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Concert Review: Jason Moran & the Bandwagon in La Jolla

Fats Waller on their minds

Jason Moran
Jason Moran and the Bandwagon, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, Calif., May 2013

I last saw Jason Moran & the Bandwagon at the Belgrade Jazz Festival in Serbia in 2010. They played a midnight concert in the scruffy, tattered Student Cultural Center. The air was an acrid fog of Balkan cigarette smoke. The young, loud crowd overflowed the seats and aisles of the cramped venue and spilled into the adjacent foyer where the bar was. Rakija and pivo also flowed and spilled. The acoustic piano was so bad that Moran gave up on it and played Fender Rhodes.

The setting for the Bandwagon’s concert in La Jolla, Calif., on May 8 was rather different. The Auditorium at TSRI (for “The Scripps Research Institute”) holds 352 plush seats, ascending in a steep rise for perfect sight lines. It is located in one of several sleek white buildings of the Scripps medical research campus. The surroundings feel like a park. The clean, contemporary Scripps architecture is set within stands of Torrey pines, which look like designer trees.

The Auditorium is considered one of the most acoustically ideal small performance halls in the United States. Angular sound-dispersing panels on the walls and ceiling and the pyramidal structure create a uniform acoustical environment. And there is no problem with the piano. It is a brand new Steinway D, in gleaming, mirrored black.

The audience, too, was dissimilar to Belgrade: older in median age (by 30 years or so); more educated (factoring in all the physicians, scientists and post-doctoral academics); orders of magnitude more affluent (judging by all the BMWs and Porsches in the parking lot).

Moran opened the concert by walking around the stage softly ringing small bells, as bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits began to stir. When Moran sat down at the Steinway he kept ringing the bells, then lightly touched piano notes that joined the bells in unisons. He has collaborated with actors and dancers, and he is an instinctively theatrical performer. But his most significant theatrics are internal to his music. He began to play with both hands and the sound swelled as Mateen and Waits gradually rose up.

Very few living pianists are so diverse within a single song as Moran. Bare melodies are repeated into thunderous incantations. Tempos race, stop, swirl, race again. Waits is at the center of the drama. He almost never “keeps time.” He oversees a parallel rhythmic universe, rumbling, murmuring, suddenly crashing. The dense layers of the opening number melted down and crystallized into something suddenly recognizable. It was “Honeysuckle Rose.” When it was over, Moran announced, “We’re in the process of making a Fats Waller record. We’re kind of obsessed with him right now, as a figure in American culture.” He hopes the Blue Note album will be ready by the end of the year.

Waller became the unifying theme of the evening, but a Moran concert contains varied subject matter. The second piece was a composition by his wife, Alicia Hall Moran, “Blessing the Boats,” inspired by a Lucille Clifton poem. Its lovely arc of melody underwent radical shifts in texture and intensity. The third piece, “Foot Under Foot,” for Sam Rivers, was perhaps the most complete representation of Moran’s multifaceted art. It had mysterious recorded voices (cued up from his Sony MiniDisc player). It had a short, explosive drum solo. It had floating piano fragments that coalesced and rocketed into time, then broke apart again in jagged, splayed piano percussion. There was nothing to prepare for the moment when the piece turned sad, in wrenching lyricism. Though his playing still contains huge dynamic swings, and though he sometimes hits the keyboard with judo chops, Moran is more likely to be content with quietude now. Perhaps this turning inward comes from his experience, over the last six years, in the quartet of that master of nuance and silence, Charles Lloyd.

“Foot Under Foot” also included a cryptic, quick bass solo by Mateen. The fact that Mateen plays electric bass exclusively gives the Bandwagon its sonic signature. Almost all the great piano trios of the last 50 years have contained an acoustic bassist. But Mateen gives Moran’s sophisticated art music an edgy electricity of the streets. The Bandwagon has been together for 13 years and has evolved a distinctive concept of ensemble form. Often, they are three separate, concurrent lines of thought, aggregating through contrast, sustaining a connection through tension.

Moran opened the second set by introducing more external content from his MiniDisc player: Gladys Knight. He uses these allusions the way that Ezra Pound used quotations from earlier poets: to create consciousness-expanding associations, and to place current work in a larger historical and cultural context. The Gladys Knight introduction led, through proprietary logic, into a wild, spilling “Jitterbug Waltz.” Or rather, “Jitterbug Waltz” became one idea, and eventually the dominant idea, in a collective improvisation that juxtaposed Fats Waller with many spontaneous songs by Moran, and many nasty grooves by Mateen and Waits.

Another piece started with the looped voice of Fats Waller, addressing the eternally relevant subject of swing. It became, in glimpses and flashes, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Moran said afterward, “For a song written in jail, that’s really good.”

Fortunately Moran included one Monk. He is one of our deepest, most creative Monk interpreters. “Crepuscule With Nellie” was a vast, sprawling Monk celebration. Sometimes the melody was submerged in Moran’s whirling free forms, but more often it rang out as the core of the ritual. It ended with clanging, deadpan Monk tremolos.

The finale began with another acknowledgement of our common tribal history: Billie Holiday singing Leonard Bernstein’s “Big Stuff” in the 1940s. The Bandwagon, 60-some years later, joined in. For a moment Moran played “Big Stuff” as straight and gentle as he plays anything. Inevitably it gathered force and kicked into overdrive, Mateen snaking, Waits clattering, Moran wailing. The ferocious groove became a Fats Waller dance party. Had there been space in the Auditorium at TSRI, the dignified audience might have gotten up and formed a conga line. (Instead they just bounced in their seats.) After the concert Moran said he had used a transcription of a Fats Waller solo on “Sheik of Araby.” That new Fats Waller record can’t get here soon enough.

Originally Published