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.
4. Jason Moran Was the First of a New Wave of Daring Jazz Pianists, and He’s Still Among the Finest
Hey, Layman! You’re always writing about these groundbreaking jazz pianists, tossing them up like they were the next Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock: Vijay Iyer, Robert Glasper, James Carney. Suddenly Moran is your favorite? What gives?
Maybe he is. Sure, there is a jazz piano renaissance going on. I could name five others I like nearly as much (Craig Taborn, Aaron Parks.. ). Moran, however, has been a young leader for as long as any of these guys. Glasper has been out there for maybe six years, Iyer for a bit longer, but not much, Carney has only come into his own recently, Taborn was mainly a sideman in the ‘90s, and Parks is the youngest of them all. Moran is not necessarily older than all these guys, but no one has been releasing major-label jazz for as long or with as much consistency.
I first noticed Moran as a member of Greg Osby’s band around 1997 (Further Ado), and on 1998’s Banned in New York the young pianist was so steely ridiculous that you knew he would be on his own soon. Then 1999 brought the debut, Soundtrack to Human Motion, where Moran seemed immediately to be a mature player—a guy with an already wide-ranging sensibility influenced by painters, artists, predecessors, everything.
Ten simply reaffirms that first impression. While Moran has delivered solo recitals, blues-themed albums, and live releases, everything he has recorded has blended history and innovation. He’s my guy, sure he is.
5. Jason Moran Has Range
Listen up: to the beautifully slow ballad “The Subtle One”. Ruminative and gloomy, then moving and tender. “Study No. 6” is a contained but bouncing affair that unspools like a blue sky. Aggressive back to tender, freedom that turns to chaos. Moran plays it all.
6. Jason Moran Is Still on Blue Note, Which Is Good for Blue Note and Good for Everyone Else, Too
No doubt, the most exciting action during jazz’s last decade has been in the beauty and adventure of the small, independent labels. The major labels still count, of course, the major-est of which is Blue Note. Moran’s Blue Note output has been as daring and interesting as anything on Pi or Songlines or whatever other label you choose.
Nine albums on Blue Note and going strong? Yet not one of them was a tribute to another artist or a set of standards—every last one had a vision of integrity? Nearly all featured a single rhythm section, gathering power and developing a singular voice just like the great bands from the music’s past? Yes, yes and yes. Amazing.
7. Jason Moran Plays with Everyone. Well.
In addition to making so many great recordings as a leader, Moran has been a catalyst for other great bands. Even after he left Greg Osby and started his own group, Moran has been indispensable to other great artists.
Just this past year, Moran was the essential choice in Paul Motian’s latest stunner on ECM, Lost in a Dream. There, he was teamed with only the leader and saxophonist Chris Potter, leaving our man to handle the bass duties as well as the harmonies. Moran winds up the star of the session, finding a million ways to cover the middle ground between Potter’s billowing melody and Motian’s freely grooved texture. Whether playing a ballad or a declamation, Moran came through like it was his birthright to play with this much room around him.
Two other examples: his playing on Cassandra Wilson’s Loverly from 2008, and his work on Don Byron’s Ivey-Divey. With Wilson, Moran was an essential voice, keeping a new disc of standards from feeling like a throwback exercise for the great singer. With Byron, Moran again worked without a bassist and again worked in a band modeled on the past. He is a master of looking back and looking forward at once. All three of these discs are top-shelf. Moran is easily half the reason why, on every one of those disks.
8. Jason Moran Brings Jazz to Today’s Music
Again, Moran is not the only one, but he is among the masters of finding ways to integrate the new rhythms of hip hop into jazz—not just jamming over a sampled groove but actually transforming a jazz rhythm section so that it plays with the rhythmic influence of the new pop music.
On Ten, check out the feel of “RFK in the Land of Apartheid”. Mateen plays a funky, off center bass line, Moran runs a repeated melody across the top in weaving contrast, then Waits starts to drag a drum groove across it all such that the whole has that jerky stop-start feeling of hip hop. From that start, there is evolution until a huge heat is generated, improvisation flying but not over a normal kind of “swing”.
Or, naturally, there is “Gangsterism Over Ten Years”, which is the latest in a series of “Gansterism” compositions that have allowed Moran to play with current pop music as a serious source. This one is a gem, with the initial groove opening up into a joyous romp. Moran treats his piano like a drum in several ways, repeating certain melody notes and also stabbing at left-hand figures. Fun jazz, you heard me.
9. Jason Moran Combines Freedom and Accessibility with Brilliance
Last month in this space I wrote that jazz urgently needs to connect to the culture in some meaningful way if it wants to survive as a living art. (See
“Jazz Ain’t Dead, But Charlie Parker Is—So Let’s Move On, Shall We?”) For me, this means that it must still communicate with people—and with young people—and cannot do that merely by being “safe” or nostalgic. Moran is on the right track.
Moran can swing, he can play pretty, he can capture the zinging, flowing fun of jazz. When he pumps himself into overdrive, he is also exciting and revolutionary. His music has daring, but it connects just enough to the grooves of today.
I’m not saying that “Study No. 6” is going to go into rotation on your local “Hot 95.5”. However, Moran is setting up a lively, up-to-the-minute aesthetic for jazz that today’s young people can’t hear as musty. When the time comes for more interesting music in their lives—when they venture downtown in Manhattan to find something a step further out on the edge than some ol’ indie rock, well, Moran has got something wild, but not unfamiliar in some ways. Boldly today. Dazzling.
10. Jason Moran Ain’t Done Yet
He’s a 35-year-old first-call jazz pianist with a Blue Note contract and million ideas. We are going to enjoy him for years, decades to come.