CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Music Means Human Connection For Matt Moran

A profile of the vibraphonist and the release of his new album, Return Trip

Matt Moran (photo: Michael Weintrob)
Matt Moran (photo: Michael Weintrob)

Matt Moran says he remembers “like it was yesterday” the moment that changed his life. “It happened when I was in high school in Connecticut. I was studying classical percussion in a summer program at the Hartt School. On a free evening I went into a rehearsal hall and decided to check out this vibraphone. I remember hitting it first with two mallets, but then I grabbed four and I just put the pedal down and I couldn’t believe the sound. I loved the way the chords hung in space.”

The vibraphone occupies a unique but small niche in jazz, with comparatively few players—though among them are towering figures like Milt Jackson. At first Moran couldn’t find anyone to teach him jazz vibes. Then Jay Hoggard moved to Connecticut to teach at Wesleyan University. After several months of private lessons with Hoggard, Moran “bailed” on high school and started at Berklee in Boston when he was 17. He says, “In very general terms, there are two aspects of the vibraphone tradition, the two-mallet side and the four-mallet side. Jay grounded me in the first. Berklee immersed me in the second.” (Gary Burton, a four-mallet master, was dean of curriculum at Berklee.) After graduating in 1993, Moran “moved down the street” to the New England Conservatory, where he took a master’s degree. In 1995 he moved to New York.

Over 25 years Moran has become the first-call vibraphonist for New York’s left-of-center jazz scene. He plays with people like Ellery Eskelin, Nate Wooley, William Parker, and Mat Maneri. In high-risk ensemble settings, he often functions as the voice of reason. He might generate lines broken in surprising places or sonic Rorschach shapes or quick coded punctuations, but he always sounds centered. His offerings contribute to coherence, even as they extend the music’s reach.

A closer look at his body of work reveals its breadth: involvements with Sufjan Stevens, Luciana Souza, Theo Bleckmann, chamber ensembles, Charles Ives projects, klezmer bands, and a long tenure with John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet. For 20 years (playing Balkan percussion instruments, not vibes), he has led Slavic Soul Party!, self-described as “NYC’s official #1 brass band for BalkanSoulGypsyFunk.” Their album Plays Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite (Ropeadope, 2016) is a wildly improbable, utterly fresh Ellington/Strayhorn interpretation.

Moran’s most recent work as a leader has come in a trio with organist Gary Versace and drummer Tom Rainey. They’ve released two albums on his own Diskonife label, a partnership with tenor saxophonist Peter Hess: Play Ball (2018) and Return Trip (2020). “It is a rare format,” Moran notes, “but I believed it would be an interesting sound to explore because of the connections between vibraphone and organ. In this trio I see the vibraphone as the linchpin in the spectrum from percussion to pitch.”

“Interesting sound” is an understatement. In the hands of three resourceful improvisers, such a trio becomes a powerful, ever-evolving symphony. Versace shifts from looming, shuddering bass drones to huge orchestral smears to fine strands of treble melody. Rainey applies his knowledge of touch, phrasing, and color to create accentual compositions within Moran’s songs. Moran is free to flow everywhere in and around the ensemble, in luminous lingering notes that remind you of why he fell in love with the vibraphone the first time he struck it.

While Return Trip proves that Moran is a formidable vibraphone soloist, it also confirms that, throughout his career, his ongoing priority has been the ensemble. His interactions with Versace are concurrent solos, sweeping collective commitments. “Music-making for me is a social experience,” he says.

“I remember hitting the vibes first with two mallets, but then I grabbed four. … I loved the way the chords hung in space.”

Today more jazz musicians than ever are expressing social engagement through music. Moran has put his convictions into direct action, through his work with Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program. He serves as a music teacher to inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, co-leading a program (which is temporarily on hold because of the pandemic) with vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles.

“It started almost 12 years ago when Slavic Soul Party! gave the first concert by professional musicians in Sing Sing in many years,” he says. “It was one of the most electrifying performance experiences of my life. There were times when we couldn’t play because they were shouting our names. Systemic racism and mass incarceration have led to enormous numbers of people being locked up in this country. They are often forgotten and are doing their best not to atrophy. I work with 25 participants, both beginners and experienced players, who are allowed access to the music room. They are all deeply committed to the power of music and are maintaining a positive inner life against incredible odds. It has been inspiring and humbling for me to know them.” 

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.