You put a cutting-edge jazz musician within 300 feet of a major, august, grant-issuing, composition-commissioning US Art Institution and — watch out! The results can be a whole can of trouble: pretentiousness, containment, faux-classicism, didacticism, forced topicality, political intentions run amok, trouble … and I mean trouble.
But. Who’s going to blame a jazz musician for seeking both validation and cash in one fell swoop? Not I.
So here is Jason Moran — a certified fireball of a pianist who’s been producing blazingly interesting discs for Blue Note for a while now, and who also fronts a tight working band called Bandwagon — issuing a disc of “works commissioned by major US Arts Institutions” that is down-home terrific. As they say in those Red Stripe TV commercials: “Hooray jazz! Hooray Jason Moran!”
Not that this music isn’t thick with academic trickiness. “Artists Ought to Be Writing” sets Moran to a portion of a speech by conceptual artist Adrian Piper — but what a result. He plays behind her like she was Sarah Vaughan, playing beautiful accompanying chords, and then on the “second chorus” plays with the same words but now providing the speech with a precisely played melody: a note-for-syllable analogue that is so compelling and beautiful that you need to hear it again and again. The solo piano improvisation that follows is masterful and strange at once, and when the theme quietly returns (without Piper this time), it is a revelation again.
The opening tune, “Break Down”, takes a few phrases from the same Adrian Piper speech and samples them rhythmically to create an off-kilter funk for the Bandwagon trio and the bent-note artistry of guitarist Marvin Sewell. Similarly clever/smart is “Cradle Song”, in which Moran’s gentle bedtime melody is accompanied by the sound of a pencil furiously writing on a piece of paper. (Artists should be writing, indeed.) (And, call me crazy, but for some reason I am convinced that the person with the pencil is working out math problems.) These tracks use the wit or multimedia impulse that has made so many compositions commissioned by Major Arts Institutions seem precious or over-studied, but here it all works as organic music with a direction and attitude.
“Milestone” takes a different kind of risk, being a kind of gospel/art song featuring Moran’s wife, Alicia Hall Moran, on a lovely vocal more in the classical than the jazz vein. But it works, because Sewell and Bandwagon come in on the tail of the vocal with assurance. Sewell plays it slow and bluesy, matching the timbre of Moran’s voice, and the band plays the rest of the track with as much jazz conviction as can be. The following track, “Refraction 2”, keeps Sewell in the band, allowing the quartet what sounds like almost a reinterpretation of “Milestone”. This track is Moran at his best — playing hard and beyond the standard jazz harmonies, but with a sense of rigorous lyricism all the same. Nasheet Waits on drums kicks up a superb storm behind Moran’s syncopated bass figures. A few tracks later, Moran delivers “Refraction 1”, a different approach to the same theme, with fragile, ragged solo piano playing with Joan Jonas’s delightful, back-of-the-closet percussion. It demands repeat listening.
“RAIN” was commissioned by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center folks, so you might expect some neo-bop traditionalism, but not a chance, my friends. Moran combines Ralph Alessi’s trumpet with African percussion and jazz quartet in a complex 10-minute composition. The sound of percussive march-steps at the beginning, which later combines with the drums, suggests a hip-hop polyrhythmic sampling, and the circular melodic lines for piano and horn have a classical minimalism about them. Soon enough, however, the percussion catches fire in a groove, the unison melody modulates, and then improvisation of the most daring variety ensues — the piano and drums barreling into a way-out solo that is fueled by both the percussion and the trumpet line. Eventually it all turns funky and joyous, before giving way to Alessi’s feature. Suffice it to say: Jazz at Lincoln Center got more than it’s money worth, as does the listener.
Some of the songs sound obviously programmatic and specific. “Arizona Landscape” uses the lazy I-V-VIII-V-I base line associated with cowboy songs and ties a sunlight-sad melody to it for solo piano. “Lift Every Voice”, known as the Negro National Anthem, is reimagined here — fashioned for trio and wah-wah electric guitar and arranged to allow for maximum coiling and heat. Martin Luther King and Jimi Hendrix would approve. And the closer, “He Puts on His Coat and Leaves”, is a gentle piano improvisation that sounds like Satie in the 21st Century.
But this, my friends, is what we need more of in jazz: a great diversity of style and reference coming together through the singular vision of a terrific artist: Jason Moran. And if Major US Arts Institutions are ready, willing, and able to fund this kind of thing, then all the better. It’s the kind of thing that could give music in academia a good name.
And it’s definitely the kind of thing that will give jazz a very good name.