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Proof of Concept: Thinking About Adrian Piper

A stubborn fugitivity runs through the work of Adrian Piper, the conceptual artist and performer—as well as writer and philosophy scholar—whose career of more than five decades is the subject of a thorough, gripping retrospective this season at the Museum of Modern Art, Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016

Piper is always in two situations at once — an inside-outsider, never at ease, she is artist and academic, theorist and performer, impulsive improviser and ruminating self-examiner. Some of her works are naked self-portraiture, literal or through text that inspects her own psyche or family history. Others are challenges to the viewer, sometimes imperious, that she structures using photo, sound, and text to demand we audit our behavior and biases. At one point, the path through the exhibition requires you to traverse the Humming Room, an empty space where you must hum a tune in order to enter — you choose the tune, but you have to hum, and the guard is checking. The experience takes us deep inside and far outside of ourselves, a clue, perhaps, to Piper’s method and the tug of forces in her mind.

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Race is crucial here — and particularly, racial ambiguity. Piper, 69, who grew up in Upper Manhattan, the daughter of a lawyer and a college administrator, is of mixed race, and was light-skinned enough to generally merge into spaces of white privilege, including the world of New York minimalists and conceptualists that she entered as a young woman in the late 1960s, forging for instance a long-term friendship with Sol LeWitt. In this milieu she shed her teenage figurative experiments, as well as her loud color works made under the influence of LSD, in favor of a hybrid language mixing photography, drawing, text, painting, sound, and performance that she would refine over the years.

Yet she was acutely conscious of her Black origins and history: Her ancestors Philip and Nellie Piper had been owner and slave on a plantation in Louisiana but, unusually, married after the Civil War and settled in Ohio, among abolitionists. (Piper details this genealogy in a text-dense work on paper, Never Forget, made in 2016 and one of the final pieces in the exhibition.) Questions of racial assertion, projection, and unease, whether toward oneself or others, suffuse her work. But she deals more in queries than answers; in identity as process, not as fixed state.

Adrian Piper, “The Mythic Being, Village Voice Ads” (1973–75)

Piper moved her base to Berlin, following a protracted legal and administrative conflict with her employer, Wellesley College, where she had been a professor of philosophy since 1990s but had also forcefully raised issues of institutional racism. These days she avoids the United States altogether, and did not bother to come to New York for her retrospective, nor for that matter to do interviews. (Indeed, she regards most art writing and criticism as somewhat pointless: “No talk that talks can substitute for direct, unguarded, and sustained exposure to the intuitive presence of the artwork on terms that cannot be talked at all,” she writes in the exhibition catalog, in a contribution that is mostly an essay on Kantian philosophy.) Despite the distance, however, she was closely involved in every aspect of the show’s preparation, and she offers warm praise to the curators, Christophe Cherix, Cornelia Butler, and David Platzker, in her introduction, calling the experience “the most profoundly fulfilling collaboration of my life.”

With its constant interplay of closeness and distancing, its emotional heat and intellectual coolness, Piper’s work can seem difficult at times, but rewards the kind of immersion that the MOMA show permits — ideally over several visits. The generous space the museum has allotted to the show, which spreads across the whole sixth floor, gives both the works and the viewer room to breathe.

For Piper’s devotees, this show has been a long time coming. I asked three of them — art historian John Bowles, author of the first monograph on Piper; pianist Jason Moran, who has collaborated with Piper; and social practice artist Chloë Bass, who considers Piper her chief inspiration, to describe how she changed their lives, and to pick a few favorites. 

Adrian Piper, “Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment” (2012)

JOHN BOWLES, associate professor of African American Art, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; author of Adrian Piper: Race, Gender, and Embodiment (2011):
At first I was thinking about Piper in the context of several other conceptual and performance artists. But I ended up writing my first book just about her, because the more research I did, the more important and challenging I found her work to be. Whereas with the others, I got to a point where I felt like I’d figured it out. With her works, there’s an incredibly intense engagement with important moral questions about how we judge each other, how we present ourselves to other people, but mostly about how other people judge us based on what they think they see in us.

