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By Ted Panken
From the earliest days of jazz to its modern cutting edge, Jason Moran shares his affection for and fascination with the music and its creators.
Jason Moran wants to convey something more than notes and tones when he performs From the Dancehall to the Battlefield, his 15-piece, multi-media meditation on transformative African-American composer-cultural entrepreneur James Reese Europe (1881-1919), which he issued earlier this year on his Yes Records imprint. That’s why the 48-year-old pianist wears a thick peacoat and boots, mirroring Europe’s attire during the winter of 1917-1918, when he served as first lieutenant and bandleader with the 369th Infantry Regiment, dubbed the Harlem Hellfighters, whose members distinguished themselves in intense combat in France and, along the way, introduced that country to the sound of Black American Music.
“We want to feel what they were experiencing, to access that spirit and honor as much as possible,” drummer Nasheet Waits explains. In early September, Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen, Moran’s partners in the Bandwagon Trio since the late ’90s, played on opening day of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, for which Moran guest-curated Here To Stay, its inaugural exhibition. A few years earlier, they’d also propelled numerous concerts of Moran’s In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959, on which a differently staffed tentet reimagined the rousing album referenced in the title, backdropped by a video that traced various routes by which Monk’s music and persona penetrated Moran’s consciousness.
“Jason always thinks in visual terms, not only for the audiences, but also for us,” Waits continues. “We can feel, OK, maybe this is a little uncomfortable, but we’re going to be truly professional, like the military, and do what the mission at hand calls for.”
During our first conversation for this article, three weeks after the Armstrong House opening, Moran speaks via Zoom from his hotel room in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where the imminent mission was an evening Bandwagon concert. “I’m trying to introduce some new songs I’ve written, and also touch Armstrong repertoire like ‘What a Wonderful World’ or ‘Sleepy Time Down South,’ which we played with [trumpeter] Ambrose Akinmusire at the Armstrong House Museum,” says Moran, who had played an Armstrong-focused duo with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith in Germany the previous week. “It was a seamless transition to see what happened during the decade after James Reese Europe passed. When I inherited the project, there was no framing around the 100 or so included [exhibit] objects, no videos made for each case. It needed a lot of copy and a lot of history. How do you provide enough information for an object to stand in for a book chapter so a visitor feels they understand it?
“We want the museum to continue to shape the narrative around what Louis Armstrong means, not how he was portrayed, and often mis-portrayed. For White America, he was beyond Black — the exception. People told him to his face, ‘I don’t like Black people but I like you.’ That version of him smiling got sold so frequently. His depth was overwhelming. I read the countless letters he wrote, heard the countless audiotapes he prepared for friends, saw the collages he made over countless hours. I want to face Armstrong, face the songs, and find a way to play those songs in a way that represents what it feels like to play them today, just as Armstrong always figured out how to face material in a way that showed the absurdity of the moment or the absurdity of the song.”
I ask Moran to discuss his cross-disciplinary stagings of Dancehall to Battlefield and, midway through the 2010s, the kaleidoscopic All Rise: An Elegy for Fats Waller, the last of his 10 Blue Note albums, and the live Fats Waller Dance Party, during which he wore an outsized papier-mâché mask of his outsized subject.
“I love watching theater and I like direction,” Moran says. “For the Fats Waller show, everyone had to commit to making the room feel like a party. I developed great respect for what pop acts do to create energy in a crowd. Over a few years on the road, we figured it out, even with really stiff audiences, like in Switzerland. But every time it felt like starting from square one, like you had to renew it every night.”
He turns to the current project. “I love giving people an impulse to drive them into their solo rather than, ‘I’m just going to play the changes,’ which can launch us into boring music. If you’re going to launch into the changes, why not wear boots a bit too small for your feet? Why not be sweating more than usual when you’re trying to be cool and look good on stage? Why not have something that gets in the way of your freedom?”
He references the spaces and places that Europe traversed after 1904, when he transplanted from Washington, D.C., to New York, where he quickly became a key contributor to the upper echelons of early 20th-century Black musical theater. In 1910, he organized the Clef Club, a Black musicians’ organization from which Europe staffed multiple orchestras — frequently overseen by Eubie Blake and Blake’s collaborator Noble Sissle — that held a quasi-monopoly on New York high society functions. In 1912, Europe produced a “Concert of Negro Music” at Carnegie Hall, comprising works by Will Marion Cook, W.C. Handy and himself. These works, which directly foreshadowed the first recordings labeled as jazz, were played by a 125-member orchestra, including mandolins, banjos, harp-guitars and saxophones alongside symphonic instruments. Also in 1912, Europe began to collaborate with Vernon and Irene Castle, the prominent white ballroom dance duo whose sleek stylizations mainstreamed vernacular Black dances — The Turkey Trot, The Charleston, The Black Bottom — into popular culture.
