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Jason Moran Reinvents Fats Waller

Fats to the future

Jason Moran and Meshell Ndegeocello in 'Fats Waller Dance Party' presented by the Celebrity Series at Berklee Performance Center, Boston, 4/14
Jason Moran as Fats Waller; the mask is a prop in Moran's "Fats Waller Dance Party" shows
Jason Moran

At first, it’s just a warm, midtempo funk song. (As if that isn’t enough.) The horns play a sly riff. The electric bass is deep and a touch sinister. The drumming is hard and strong. And the electric piano is buttery and glowing. But then the vocals come in and change everything. “No one to talk with/All by myself,” sings a female voice in a confident whisper. That’s the first line from the great pianist and singer Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and all of a sudden, that’s the song that’s playing; that’s the world we’re living in. And that’s how it goes for the entirety of All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller (Blue Note), the ninth album from pianist Jason Moran. The stunning new project was coproduced by Blue Note Records president Don Was and Meshell Ndegeocello, who sings “Misbehavin'” and other tunes. A collection of songs written by, associated with or inspired by Waller, All Rise is a mischievous record, rearranging Waller’s tunes and then daring the listener to recognize them. Or not dance to them. All Rise benefits from a healthy dose of misbehavior.

Though a Waller tribute was not Moran’s concept-the project was initially commissioned as a concert by Harlem Stage Gatehouse in 2011-the pianist was familiar with the sounds of Waller when the endeavor began. The importance of that legend had been impressed upon him by his mentor and teacher Jaki Byard. When asked for his thoughts on Waller’s piano playing, Moran explains that Thelonious Monk led him to James P. Johnson and that Johnson “is the setup for understanding Fats Waller.” But, as a pianist, Waller tops both Monk and Johnson for Moran. “James P. Johnson is so versatile and fluid, but he ain’t fluid like Fats is fluid,” Moran says at his Harlem apartment. “And neither is Monk. They both figured out other ways of moving. But Fats is doing things that are so light and so rhythmically charged and so advanced harmonically and then singing on top of that. So that’s just not your average can of worms that you’re messing with.”

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