In the space of a few short years, Jason Moran has become the leading figure amongst a set of jazz musicians intent on moving the music beyond a mere parody of its past glories. With an impeccable sense of fashion and seemingly all-encompassing set of influences, the pianist is indeed an embodiment of that which is so sorely lacking in most mainstream jazz artists today. But more than simply being a style ambassador, Moran is also one of modern jazz’s most gifted pianists — and one who continues to develop his art with each new release.
Since his debut as a member of saxophonist Greg Osby’s late-’90s working groups, Moran has transformed from a technically gifted sideman with a deep understanding of Andrew Hill’s work to an outright iconoclast. Each of his Blue Note releases as leader of his own ensembles has shown his growth in terms that are anything but gradual — beginning with 1999’s Soundtrack to Human Motion, and carrying through to his latest release The Bandwagon, Moran’s records have consistently challenged the jazz status quo with both their honesty and visionary ambition. Whether covering Bjork and overdubbing Fender Rhodes with his piano trio, joining forces with elder statesman Sam Rivers or tackling Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” as a studio-savvy solo artist, Moran has already left an indelible and critically acclaimed mark on the contemporary jazz community.
Somewhat misleadingly titled, The Bandwagon isn’t Moran’s attempt to jump aboard the tried-and-true, but rather a document of his working trio’s stay at New York’s Village Vanguard during Thanksgiving week of 2002. The title actually comes from the name of his band, which Moran explains as “a group of guys who enjoy playing and also [indicates] an image of taking a ride together. When people jump on the bandwagon they rarely jump off.” It’s an apt description of what goes down when Moran and his rhythm section — bassist Tarus Mateen and phenomenal drummer Nasheet Waits — take off from the gate, especially in the context of an intimate live setting like this one.
Moran’s self-pastiched intro — a spliced piece of postmodernism that samples Bartok, Robert Johnson and Elijah Muhammad before coming to rest on a loop of rapper Cormega spitting out the word “bandwagon” — serves as his statement of intent; in other words, there’s a lot more to what you’re about to hear than just recycled jazz iconography. Not that it’s immediately apparent from the first piece, “Another One”, where Moran lays his Andrew Hill cards on the table without a moment’s hesitation. But even if it isn’t the most original piece in his repertoire, Moran and company layer it out in heavily shifting tides — and anyone who doesn’t believe that Waits is one of the hottest drummers in jazz, particularly in telepathic tandem with Moran, needs to listen to the closing section of this track and seriously reconsider.
Along with revisiting pieces from his earlier recordings, Moran also introduces a pair of new compositions, both of which use a technique new to the pianist’s boundless aesthetic. “Ringing My Phone (Straight Outta Istanbul)” and “Infospace” find Moran employing samples of foreign-language conversations to steer the melodic and rhythmic course of each piece, resulting in introductions of jagged momentum that the band is then left to resolve with its improvisatory skill. While it’s perhaps a little too clever for it’s own good (especially when it’s also inserted into the previously serene “Gentle Shifts South”), this technique still shows Moran’s need to explore uncharted territories within his music. Furthermore, the fact that he’s experimenting with it in front of a live audience scrupulously attests to his rejection of any sort of play-it-safe-ism.
Strange as it may be for such an accomplished and prolific composer, the real gems of The Bandwagon are the cover tunes, beginning sequentially with an homage to another of Moran’s unsung heroes via a truly incredible reading of Jaki Byard’s “Out Front”. Differing wildly from the straight-ahead solo interpretation included on Black Stars, the rhythm section’s participation gives Moran much more room to breathe — and he takes playful advantage of it by handling the piece’s stylistic shifts with expert dexterity. Moran even achieves the unlikely feat of bringing something new to the old chestnut “Body & Soul”, reimagining it as a sultry neo-soul ballad that might just be the best cut on the CD. But it’s the trio’s take on “Planet Rock” that brings it all home, as they capture the angular, almost awkward funk of Bambaataa’s electroboogie classic to close the set on a thoroughly crowd-pleasing note.
If there’s any real problem with the disc, it’s the recording quality; or to name a more specific culprit, Tarus Mateen’s choice to use an acoustic bass guitar instead of a traditional upright model. While the overall recording sounds a bit flat (at least when heard in comparison with something like Dave Holland’s new live set on ECM), the bass sound is all tinny treble and buzzing strings. Why Mateen would choose such a wretched instrument is anyone’s guess — and perhaps it was a circumstantial decision as opposed to an aesthetic one — but suffice to say that I can’t help but wonder how the record would’ve sounded with some legitimate low end. But regardless of that nitpicking critique, The Bandwagon is still without question one of the year’s best jazz records — a thrilling ride for anyone adventurous enough to jump on.