street.”)
From the listener’s perspective, music of such breadth and audacity is far from safe. From the artist’s, however, Here Today is exactly that. “I tried to make songs that said exactly what I wanted to say, and no matter where I was, in front of any audience, I could sing them and immediately be at home,” Moran says. “Those songs are a protection for me. Snippets of my life that I get to repeat and repeat: I think that’s what a singing career feels like.”
Images by Jamaal Murray