Pianist Jason Moran—at age 35 one of the most clearly defined yet versatile young artists in jazz—just released Ten, a recording by his “Bandwagon” trio marking the ten-year anniversary of the group. A decade playing together allows any band to do marvelous things, and Bandwagon has put the time to brilliant use. Moran, along with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, is playing out ahead of the crowd, swinging and innovating at once.
Here are Ten reasons to appreciate Moran and what he is doing for American music in 2010.
1. Jason Moran Swings Like Mad, Yes He Does
The most crucial, central element of jazz is its relationship with time. Older jazz fans will say it this way: Jazz has to swing. Moran does swing, oh, boy.
Of course, in 2010, “swing” means more than just two-and-four on the hi-hat and a steady ping-ping on a ride cymbal. Moran swings in every sense of the word. The opener on Ten is “Blue Blocks”, and it lets the leader come out with old-fashioned brio. This is a blues-drenched tune that places the melody behind the beat, puts gospel flourishes on display, then switches into a syncopated groove. The middle section is simply brilliant up-tempo playing—which then returns to the relaxing opening feel. In. The. Pocket.
How about “Big Stuff”? Sure, it starts with Moran playing bluesy and down home over a lazy sway, but the sense of swing grows restless and eager soon enough, with the groove disintegrating and then reassembling in a rushed, free time. The feeling of “swing” is still there, but now it has a wild elasticity and the stutter of hip hop hidden behind all the creative jazz harmony. Waits is restless and Mateen is solid, all while Moran plays with organic adventure. All this, by the way, on a Leonard Bernstein tune.
2. Jason Moran Brings High Art Practices to His Jazz Trio and Pulls Them Off with Èlan
As grooving as Moran can be, he has consistently challenged his group with practices drawn from modern classical music—particularly using recordings of voices or other “nonmusical” sounds to set his trio up for daring exploration.
In 2006, Moran and Bandwagon released Artist in Residence, which used the sound of a pencil on paper as a skittering percussion track (“Cradle”) and featured a Moran-composed song in which the melody followed the precise rhythmic contour of an academic speech about artistic practice (“Artists Ought To Be Writing”). That a jazz pianist would mingle with “performance art” and modern classical procedure was nothing new, but Moran did this as successfully as any, and he did it without seeming sterile, obtuse, or any less swinging.
On Ten, the band is back at it. “Feedback Pt. 2”, for example, begins with the pulsating sound of guitar feedback, then uses that throbbing noise as the underpinning for a gorgeous jazz ballad. It’s a lush and ruminative composition, and the feedback serves to take any oversweet edge off the music. More importantly: there are critical moments when the tempo of the pulsing noise lines up exactly with the rhythmic placement of the band’s movement. It sounds like a revelation, a little piece of Philip Glassian phasing amidst something totally different.
To experiment is one thing, but to do so originally and successfully, well, jazz doesn’t hear enough of that.
3. Jason Moran Respects His Elders, But Not Too Much
Moran has always been connected to the jazz past. His third Blue Note album featured the trio backing up avant-elder and saxophonist Sam Rivers, for example, on tunes by Duke Ellington and Jaki Byard in addition to a full slate of originals. Moran, no doubt, has been out front, but not without an eye to the past.
Ten goes back to another Byard tune, “To Bob Vatel in Paris”, played inventively and (sometimes) in the tradition. The piano-only introduction features some very Jaki-ish stride playing—loose and joyful and a little bit drunk with fun. At its midpoint, with the band in, the tune suddenly breaks into free double-time, with the jaunty parade groove cut loose, Moran’s scalpel-like right hand off to the races, and his left hand moving in daring chromatic freedom. Before long, though, just like Jaki Byard would have it, the groove is back—even a rock ‘em, sock ‘em backbeat for a moment that drizzles back into swing. Whew!
More stunning, though, is Moran’s treatment of Thelonious Monk’s “Crepuscule with Nellie”. Jazz fans have heard the tune a million times, of course, what with Monk being the elder that every modern jazz pianist must ape on occasion. Moran does more than merely play Monk his own way. On Ten he literally rewrites “Nellie” with respectful daring. He uses all of the tune, but he rearranges its elements and integrates them with original material, both melodic and harmonic, without ever losing the thread of “Nellie” itself. He uses one distinctive rising bass line to frame a fresh improvised section, and he continually comes back to a distinctively Monk-ian repetition from the original.
Mateen’s bass solo is set over a single two-bar chunk of the tune, grooved like a rockin’ blues. Another section takes a single descending chord pattern and repeats it in a Keith Jarrett-esque burst of gospel joy, chords splashing excitedly everywhere.
In short, nothing could be more respectful of Monk because Moran proves that any two-bar chunk of a Monk tune is better (at least in Moran’s hands) than almost anything you could come up with on your own. It’s a Monk explosion, not a Monk museum piece. God bless Thelonious, and thanks, Jason Moran.