JASON MORAN, jazz pianist, composer, and interdisciplinary artist; collaborated with Piper on his album Artist in Residence (2006), and often works with visual artists including Joan Jonas, Glenn Ligon, Theaster Gates, and Kara Walker:
When I was introduced to her work, fourteen years ago, it became central because it demanded an understanding from within: that I as the artist would have to understand, and not be frightened to share what I thought I understood, my own work, in my own terms, under my own conditions.
And that was a breaking point for me. Because rather than just shouting John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk over and over, it was, “Wait a minute now: There has to be a reorganization of why we do this.” For me Adrian shows up in this dense body of work, where she really understands her craft from multiple levels, and she expresses it in a way that made me want to dive deeper into my own practice, and share that. It was a new testament after working and learning with her.

CHLOË BASS, Brooklyn-based conceptual artist, assistant professor of art at Queens College, CUNY; has a solo exhibition, “The Book of Everyday Instruction,” at the Knockdown Center through June 17:
For me this is just personal. My mother is a visual artist and my father is a philosopher: Those are the poles of my life. And that somebody brings those together but also adds what has been the most resounding element of my own practice, because I come from theater and performance, which is the body, there’s nothing I can’t learn from that. Every time I see Piper’s work I learn, even when I don’t like the works. I’m hoping that I can take where she leaves off in terms of confrontation and continue with an invitation to intimacy that also asks us to try to change how we see, how we are, and how we live. And I don’t think I could do that if these works didn’t exist. It’s that simple. 

Adrian Piper, “Catalysis III,” 1970

Catalysis III (1970)
In an early series of performances, Piper stepped onto the streets of New York in abstract costumes, in which she wore a shirt covered in white paint with a sign marked “Wet Paint,” and moved around the city, including shopping at Macy’s.

BOWLES: On one hand, it’s a project about objectification: She makes a spectacle of herself for other people to interact with — or to avoid interacting with. But in retrospect it’s impossible to think about the work without the context of race. In Catalysis III she wears a shirt covered in white paint, making a monochrome painting of herself. That choice of white makes me think about how much of her work is about whiteness, and about ways in which whiteness is policed in our society. Who gets the privilege, who gets to identify as white, who’s part of the in club?

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Bach Whistled (1970)
This work is an audio piece in which Piper whistles several Bach concertos. In her own words: “At the beginning the whistling is relatively strong, clear, and on key. As the performance progresses it becomes weaker, flatter, and more like plaintive cheeping.”

MORAN: Bach is a titan of counterpoint, of melody, a kind of Holy Grail, but we rarely think of his music as casual. Adrian adopts it in an entirely different space, which is in the body. And she reads the melody through her whistling, which is, you know, above-average whistling. She reorganizes Bach that way. And that’s pivotal to me. Conservatory students need to understand songs in their repertoire like that — as central to the body rather than central to the canon. In the exhibition, the piece is set against the graph paper works she was making at the time. And Bach isn’t consistent the way graph paper is. She places Bach in that scope of the grid, and everything else oozes around it.

Adrian Piper, “The Mythic Being” (1973)

The Mythic Being (multiple works, 1973–75)
A wigged and mustached male-presenting character that Piper imagined in 1973 and deployed in multiple settings: walking down the street in spontaneous performances; as the subject of photo projects; and as a kind of alter ego issuing various challenges and pronouncements. She retired the character in 1975.

BOWLES: The work of hers that first grabbed my attention, and was probably many people’s introduction, was her Mythic Being performances. What I found fascinating was the risk that she was taking: She’s altering her appearance and dealing with an audience that isn’t expecting performance, isn’t expecting artwork. And the performances really weren’t documented — the photos were made for creating other artworks, not to document the original performances. So we have to imagine it. She changes her appearance to look like a man, and in her writing she talks about feeling a certain freedom she doesn’t have as a woman, how she can walk around the streets of New York and not get catcalled, and imagine the freedom that men feel in their everyday lives. She writes of a certain kind of sexual liberation that she feels because she doesn’t have to be herself in the way people might expect her to be.

Adrian Piper, “A Tale of Avarice and Poverty” (1985)

A Tale of Avarice and Poverty (1985)
A photograph and text work that tells a complex family history centering on Piper’s grandmother and mother, and their alienation and distance from men in the family.