“James Reese Europe had worn lots of beautiful tuxedos and played in elegant places,” Moran says. “Now he’s putting on boots and a backpack and this coat to play and conduct in the cold. He’s set the past behind him. He’s signing up for something else. Our concert tries to give some sense of that. Now is a really difficult time in America — and for these musicians and their families, too. So something should be uncomfortable about the moment. If we make it to the end, we join with the audience in singing one of these anthems, and we all feel like we’re together again.”
On October 7, a warm, humid evening, Moran — draped in a beige canvas coat over a shirt-and-pants ensemble with a matching purplish print design, courtesy of the Japanese brand Sacai — performs an hour-long concert with drummer Marcus Gilmore and electronicist-tape loop musician Tyler Gilmore (a.k.a. BlankFor.ms) in the Sound Room at Public Record in Brooklyn’s Gowanus district. The occasion is the release of BlankFor.ms’ Refract (Red Hook), a studio recording where Moran’s and Gilmore’s responses to Blank For.ms’ compositions, created on cassette tapes with synthesizer and an array of filters, are channeled into a modular synthesizer, on which BlankFor.ms processes their sounds in real time with various delays, loopers, reverbs and chopping-up and re-pitching options. After the session, BlankFor.ms and producer Sun Chung edited the substantially post-produced proceedings into the 16 tracks that comprise the CD/2-LP document.
In contrast, during the scratch-improvised concert, which transpires within four episodes, Moran and Marcus Gilmore “fed the machine,” Moran quips the following night from his Harlem apartment, with ideas that BlankFor.ms improvised upon and selected tape loops for, sending the reconfigured soundscape back to his partners for further elaboration. “The machine takes time to digest all the information,” Moran says. “On one piece, by the time I started to move my hands off the keys to hear what the machine was doing ... oh, my goodness, it had grown into something more massive. Tyler takes into account that something much longer is happening. A few times during soundcheck, the machine had recorded for six minutes, and he’d pull back something like a memory or a flashback. Having that long a feedback loop is exciting and scary, because the machine forgets nothing.
“I felt active in a way that I wasn’t on the record. In the studio, because the compositions were the starting place, the field for what to place into the mix was narrower, whereas with the open frame, it was like making a soup, tasting it, deciding, ‘Oh, I want to add this,’ then you taste it again and add something a bit later. Some parts I could anticipate, but much more I couldn’t — not so much the improvisatory real-time thing, but how the texture would change. So I will sign up fast, if I can, to do another one of these shows. I think there is more to develop. There’s always more to develop.”
The Public Record Sound Room is a square, compact space with pristine acoustics, extraordinary speakers and no chairs. I arrive early and stand a few inches from the slightly raised stage, directly between Moran’s piano and BlankFor.ms’ gear-filled table. As Moran addresses the Steinway B, his expression appears to transition into an altered state. It didn’t change as he conjured variations that evoked, among other things, the dialects of Duke Ellington and Andrew Hill, and minimalist Philip Glass-esque repetitive motifs.
“I’m always altered,” Moran jokes. “I don’t want to lose any opportunities on the stage or waste anyone’s time. I like to play hard. I’m trying to maintain an intensity that can last for at least another 30 years. As I get older, though, I’m a bit out of shape. Today my right arm is clearly saying, ‘PSST, you overworked yesterday.’ I don’t really get injuries like that. It’s like, ‘Maybe think about something else next time; maybe you don’t have to play like that.’
“I don’t have a ritual that I do beforehand every time. I believe in diet, though. I believe in libations. Cassandra Wilson taught me that when I played with her years ago. Every set, she’d toast the spirit before going onto the stage. If there’s anything, I spend the set working the food I just ate and the drink I just drank out of the system so I have no desire for it after the set is over.”
Tyler Gilmore had invoked a similar motif a few days before the concert, noting that “one of the defining aspects of all of Jason’s music is how you hear him constantly digesting an influence, but also rebelling against it and abstracting it — breaking things in order to rebuild them. The thing he’s doing is never what he ends up doing. There’s always a sort of punk sensibility.”
Circa 2010, Gilmore was in the process of making “a directional change from composing jazz big band music towards electronic music” when he encountered Moran, who’d recently replaced Fred Hersch on the faculty of New England Conservatory, where he still teaches. “Tyler wanted to discuss arranging, which I couldn’t get into because I don’t do it well, but I would talk about the stance of arranging or creating a song with a personal angle,” Moran recalls. “He was listening to a lot of electronic music, stunning work, some of which I’d been familiar with, much of which I wasn’t. We actually developed a closer relationship after he graduated. I asked Tyler to help me arrange and orchestrate the music on my Looks of a Lot record with high school students in Chicago, and a piece that I did in Poland for a string quartet and the Bandwagon with Marvin Sewell. Then I didn’t see him for a while, because he was off developing his craft and becoming a tape master.”
