I’m ready to follow the pianist Jason Moran into the promised land. Facing Left, Moran’s intellectually challenging and musically adventurous sophomore album is jazz at its very finest. Sophomore efforts are usually the time when we get a glimpse of the real depth and skill of an artist. There have been lots of musicians and bands that have pulled off a successful debut, only to come up empty afterward: having quickly exhausted the spark of originality that they managed to briefly kindle, the creative embers sometimes never again get fanned into flame. The chance at succeeding the second time out is even harder when the bar is set at Sergei Bubka-like levels by the first album, either by red-hot record sales or by an avalanche of critical kudos. Moran’s universally praised first album, Soundtrack to Human Motion, was chosen by Ben Ratliff of the New York Times as album of the year for 1999. A tough act to follow. But Facing Left is just as strong, and even more impressively, it doesn’t shy away from the intriguing eclecticism that made the first album such a pleasure to listen to.
Soundtrack included compositions like Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” and Moran’s “Retrograde,” a rendering of Andrew Hill’s “Smokestack,” but played in reverse. On Facing Left, Moran takes on Björk’s ballad “Joga,” a march from the soundtrack to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and “Murder of Don Fanucci,” from Nino Rota’s theme music for Godfather II. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster (and it kinda does, doesn’t it?), the end result, a satisfying and intelligent exploration of the entire scope of Moran’s musical influences, reveals a remarkably self-assured composer (Moran is only 25) who is able to turn these various materials in a stunning whole. Moran’s take on Björk is lush and melodic; his piano on the Yojimbo track, buoyed by a bass and drum that maintain the forward thrust of the march, offers hints of its Japanese origin through its recomposition into the idiom of American jazz; and the Rota track is addressed with a delicacy and seriousness that gives its slow build a sombre, melancholic majesty that is entirely faithful to Coppolla’s vision.
Mixed in alongside these tracks are great versions of Duke Ellington’s “Later” and “Wig Wise.” On the latter, Moran’s breathless, stumbling trip over on the keys repeatedly blurs into and emerges from the inspired playing of the other two members of the trio, Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums, in a way that radically refigures Ellington’s focus on the piano. Of the original compositions on Facing Left, I was especially taken with Mateen’s “Another One,” whose ferocious, driving attack reminded me of some of Gary Peacock’s compositions, though infused with a groove and flow reminiscent of some of the hip-hop artists that Moran has named as an inspiration.
It’s a high sign of praise to compare younger musicians with some of the big names of the past. For example, though he claims not to like it, Brad Mehldau has to be pleased with being seen as the second coming of Bill Evans. But it’s an even higher sign of praise to say that you don’t sound like anyone else. Like Ken Vandermark on sax, Moran’s playing—much less his unique approach to composition—is idiosyncratic enough that trying to pin it to someone else’s style always fails to hit the mark. It has been a great pleasure to listen to Moran on Greg Osby’s recent run of stellar projects. It would be even better to hear more from Moran and his trio, which plays both tight and loose in a way that suggests it could go anywhere and still be in complete control. Give us more, please!