BASS: What I love about this, as someone who also works with family archival materials, is the challenge to think about how we write the people that we love into being. In this same period, in the 1980s, she’s making all these political self-portraits, which are also great works, but here she takes it away from herself and starts to imagine how this all came to be. I have no idea how much of this story about her grandmother is true or how much of it is fabricated. I don’t know when the picture is from — or is it even really her grandmother? In a way it doesn’t matter. The structure of the image to the pieces of text, the spaces that it builds, allows you to understand with a great deal of tenderness that this person has been positioned in a way that she did not choose. And that invites us to understand that we may be doing that to others, and that others are doing that to us.

Adrian Piper, “My Calling (Card) # 1 for Dinners and Cocktail Parties” (1986-90)

My Calling (Card) #1 (1986–90)
One of a series of business cards that Piper imagined and printed to hand out to people making casual racist comments at social events or to importuning men at bars, in lieu of having to speak to them directly.

BOWLES: I imagine it would be difficult to receive one of these cards. But there’s a video of a discussion where someone asked Adrian what it’s like to give one of these cards, and she said it’s devastating. Because people will assume she’s being aggressive by pointing out someone else’s racism. Still, what is so powerful about the work is how it tries to help the person who has made the racist comments understand their responsibility in perpetuating racism, and the responsibility to work harder. And by having batches of these cards printed each time the work is shown, she’s spreading the work exponentially. Anyone who wants to use these cards can use them. Lots of people have emulated this work, because the concept is so simple yet the gesture is so profound.

Adrian Piper, “Safe #1–4” (1990)

Safe #1-4 (1990)
An installation in which happy group photographs of Black people in various celebratory settings are placed in the four corners of a room, conveying presence while assuring the viewer that he or she is safe.

MORAN: One part of what Adrian pulls out is that this work is central to everyone, it’s not just specific to any group of people. For me in that room, with these four pieces on the wall, it’s in a museum space but she just keeps sending the reminders that you’re not in there alone. Those photographs look a lot like pictures I have at home, or images I saw as a kid — you know, Black folk going skiing. It’s normalized within my understanding of who we are as people, and how comfortable we are in our environment. But the museum environment is another space. Adrian is raising the temperature, but always very calmly. It’s never shouting, it’s almost like a proposition to you, a reminder. I first saw this work years ago, and on seeing it again now, it still needs to be said. It’s a simple humanity that she’s demanding, in her very quiet way.

Adrian Piper, “Ashes to Ashes” (1995)

Ashes to Ashes (1995)
A work that pairs an archival photograph of a couple — Piper’s parents—with a dense and harrowing text about the later years of their marriage when they faced decline and death from smoking-related diseases. Piper made the work after learning that a show she was to take part in was sponsored by Philip Morris, the tobacco company.

BASS: So much of Piper’s self-presentation is so controlled. Just look at the arrangement of this text. As a person who also spends a lot of time arranging text, this is a strong choice that I probably wouldn’t have the courage to make. You have the two figures of the parents, like twin towers, but also the two frames of the piece, almost as another twin towers. You can imagine that continuing to echo out: What is the next thing, where this becomes one tower in the following arrangement? And those parameters are different in each setting, depending on whether you’re experiencing the work in a book, in the way the exhibition is designed, or out in the world.

Adrian Piper, “Adrian Moves to Berlin” (2007). Detail

Adrian Moves to Berlin (2007)
A video performance, projected at MOMA on a large screen, in which Piper is dancing in a plaza in Berlin, while numerous people walk by and watch, though no one joins her.

BOWLES: When I was writing my book and talking with Adrian, it was the tail end of her fights with Wellesley College, and when she moved to Germany. I have the sense that she felt restrained; that it was becoming difficult for her to make the kind of work she needed to do. And I love this video because it seems like such an expression of joy and freedom. I get the sense that this move to Berlin has been incredibly liberating. She’s found intellectual freedom and a place that’s more welcoming, where she found more respect than in America. That speaks to the importance of this exhibition as well, where her retrospective is getting an entire floor at MOMA, one of our most important museums. And watching this video of her dancing in the square, it’s almost like she’s extending an invitation to all of us, to join her in intellectual freedom and ecstasy. 

