The Most Exciting (Jazz?) Pianist On The Planet?
By Norton Wright
Hollywood CA. Has there ever been a jazz pianist like Jason Moran? Not Jarrett, Evans, Corea, Brubeck, Peterson — not even George Russell — not even Moran’s mentors, Jaki Byard and Thelonious Monk. As with Jackson Pollock in the visual arts, Jason Moran may be “one of a kind.” Like Pollock’s abstract artistry, Moran at the piano does not cover familiar jazz tunes, but rather creates something new on the spot, an “encounter” with a piano generating a fresh and oftimes risky “event.”
Art critic Harold Rosenberg described a similar approach in the process of abstract expressionist painters in the 1950’s as follows:
“…the canvas began to appear as an arena in which to act… What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
The same can be said of Moran wherein his piano provides the arena in which to act. His compositions are the result of his encounters with that piano. Though easily capable of swinging through jazz standards, Moran foregoes that convention to create original and amazing “events.” Long horizontal lines — sometimes smooth, sometimes jagged, often played in flowing clusters; a left hand of wickedly complex harmonies from which the connecting melodic tissue springs; and both hands frequently generating the repeated figures that mark the pulsing ostinato energy of minimalist composers like John Adams, Phillip Glass, and Steve Reich.
On Tuesday at a Jazz Bakery Movable Feast at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, Moran’s playing was in cadenza mode all night long. The notes flew by with the power, dexterity, and touch of a concert pianist. Lang Lang would have kvelled!
All of which raises the question, “Is Jason Moran a modern, classical music composer/pianist/conductor like Thomas Ades, or might he be a preview of the future of jazz? Maybe he’s both. His creations and those of his trio mates, Tarus Mateen (electronic bass) and Nasheet Waits (drums) are clearly rooted in jazz, but the sense of classical composition and inquiry is always present in the band’s work.
This threesome known as “Jason Moran and The Bandwagon” have been together for thirteen years, and they work in consort like a mini-symphony orchestra. Piano, bass, and drums are constantly joined in musical conversations, sometimes playing in one mutual voice, sometimes engaging in separate, call-and-response musical dialogs, and sometimes “talking on top of one another” to create dramatically conflicted tonal textures.
In their opening number, Moran invented a gentle melodic line with the support of Waits’ soft percussion and a warm bass ostinato by Mateen. Then SUDDENLY Moran found a beginning fragment of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” and the band’s conversation exploded, the tempo kicking into high gear. Moran was in 4/4, but Waits was talking back in 5/4, then roaring forward in 7/8. Mateen stayed with Moran’s 4/4 with his own throbbing, four-note walking bass, and Moran responded with his own minimalist repeats of a four-note figure to match “hon – ee – suck – el” — “hon – ee – suck – el” — “hon – ee – suck – el,” the repetitions becoming as mesmerizing as a Sufi devotional chant.
The set continued with similar surprises. Evoking the mixed-media collages and “combines” of abstract expressionist artist Robert Rauschenberg, Moran occasionally introduced his band’s numbers by playing pre-recorded excerpts from old radio broadcasts — a kind of homage to artistic and political innovators of the past.
With an all-inclusive appreciation of music, Moran fuels his compositions with licks from rock to hip-hop to Debussy. One of The Bandwagon’s numbers began with the playing of an old recording by country blues singer Mississippi Fred McDowell. As McDowell’s keening built, Moran at the keyboard copied the singer’s wailings and soon carried the motif into a gorgeous, contemporary blues. At the start of another number, Moran played a homemade audiotape of the sounds of Thelonious Monk in his Greenwich Village loft TAP DANCING! Moran’s piano segued into his idol’s surprisingly ungainly clumpings and built a line that eventually evolved into his take on “Straight No Chaser” — more complex and interesting than Monk’s original.
Towards evening’s end, I was reminded that there is no art without craft. And Moran’s musical experience at The High School For Performing Arts under Bob Morgan’s tutelage in Houston, Texas, followed by his continuing education at the Manhattan School Of Music, and then his first professional gigs under the mentoring of Jaki Byard and Monk, clearly nurtured his exceptional talents.
In 2010 he was the recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” and recently has succeeded the late Dr. Billy Taylor as The Kennedy Center’s Artistic Advisor For Jazz. For aspiring young musical students whether in jazz or classical studies, the evolving, 38-year-old Jason Moran provides inspiring proof that creating great art requires hard work, exceptional imagination, and the courage to continue experimenting regardless of past triumphs or failures.
Might Jason Moran actually be the most exciting (jazz?) pianist on the planet?
All thoughts welcome…
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In closing: A note to John Adams, Creative Chair and Herbie Hancock, Creative Chair For Jazz, at the Los Angeles Philharmonic:
John Adams’ “Minimalist Jukebox” series a few years back at Philharmonic Hall delighted its audiences, especially with the surprising and little-known “classical” compositions of Frank Zappa! And Herbie Hancock’s presentation of solo Keith Jarrett last year was a night of “classically” elegant jazz.
If in the near future the Phil could provide a Disney Concert Hall outing for Jason Moran and The Bandwagon, might the inquiry of “Is it jazz – or something else?” be valuably extended?
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To read more posts by and about Norton Wright click HERE.
Jason Moran photo by Tony Gieske.