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Concert Review: Jason Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party

Berklee Performance Center, Boston, April 4

Jason Moran and Meshell Ndegeocello in 'Fats Waller Dance Party' presented by the Celebrity Series at Berklee Performance Center, Boston, 4/14
Jason Moran and Meshell Ndegeocello take the stage in 'Fats Waller Dance Party' presented by the Celebrity Series at Berklee Performance Center, Boston, 4/14

The album is due out from Blue Note Records in September. But Jason Moran’s tribute to Fats Waller had its genesis when Harlem Stage commissioned Moran to create a celebration of Waller’s music for a 2011 performance, and he surprised the uptown arts organization with a “dance party” featuring Meshell Ndegeocello, 21st-century modernizations of Waller hits, Moran himself performing much of the set wearing a magnificent papier-mâché mask of Waller’s head … and of course lots of dancing.

Roughly 30 more such performances have followed in other cities, the most recent of them Friday night at the Berklee Performance Center as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston. (Others will follow this month in Milwaukee and Kalamazoo, with more next month in Houston and San Antonio.) Ndegeocello, a late addition to the Boston show’s lineup, opened the set with a hip-hop/neo-soul-oriented update of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” that helped set the tone for the wide-ranging tribute to come.

“We look back not in reverence but in joy,” she explained to the audience before exiting the stage with fellow vocalist Lisa E. Harris for the instrumental piece that followed, “Lulu’s Back In Town.” This one was straight-up jazz, albeit jazz as it has evolved over the seven decades since Waller’s death. Longtime Moran associate Tarus Mateen took a seat with his electric bass (he’d played “Ain’t Misbehavin'” standing) and contributed flurries of propulsive bottom notes while Moran and Charles Haynes likewise broadened the tune’s familiar parameters, on piano and drums, respectively.

But the party got fully underway with “Yacht Club Swing.” Moran donned his outsized Waller mask (made for him by the Haitian artist Didier Civil), which had rested prominently until then on its wooden packing crate, at a front corner of the stage near Moran’s piano and Fender Rhodes electric piano. Mateen stood back up and began moving his feet, and soon the musicians and singers were joined by a trio of dancers recruited from local dance companies: Janaya Dailey and Jon Marcus Shaw-Mays of Jo-Mé Dance and the mixed media performance artist Pampi, founder and director of In Divine Company. The dancers would drift on and off stage through much of what followed, singularly or together, their sinuous improvised movements accenting the music and emphasizing its warmth and danceability.

Jazz has a history as dance music, after all, and Waller was as much entertainer as virtuoso. Some would say more so. As Richard Hadlock put it in Jazz Masters of the 20s, “Thomas Waller, pianist and organist extraordinary, was destined to play a subordinate role to Fats Waller, entertainer and buffoon. Yet by way of his easy humor, Fats brought jazz to many people who might otherwise have turned away from it.” (People whom jazz wouldn’t have turned away, too: “Fats Waller,” mused Sonny Rollins to this reviewer in a recent interview. “That’s one of my first guys who really hipped me to music.”)

None of this was lost on Moran, who told the audience that when he investigates older artists (Thelonious Monk, for example), he explores their whole personalities in addition to their music. (Moran also noted that he is now 39, coincidentally Waller’s age when he died.) Moran and company kept their focus off Waller’s comic antics: The humor was confined mostly to song lyrics and that mask, its cigarette jutting out provocatively and its eyes seeming to lock on those of audience members whenever Moran glanced around the room. (“This mask is so hot,” he confided when he finally removed it, noting that he has been wearing it “longer and longer and longer” with each show.) Instead, the focus stayed on Waller’s music and how it compelled people to want to move.

A highlight was Moran stretching out a solo performance of “Handful of Keys,” a stride classic that he took to postmodern places that Waller likely never dreamed of. Mateen was applauding when he rejoined Moran onstage, and he said afterward that he’d been urging on the pianist from the stage wing, coaxing a longer and even deeper exploration of the tune from Moran than usual. Another highlight was much closer to Waller’s own interpretation of a tune while still safely avoiding banal imitation. Leron Thomas, who delivered impressive trumpet work, muted and not, throughout the set, sang a thoroughly charming rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael/Frank Loesser classic “Two Sleepy People,” while Pampi danced elegantly in the period-appropriate red dress it turned out she’d been wearing all along beneath her baggy harem pants.

Harris achieved a sort of reverb effect by singing just behind Ndegeocello on a slow, heavily reimagined “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” then sang lead on the livelier and more easily recognizable “Honeysuckle Rose.” Moran and Haynes played a vigorous duet called “Fat Lick” to lead up to “Two Sleepy People.” And everything seemed meant to build to “Sheik of Araby” and “The Joint Is Jumpin’.” But whereas at previous shows audience members have been known to get up and dance, sometimes joining the performers onstage to do so, this particular Boston crowd never did get jumpin’. Ndegeocello, to her apparent bemusement and frustration, couldn’t even get people to join in when she proposed the sing-along phrase “We are one.”

In fairness, the Berklee Performance Center’s bolted-down seating doesn’t exactly invite dancing. Neither are typical Celebrity Series subscribers the young, adventurous types for dancing in aisles. So this dance party’s dancing remained confined to the professionals onstage, and Ndegeocello’s benediction as she departed-“Enjoy your life”-sounded equal parts blessing and brush-off.

Which isn’t to say that the audience members didn’t enjoy the show. Their (mostly seated) ovation was sufficient to bring Moran and the musicians back for an encore, introduced by Moran as “a slow version of one of my favorite songs, ‘Jitterbug Waltz.'” He and Mateen kicked it off, Haynes and Thomas soon joined in, and Waller’s instrumental classic took on a funky Rhodes groove for a bit before Moran switched back to piano to end the evening with some special flair.

Originally Published