Jason Moran's Blues Fusion

Jason Moran's Blues Fusion

by Larry Blumenfeld

copyright © 2005 The Wall Street Journal
Reprinted with permission

Moments before pianist Jason Moran's Jazz at Lincoln Center debut one recent Friday night, the Rose Theater stage displayed curious juxtapositions: a sleek red-lacquered Danish-designed chair, a grand piano, electric amplifiers and an African djembe drum. Moran's jazz is packed with contrasting elements that eventually fall into place.

The first sounds were taped snippets: a phrase uttered by Fred Astaire in the film The Band Wagon, a snatch of an interview with early bluesman Son House, a hint of a Beethoven string quartet, Jelly Roll Morton speaking about jazz from a Library of Congress recording. Moran's homemade taped introduction announced an aesthetic drawn from wide-ranging influences and forged as much by hip-hop's layered jump-cut approach as by jazz's philosophy.

That's not to say Moran represents a radical departure from jazz pedagogy or a fusion of styles. He doesn't. In fact, he is the latest in a long line of brilliant jazz pianists with idiosyncratic ideas about performance that includes Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor as well as lesser-known masters such as Jaki Byard, with whom Moran studied when he came to New York from his native Houston. In an interview, Moran said that he favors his straight-backed chair over a conventional piano bench for added support, and because it possesses a natural springiness that aids his lunges toward the keys. Likewise, his posture toward tradition differs from conventional takes, his playing marked by energetic rhythmic thrusts.

The Lincoln Center performance reflected Moran's current fascination with the blues, which was seeded by his score for a short blues documentary and flowered more fully on the recent Blue Note CD Same Mother. For this pursuit, Moran expanded his working group, Bandwagon, into a quartet, adding Marvin Sewell, whose curled notes and occasional slide guitar work reference overt blues styles. In concert, Moran's opening tune, "Jump Up," had a good bit of roadhouse shuffle to it. And his closing number was a blues-guitar classic: "I'll Play the Blues for You," recorded by Albert King in 1972. Yet this was no blues recital. It was a swirl of tightly structured but loosely improvised music centered on Moran's piano playing. Moran seemed more concerned with Southern mood and manners than with formal blues cues, especially on the elegiac ballad, "Aubade."

"I wanted to evoke the way we speak and think in the South," Moran told me about his latest recording. He's done that, and managed to stay true to the enigmatic instrumental voice he has developed over the course of five previous recordings. At Lincoln Center, Bandwagon's music also showcased fascinating modes of communication among its members. Bassist Tarus Mateen worked furiously up and down the neck of his hybrid electric-acoustic instrument, crafting jagged extensions of Moran's sturdy melodies. Guitarist Sewell occasionally doubled the pianist's phrases or offered amplified counterpoint; at other moments, he cast Moran's playing in a haze of unusual harmonies. And drummer Nasheet Waits seemed as if engaged in one endless solo punctuated by quirky, quicksilver responses to Moran's ideas. The group projected impressive cohesion through music that seemed to thrive on momentary upheaval.

Just 30, Moran is a uniquely invigorating presence. Jazz these days may be more about re-combination than innovation. No formal development defines the present moment as, say, bebop or swing once did; yet the music's full historic sweep is more accessible, relevant, and open to interpretation than ever before. Moran's work argues that this is a good thing -- that it can amount to something exciting and fresh. His playing contains elements of stride, swing, bebop and free jazz, with a penchant for spiky dissonances and lyrical passages that recall Duke Ellington's ballads, all rolled into a dense sound and set to subtly shifting rhythms that never quite settle down.

Moran established his forceful personality while just in his early 20s as a member of saxophonist Greg Osby's band. The saxophonist recalls hiring Moran without hearing him play, based on a recommendation and an extended phone conversation. "When I talked to him that first time," Osby said, "Jason spoke of things and of people that no other pianist of his generation would generally acknowledge. He talked about Earl 'Fatha' Hines and Willie 'The Lion' Smith, Jaki Byard and Andrew Hill. He doesn't play like any of those folks. But if you listen closely enough, you can hear their attitudes and ideas."

Moran's work blends such inspiration with more modern source material. For his 2001 recording, Black Stars, the pianist enlisted saxophonist Sam Rivers, an important figure of the 1970s loft-jazz scene. On his 2002 CD, Modernistic, he interpreted "Planet Rock," Afrika Bambaataa's 1982 hip-hop hit. For the title of his series of "Gangsterism" compositions, he lifted a term off the text-strewn canvas of Jean-Michel Basquiat's painting "Hollywood Africans." And he recently rummaged through the archives of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, eventually settling on an Adrian Piper image as the focus for a new work.

But for the commissioned piece that highlighted his Lincoln Center concert, Moran traced the blues to an ancestral root. "Rain" evoked the 'ring shout,' a tradition wherein slaves would steal off into the woods to worship, their feet stomping the ground as they engaged in a call-and-response devotional that grew ever faster and more complex. For "Rain," Moran expanded his ensemble further, adding trumpeter Ralph Alessi and Abdou Mboup, who played kora, a 21-stringed harp-like African instrument, as well as djembe and talking drums.

Another taped introduction sounded, this time of feet slowly tramping. Alessi began a slow, fragmented melody as he paced counterclockwise around the band. Mboup answered with delicate kora phrases. Moran found his way into the piece with a single chiming note, repeated several times. From there, his quartet wove tone and texture in and around the central theme. Gradually, the music quickened as its complexity grew. The color and character of the melody changed as it modulated. Rhythms overlapped in stunning fashion, falling further and further out of sync only to snap together in spots. The music turned frenetic, celebratory and, near its end, wild with improvisation before a final dissolve into soft piano phrases and, again, an audiotape of shuffling feet.

Moran had crafted something concise and moving that combined the spark of collective improvisation at its best with the arc of a fine dramatic scene. Within the circle traced by Alessi's counterclockwise motion and born of a ritual that dates back more than a century, Moran sounded some decidedly forward-leaning music.

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