‘Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016’
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
moma.org
Through July 22

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Carnival of the Grotesque: Kara Walker’s Insistent Resistance in New Orleans

The enemy was in sight. It was chugging back up the broad Mississippi, its majestic paddle wheel churning the waters, returning the day-trippers to the dock at the edge of the French Quarter. On the opposite bank, facing downtown New Orleans where the river’s curve forms the promontory called Algiers Point, Kara Walker was waiting.

Her antagonist was the steamboat Natchez, a tourist fixture of the Crescent City that purveys nostalgia for a gracious antebellum South — the belles, gamblers, and cotton traders traveling between market towns, steaming past forests and plantations. A replica of its nineteenth-century ancestors, the Natchez does harbor cruises, weddings, and special events. In 1988, when New Orleans hosted the Republican National Convention, nominee George H.W. Bush and family made their triumphant arrival aboard the vessel.

Now, under threatening skies on a mild Friday in late February, Walker, the celebrated artist who has made the violence and grotesque of America’s racial history her central theme, was about to deliver some counterprogramming, months in the making.

Kara Walker with her “Katastwóf Karavan” at the Mississippi River Trail on February 23, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Clad in black T-shirts, she and her team busied themselves under a tent while an assemblage of collectors, curators, scholars, and other assorted art types milled around on the moist riverbank grass. At the gathering’s center, artisans versed in steam machinery tinkered with equipment inside a black-and-white rectangular box of Walker’s design. It was about twenty feet long and stood some fifteen feet high, resting atop four wheels, a small front pair and large rear pair, each with sixteen blond-wood spokes, giving the whole contraption the form of an old-time parade wagon.

Cut in black steel along the wagon’s four panels were silhouette sculptures in the style that for twenty years Walker has made her instantly recognizable hallmark, marshaling the tropes and archetypes of the Southern history of enslavement in assorted mise-en-scènes. The smaller panels were elegiac: One presented a Black woman in profile in the woods, her right arm lifted in accompaniment to her skyward gaze; the other showed a cotton field, a cloud of white bolls floating upward like bubbles against the steel sky.

The longer side panels were harsher. One had what appeared to be an enslaved family getting marched across a field by a monstrous overseer figure made of three individuals stacked piggyback, the top one wielding a whip. The opposite panel showed two captive figures carrying an outstretched third — a dead body? — while a fourth crouched above in the branches, legs spread apart, as if about to shower bodily fluids onto the scene.

Kara Walker’s “Katastwóf Karavan,” or “Caravan of Catastrophe”

A central opening profiled these fantastical figures against the device in the wagon’s middle: a row of shiny pipes of increasing length, akin to an organ. It was indeed a musical instrument — a calliope, which uses pressured steam to emit loud whistles. A wire ran to a keyboard that stood nearby, protected from the drizzle by an attendant with an umbrella.

Walker titled the whole montage the Katastwóf Karavan, or Caravan of Catastrophe, the use of Haitian Creole signaling the mix of Caribbean and Southern histories that shaped New Orleans. Walker’s first public installation since the 2014 Marvelous Sugar Baby — the enormous Sphinx-like mammy figure that she built out of sugar in the now-demolished Domino factory in Williamsburg — the Karavan went up for the closing weekend of the Prospect.4 triennial, which ran for three months at multiple sites around New Orleans. The installation was freighted with layers of site-specific symbolism — none of it subtle if you knew a bit about local history, yet all of it obscured by years of avoidance or, at best, awkward notes in the narratives delivered by school curricula or tourist brochures.

Thus Algiers Point: Here, in the eighteenth century, traders warehoused disembarked captives — those who survived the Middle Passage — before selling them on the opposite bank in the markets that dotted the French Quarter and surroundings. This is where families were rent apart, humans assessed and packaged as commodities. Thus, too, Walker’s tableaux, relevant across the landscape of chattel slavery but especially here.

