Jason Moran’s New Jazz Testament


The jazz grind was much the same as it is today when Bandwagon, pianist Jason Moran’s trio with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, formed in late 1999, spun out of Blue Note Records’ Greg Osby–led youth-movement band New Directions. Jazzers had been functioning in a commercially hostile marketplace for decades, so it was no small thing having a major-label deal in 2000, the year the pre-merger Sony/Columbia label, home to essential recordings by, among others, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis, ever so quietly folded its once-storied jazz division right out from under label polarities Wynton Marsalis and David S. Ware—a tree felled in a forest with what seemed like few witnesses.

That year, Facing Left, Moran’s second disc for Blue Note and Bandwagon’s debut, entered the breach just as many who couldn’t care less about the Sony debacle braced for PBS’s early-2001 airing of Ken Burns’s Jazz, a sprawling 19-hour documentary that went down relatively easy if hip cultural hagiography was what you craved. In contrast, Facing Left‘s repertoire, sprinkled with Duke Ellington but spiked with Björk, was clearly an attempt to combat the scene’s prevailing emphasis on the past: “In the house of jazz,” its liner notes complained, “the old testaments tend to eclipse the new.”

Saying Moran has helped shift the emphasis in the meantime is an understatement akin to calling The Wire merely a good TV show. He didn’t go about this punkishly, however, which could explain why his very real iconoclasm hasn’t made him a lightning rod like, say, fellow piano conceptualist Matthew Shipp. Bandwagon’s engagement with hip-hop-ified samplers and tumbling, danceable ostinatos has neither quenched Moran’s thirst for Thelonious Monk and player–piano composer Conlon Nancarrow nor overwhelmed his stylistic connection to abstractionist heroes Jaki Byard and Andrew Hill, both of whom mentored him. (More recently, the pianist has recorded as a sideman with two of the ECM label’s most visible veterans, drummer Paul Motian and saxist Charles Lloyd.)

“I studied with Jaki for four years,” Moran says, reminiscing about the late pianist whose style fluidly blended a century of innovation, from Harlem-bred stridework to avant-garde clusters. “He basically handled history by stressing that it was all yours to play with. The main objective was to have fun with it, which is something I now convey to my own students. [In the fall, Moran will assume a teaching post in the jazz program at Massachusetts’ famed New England Conservatory.] Watching Jaki take these enormous liberties with stride piano—a style of playing that was much, much older than he was—revealed how loose you could be with everything.”

That looseness is apparent throughout Ten, Bandwagon’s splendid new celebration of their decade-long tenure together, perhaps nowhere more judiciously than on the ballad “Feedback Pt. 2.” The title refers to the static-y loops and white noise spiraling behind the trio’s slow-motion grandeur, as Moran’s voluminous chords and Mateen’s rumbling bass are buoyed by Waits’s breezily insistent brushwork on cymbals. Those who’ve witnessed Bandwagon’s live performances are familiar with Moran’s use of pre-recorded interludes from sources as far afield as the rapper Cormega to keep a set’s flow going, so the surprise here won’t be the application, but the track’s cohesive, superbly calibrated outcome: The source of all that looped haze turns out to be Jimi Hendrix.

And yet, if Ten is easily Bandwagon’s finest disc since 2001—when Moran and Osby (in the role of producer) invited sax elder Sam Rivers to guest on Black Stars—it may be because they got out of their own heads somewhat. “It’s true we didn’t go in with a game plan on this one,” Moran says, in marked contrast to, say, 2005’s blues-in-concept-only disc Same Mother, or 2006’s Artist in Residence, which cataloged several of Moran’s collaborations with performance artists like Adrian Piper and Joan Jonas. (Interestingly enough, “JAMO,” Moran’s nickname and the title of his song-publishing company, recalls Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “SAMO.”) But that’s not to say sophistication takes a backseat. On several tracks (the hymn-like opener “Blue Blocks,” Leonard Bernstein’s “Big Stuff”), a deceptively simple melody sends the trio into expressionistic overdrive, while the blues shows up in surprising guises, whether it’s the trio stripping Nancarrow’s gorgeous “Study No. 6” down to its essence twice (once slowly with Mateen providing a contrasting tempo, the other a slight gallop driven by Waits’s tom-toms) or criss-crossing Monk’s lyrical “Crepuscule With Nellie” with a subtle boogie shuffle.

Moran reveals something about the current scene when discussing Ten‘s contribution to the beat-conscious decade-spanning tracks collectively known as the “Gangsterism” series. Along with his use of electronica and past cover of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” the compositions always signified Moran’s quest for new audiences, and he’s been seeing more of that elsewhere. “I’m only 35, but I’ve noticed among the players in their 20s, especially the drummers, an even more overt use of hip-hop—even with respect to compositional forms—than I was thinking about 10 years ago,” he says. “It’s almost like a singer-songwriter’s way of looking at stuff, where you’re actually writing songs. Bandwagon hadn’t recorded at all in four years before Ten, so we’d amassed quite a bit of material from our live sets that we hadn’t laid down.”

He pauses to reflect. “We all have other gigs, so we’re pretty conscious of the fact that [in general] jazz groups don’t stay intact as long as we have—the Modern Jazz Quartet notwithstanding. Basically, this record is just us being us, and enjoying it.”

Jason Moran performs with the Eric Revis Quartet June 19, Mary Halvorson and Ron Miles June 24, and the Ambrose Akinmusirie Group 25 at the Jazz Standard as part of the CareFusion Jazz Festival,