After a decade heading jazz trio the Bandwagon, Jason Moran has released the properly titled Ten. On the album, Moran, bassist Tarus Mateen, and drummer Nasheet Waits display not only their technical skills, but also a deep knowledge of jazz (and other) music. Pulling from a variety of styles, the group shows breadth as well as a chronological depth, mixing traditional influences with a contemporary approach to writing and performance. Putting everything together so seamlessly has resulted in one of the year’s best releases.
Opener “Blue Blocks” shows the band’s flexibility. The song opens as a gospel number, a blues-y track with a bit of swing to it. It’s a bright and lovely piece of music, but as the performance progresses, Moran breaks his playing into an increasingly jagged style, destabilizing the song until the melody fractures and it begins coming unhinged. By the final minute, though, the trio smoothly pulls it back together, the sound calming down even as Mateen continues an assertive run. The close of the piece brings us near to our starting point, but without truly circling back.
“RFK in the Land of Apartheid”, another Moran original, develops an arc of the course of the piece, but this time in a more linear and almost narrative fashion. The work — related to Robert Kennedy’s Day of Affirmation speech given in South Africa in 1966 — steadily builds toward hopefulness, expanding the sound and color of the piece from a dark opening to an expansive climax.
Moran pays homage to several of the musicians he’s been influenced by, including Andrew Hill and Jaki Byard. He also gives a strong and original re-working of Thelonious Monk’s “Crepuscle with Nellie”, showing both Monk’s influence and Moran’s idiosyncratic ways of thinking.
While these performances show Moran’s roots (Monk’s pounding approach maybe being the most obvious antecedent in his playing style), Moran likes to play with his own past as well. “Gangsterism Over 10 Years” sees Moran returning to a theme that he’s worked a number of times. This rendition is particularly aggressive and scattered, engaging in its own right even while a compelling study in context.
The influence of hip-hop in Moran’s style gets discussed on occasion, but I sense the deeper pull of funk. It’s not hard to imagine someone like the Roots playing with the rhythm of this performance of “Gangsterism”, but at some level, I feel that one of Moran’s stylistic successes is setting up grooves that don’t quite spin, but keep pulsing, even as he heads out into more abstracted territory. It’s not to imply that you could put James Brown on top of these pieces, but the sense of structure — that rolling, atemporal feel — has something of the funk about. Even with the directional movement of “RFK”, the trio still maintains a deep abiding groove, driven mainly by Mateen, but aided by Moran’s halting rhythms.
The trio expands its scope even more, recording two versions of the classical player-piano piece “Study No. 6” by Conlon Nancarrow. The first version is a rollicking performance that seems appropriate for the machine it was composed for. The second recording slows it down dramatically, revealing an elegance that would be easily missed at full-speed. Waits stays busy here, adding texture but not propulsion, letting Moran carry the grace of the piece.
Of course, the versatility (and I didn’t even mention the solo ballet performance) wouldn’t be remarkable if the trio wasn’t so successful in every venture. Since they are, Ten coheres as a remarkable unit, embracing an array of styles and eras of influence into something uniquely compelling. After a decade of Bandwagon, it’s hard not wonder what the next 10 years might produce, but it’s more worthwhile to pause between notes with this album.