And thus the calliope, a direct retort to the one on the Natchez — “the OTHER calliope,” Walker called it on her handout for the event — and its sonic broadcast of a whitewashed history. Several times a day, the vessel’s instrument blares out to the city (there is no such thing as a quiet calliope) items from a hoary playlist such as “Old Man River,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “God Bless America,” and, yes, “Dixie’s Land.”

Invited to make something for Prospect.4, Walker had honed in on Algiers Point and, after hearing the Natchez a few times, the concept of a feisty riposte, a guerrilla action in the long asymmetric war against white supremacy. If the visual matter was distinctly hers, the sourcing of the Karavan described an America of workshops: steam specialists from Indiana; wheel-makers in South Dakota; metal fabricators in Kingston, New York; and a Michigan-based artisan, Kenneth Griffard, who custom-built the calliope.

And for the idea’s musical development, Walker turned to a fellow New York–based polymath with Southern roots (and fellow MacArthur “genius” anointee), the jazz pianist Jason Moran, whose multi-arts projects also bring forth hidden histories, from Thelonious Monk’s North Carolina roots to the life of mid-century jazz clubs in U.S. cities.

The original plan was for the Karavan to appear at the triennial’s opening in November, but it wasn’t done in time. Now it was ready to go, turning the closing weekend into a special event. Together, Walker and Moran had designed a playlist of Black liberation music for the calliope — from Negro spirituals to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” These would sound out, pre-programmed and controlled through a MIDI device, at scheduled times over the weekend. But on this Friday afternoon, Moran would play live, improvising to the weather, the gathering, and the return of his notes in the heavy air.

The audience of two or three hundred drew near as the calliope began to hiss, warming up as the water in its belly heated into steam. Walker stood back, keeping attention off herself. Moran — new to the calliope prior to this project — sat at the keyboard, wearing thick headphones, the umbrella sheltering him like a potentate from the intermittent rain.

Jason Moran performs during the premiere of “Katastwof Karavan.”

Picking with his right hand, he played shrill one-note blasts; his left elbow traveled the low range, producing a mournful groan. Then he found a central rhythm — dum-da-DA-dum, dum-da-DA-dum — and worked around it awhile, gradually introducing melodies. Through the diamond-shaped opening in the side panel, above the steel silhouette being carried (to burial? to shelter?), the steam escaped in puffs. The sound was industrial, the notes abrupt and without the softness of decay. Moran jolted the melody with freestyle blares and moans, bringing to mind the shrieks and calls of the avant-garde saxophonists Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, or Marion Brown, abstract yet uncannily soulful.

And then it was over. The rain had strengthened; water dripped from the audience’s rain gear and drenched the clothes of those (like this correspondent) who were unprepared. From responses to the rehearsals, Walker and Moran knew that the sound had traveled across into the neighborhoods all along the river’s curve. The sun came out; as if on cue, a rainbow appeared. Vessels proceeded along the river: a behemoth Maersk cargo laden with containers; a long tanker escorted by a tiny tug. In a little while the calliope on the Natchez, berthed across the river, would do its usual reactionary thing. Most of the audience wandered back to the ferry terminal; some invitees headed to a cocktail party. Walker and Moran disappeared; there would be a second live performance the next morning.

A crowd watches Jason Moran’s performance

What did it mean? For a moment, the team had voiced the ancestors, reclaimed the land. The katastwóf of chattel slavery and the American plantation economy, so inconvenient to our societal narratives that it does not have an agreed designation like the Holocaust or the Nakba (the Palestinian dispossession of 1948), was noted in sound and space at a site of extreme importance. The sanitized story delivered by the Natchez, by the tawdry French Quarter bars, by the distinguished plantation tours and blue-blood historical societies, had been rebuffed. Resistance had been insisted into this space.

It felt like a beginning. What happens next to the Karavan is not yet known, but there is work to do: land to purify, spirits to assuage. It may reappear in museums or festivals, but one got to imagining the Karavan moving along St. Charles, Louisiana, keeping pace with the streetcar; appearing dockside in Memphis, Charleston, or that capital of slavery finance, New York City; ambling through the Delta on Route 61, the “blues highway”; hooting outside bank headquarters, state capitols. It has wheels; it’s meant to move. It has pipes; it’s meant to shout. Bring it.

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Alicia Hall Moran’s Unbound Musical Modernism

At January’s Prototype Festival, singer and composer Alicia Hall Moran laced up ice skates and took to the Bryant Park rink to perform. Her original piece, Breaking Ice: The Battle of the Carmens, premiered during public skating sessions and included taiko drummer Kaoru Watanabe and jazz saxophonist Maria Grand in hockey penalty boxes. Its title referred to the 1988 Winter Olympics, where American figure skater Debi Thomas and a German, Katarina Witt, each skated programs to music from Bizet’s classic opera Carmen.

At those ’88 Olympics, Witt won the gold and Thomas took bronze, becoming the first African American to win a Winter Games medal. For Moran, then a teenage member of a precision figure skating team in Connecticut, Thomas was a role model. “Breaking Ice” was a page from Moran’s life, but it worked fine as metaphor, too. A classically trained mezzo-soprano, Moran has a voice that shapes melodies like figure skaters trace arcs — with a grace and precision that turns diligence into ease. She thinks beyond librettos. Her ideas generally ride a well-honed edge. Her performances usually involve what Olympic judges call a “high degree of difficulty.”

Take the way she opens her recent Here Today. She interlaces the “Habanera,” the aria that signals the arrival of Carmen in Bizet’s 1875 opera, with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” which topped the r&b chart for six weeks nearly a century later. Harmonically, the descending figures that underscore Bizet’s famous melody (played here by a string trio) align neatly with the intro of Wonder’s hit. Lyrically, the tension between these considerations of love is delicious: Wonder pleads, Carmen warns; he makes a declaration of certainty, while she outlines the changing arcs of a love that “has never, ever known a law.”

Moran’s music is guided by the stuff embedded in that track: consonant sounds, dissonant truths, deep ironies, and linked legacies that span styles and eras. Here Today combines concert hall refinement with r&b feel, singer-songwriter intimacy with jazz and chamber-music sophistication. Violin, viola, and cello give way to electric guitar and bass, bound together through an understanding of black music that, from James P. Johnson to Nina Simone to Kendrick Lamar, has always straddled genres and played with meanings. Moran’s voice provides a clear throughline. It can sound transparent, like clean water, or muddy with inflection, like more brackish straits, or both in the space of a song.

Most of the sixteen tracks on Here Today are originals. “Oklahoma Girl,” Moran’s stateliest composition, traces her ancestry, from a “Nigerian girl” through Oklahoma, Georgia, and on up to New York City, where she lives with her husband, the celebrated pianist Jason Moran, and twin sons. Her renditions of “Two Wings” and “Roun’ About de Mountain” nod to her great-great-uncle Hall Johnson, whose arrangements helped codify African American spirituals, as well as to tenor Roland Hayes, whose arrangements she credits. Yet they’re hardly reverent. “Two Wings” gently percolates across bar lines while “Roun’ About de Mountain” boils into a steaming swirl of crunched chords and tangled polyrhythms. Both tracks benefit from guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer JT Lewis, who make up the trio Harriet Tubman, perhaps the least constrained, most raucous band on New York’s creative-music scene. They align precisely with her approach to black music as philosophically unbound.

Throughout, Moran considers freedom and bondage. On “Metal,” a track lasting little more than thirty seconds, cultural historian Gene Alexander Peters manipulates slave chains from his collection of African American artifacts to provide something like percussion. For a reworking of “Feeling Good,” which Nina Simone branded as a liberation anthem, Moran overdubs herself into a chorus, to achieve a soaring sound and, maybe, to imply that just feeling good is a complicated thing. The melody of the original song “We All Just Live in the World” fits a lullaby, but Moran offers complexity and challenge rather than reassurance: “Sometimes she sounds crazy/She makes sense from time to time if you can get free.” Elsewhere, her lyrics address what’s bought and sold, making reference to her father’s career as a banker, the “black gold” of both oil futures and slave markets, and the 1921 destruction of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street at the hands of white rioters.

Moran’s songs are accessible, and rendered with the nuance of good jazz. Jason Moran plays on two tracks, with the riveting concision that has become a hallmark of his work. But the primary pianist here is Alicia. Once in an interview, Jason recalled hearing Alicia play piano at the Manhattan School of Music, where the two first met. “This girl can improvise in ways that are shocking,” he told me. Her unexpected ideas come across subtly here, within each song’s form.

Jason once told me, “I’m a straight-up jazz musician, no doubt, but I also like to think of myself as an urban performance artist who happens to play piano.” Alicia Hall Moran is a straight-up mezzo-soprano, but let’s think of her as an Oklahoma girl turned New York City modernist who happens to sing.

 

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FEELING BLUE

For Blue Note Records’ 75th birthday party tonight, pianists Robert Glasper and Jason Moran will reprise some of the four-handed duets the boogie-woogie pioneers Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis recorded in 1939 for the venerable jazz label’s maiden release. This Winter Jazzfest concert will also find Glasper and Moran performing personal benchmarks from later in the label’s formidable catalog alongside saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, singer Bilal, bassist Alan Hampton, and drummer Eric Harland. Although it began with Ammons and Lewis’s proto-rock ’n’ roll, the label founded by German-born Alfred Lion and Communist writer Max Margulis would eventually come to signify a bespoke outlet for quality experimentalism, and Glasper’s and Moran’s samplings should be deeper than most.

Wed., Jan. 8, 8 p.m., 2014

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Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O

The whimsical drummer always has a blast with the holiday stuff, and this Jazz Standard hit is now an ongoing tradition. His threesome has no problem blending sentiment and silliness on the seasonal tunes, but they truly reach next level status when the two approaches melt together. Actually, Wilson reaches that rather indescribable nexus with regularity, and this year rilliant pianist Jason Moran helps him park the sleigh on the roof.

Dec. 17-18, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2013

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Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief and Mayhem

Her hook-up with Jason Moran has become something unique: You don’t see many violin/piano front lines these days. Insiders know that they’re both agents provocateurs, improvisers who don’t let one nuance go by without considering its pliability. Wonder if any of their melodic esprit will find its way into the book?

Aug. 28-Sept. 2, 9 & 11 p.m., 2012

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Intimate Encounters at June’s Jazz Fests

Even if the days of corporate-sponsored big-ticket New York jazz events are done, June remains jazz-festival season here. But what does “jazz festival” mean these days?

At the Blue Note last month, pianist Jason Moran and drummer Herlin Riley dug into what seemed more conversation than performance, splitting the difference between the two endeavors in riveting fashion. Themes bubbled up as rhythms snapped to then shimmied off. Clamor begat lyricism, then returned to clamor of a fresh sort. At one point, Moran placed copper bells next to his piano’s strings to produce droning overtones while Riley built a soft wash of cymbals. Sometimes, a song took hold: Moran’s “Gentle Shifts South” or “Lulu’s Back in Town.” Moran extended not just the harmony but also the form of one instantly familiar ballad; Riley let his brushstrokes extend way past bar lines before snapping them back.

“That was a song called ‘Body and Soul,'” Moran said. He turned on an MP3 player. “And this is a song called ‘Body and Soul,’ sung by Eddie Jefferson. I just want to listen to it.” That he did, all the way through, playing along for a measure or two. “I think it’s important to listen together,” he said. He explained a bit about this 1952 recording—that Jefferson sang the exact phrasing and improvisations saxophonist Coleman Hawkins had recorded in 1939 and how Jefferson’s lyrics formed “a journal of what he’d heard.” So the Blue Note crowd caught Moran digging Jefferson reveling in Hawkins’s playing of a classic. It was both a jazz-history lesson for a mostly tourist crowd and the set’s most avant-garde moment.

That duet might have fit within the Vision Festival, the annual event that is this country’s essential gathering of avant-garde improvising musicians. But it came during the second annual installment of the Blue Note Jazz Festival, based at its namesake club and with additional shows at the Highline Ballroom and B.B. King’s. This year, the fest also highlighted women who elevate the idea of jazz singing without singing all that much jazz. Cassandra Wilson performed some original songs from her new album, Another Country, and her band reunited the fantastic guitar team of Brandon Ross and Marvin Sewell. A decade ago, Buika (who performs under her surname) did Tina Turner imitations in Las Vegas; last month, she sang with an emotional style drawn from gypsy and flamenco music, and a rasp in her voice that suggested Nina Simone. She should—and will soon—be a star.

During a Blue Note Jazz Festival set headlined by Savion Glover, another intriguing duet took shape. The tap dancer, who had already displayed his ability to sound like a hand drum or full trap set, invited drummer Jack DeJohnette to the stage. DeJohnette played cascading beats on tom-toms that took Glover out of his (admittedly great) game. The exchange was abstract and simple at first, then finally densely overlapping, song-like in some moments but fully improvised.

One more duet, the most exalted of all, formed the high point of the 17th annual Vision Festival. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Grimes, who plays bass and violin, had played together twice during the past two years. Grimes, who played on 1960s free jazz recordings by the likes of Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor, had been missing in action for nearly 30 years and presumed dead by some until a decade ago. By 2003, he was back in New York, at the Vision Festival, playing a green-stained bass dubbed “Olive Oyl” given to him by William Parker, one of the fest’s founders. Smith, a brilliant and unclassifiable musician and composer, plays trumpet with little vibrato and a tone that can be either boldly declarative or soft to the point of breaking. At first, Grimes played violin and then bass, as if sketching, while Smith slowly filled in color. By set’s end, Smith had found his way to something as balladic as “Body and Soul.” Grimes plucked out a walking bassline that soon zigzagged off into a majestic song all its own.

This year’s Vision Festival took place at Brooklyn’s Roulette, simultaneously signaling the borough’s growing reputation for creative music and downtown culture’s difficulty maintaining its foothold in, well, downtown Manhattan. Despite this sense of displacement, the usual enthusiasm filled the air and Vision’s customary crowd—right down to painter Jeff Schlanger at his canvas, first row, stage left—filled the space. The festival has many charms, not least its chances to hear tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan and to catch the exalted rhythm team of bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake (best heard this year in the reconstituted In Order to Survive). For an evening in his honor, Joe McPhee, who plays both trumpet and saxophone, fronted an 11-piece band including four bassists. The group’s improvisations were based on “Gardens of Harlem,” composed by McPhee’s first employer, trombonist Clifford Thornton.

Maybe the formula for a June jazz fest has been subverted. Household names and grand gestures are out; neglected masters and unexpected duets are the new order.

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Ergo

Trombonist Brett Sroka’s dreamy trio makes small, incremental moves sound profound, mixing together some ominous keyboard tinkle, a bit of digitally enhanced brass, and enough textural percussion to keep the whole thing fluid. Rather unique. Tonight, Sroka’s enlisted the mighty Jason Moran to handle those keys.

Sun., Nov. 27, 10 p.m., 2011

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LOOKING BACK

If you were to visit the White House, you would find the work of the groundbreaking African-American artist and Bronx native Glenn Ligon. The Obamas selected his 1992 work, Black Like Me No. 2, which repeats the phrase, “All the traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence,” a line from John Howard Griffin’s famous book, until the text gradually blurs and becomes illegible. Ligon, who is gay, rose up in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the leader of a movement in art that defiantly challenged traditional definitions of race and sexuality. The Whitney presents his first comprehensive mid-career retrospective of about 100 works, including paintings, prints, photography, drawings, and sculptural installations. On March 23 at 8, see his latest video piece, “The Death of Tom,” an “abstractionist recreation” of the final scene of Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 silent movie Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with a new soundtrack by jazz pianist Jason Moran. A talk with Ligon and Moran will follow the performance.

Wed., March 23, 8 p.m., 2011

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‘Thirsty Ear Presents an Evening of Trio Treats with Matthew Shipp Trio’

You can get into all sorts of fistfights and parlor games about who’s the most innovative jazz pianist around these days: Jason Moran or this New York mainstay. Moran’s more trad-bound–and, not
coincidentally, more feted–but despite Shipp’s avant-garde roots, his latest disc includes his takes on “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Take the A Train,” neither of which would upset anyone down the street at Blue Note. His playing is luxurious no matter what style he plumbs, and he’s still got a lot to prove at 50 years young. With Weasel Walter/Mary Halvorson/Peter Evans Trio.

Mon., March 7, 10 p.m., 2011