Gilmore, though, regards these early interactions as paradigm-shifting. “We met at a moment where I was frustrated with big band writing and becoming more excited about making electronic music,” he says. “We didn’t do clear, obvious lesson-y things. I showed Jason some of my big band stuff, but I wanted his perspective more holistically on where electronic music might be taking me. I brought in things like ‘Stretch 2,’ an earlier piece by Arca, or ‘Many Faces Out of Focus’ by Lapalux, and Jason took in everything I played him with genuine interest. I sometimes felt he’d learned more than I had, because he’s such a sponge. I found his openness inspiring, and wanted to find ways to recreate that in my own listening and interactions.”
Moran doesn’t sideman with just anyone. Since the earliest stages of his career, he’s carried the “punk” attitude Gilmore referenced into associations of varying duration with idiosyncratic elders — Boomers Greg Osby, Steve Coleman and Wilson; and Great Depression-WW II products like Sam Rivers, Von Freeman, Paul Motian, Bunky Green, Henry Threadgill and Charles Lloyd. “I like playing with saxophonists,” Moran says. “As a comping pianist, I like feeling that I can charge up the group maybe even more than the drummer can — or soften the corners.”
Moran appears on Lloyd’s forthcoming 2024 album with Larry Grenadier and Brian Blade, and he would join him a week after the Public Records event for an 85th birthday concert at Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center, with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland. He recalls his first encounters with Lloyd in 2007. “Charles’ music offers a lot of opportunity to make color, make bold choices,” he says. “A string of pianists did that with him. But I knew, joining his band, that I didn’t need to mimic anything that happened before, and it would be a good relationship if I tried to shade what I felt about the music in the moment to show my point of view.”
I ask Moran how he’d developed the confidence and self-assurance to insert his personality so forcefully into these various encounters. “The easy way to say it is that’s how I was raised,” he says. “I liked my parents. I liked their parents. I like being around people of different generations and hearing the weird things they say. I’ll never get to whatever that thing was from 1932. It’s not even a desire. But when I work with someone who didn’t come through these institutionalized schools of thought around what jazz is and what it isn’t, who created the actual language I’m playing, I have so much respect that I hold myself accountable for trying to hear something below the surface of what they’re saying and bring that forward, even if it might make the band shake a bit. Make them not forget the moment, even if they hate it. Make it count. That’s how I was taught. You owe people that.”
He laughs. “‘I ain’t never callin’ Jason again; shit too weird.’ Although it will never be weird. First of all, I knew who many of these people had played with, who’d done really original work. I’m a student of that generation. To learn that language and interact with it is a passport stamp I felt, and still feel, I need. I’ve always been looking for a style that somehow found the sweet spot where enough techniques of the different eras meet. Maybe most important is not to relegate a song to a style of piano — a gospel song can sound like ragtime, or a ragtime piece can sound like Cecil Taylor. If you blur the technique or separate it from its era, there might be something to find.
Key to Moran’s concept of piano language is keen attention to dynamics, as imparted to him by Jaki Byard, whose presence at Manhattan School of Music persuaded him to matriculate there from 1993 to 1997. Directly thereafter, at Harland’s recommendation, Moran joined Greg Osby, who soon introduced him to Andrew Hill and Muhal Richard Abrams, both, like Byard, stride piano aficionados unfettered by concerns of stylistic orthodoxy. “Jaki talked a lot about touch and color — the sound of your hands,” Moran says. “Thelonious Monk, who had such a singular touch, was the first thing I heard, so I think I was already coming out of a folder that said, ‘You’ll have to find a way to color these notes.’”
He experienced another “mega moment in hearing the different ways piano can sound” while recording Black Stars by Bandwagon with Sam Rivers, when Rivers and Moran played duo piano for the first two minutes of “Let It Sound.” “When Sam played, it sounded like glass shattering,” Moran says. “His tone was crystal-clear, the notes pinging off one another. I entered right behind him after this trill, and it’s almost like someone put a blanket over the sound of the piano and darkened it. Nobody changed the mics. It was that palpable to me. I thought, ‘Oh, shit, did I know my sound was that muddy?’”
Moran continues: “I always wanted to honor my teachers by inviting them into a scenario I felt they’d excel in. A month before Jaki was murdered in 1999, we talked about doing a concert. After that, it was clear that I was not going to let opportunities like recording with Sam pass by.” He mentioned a program with Andrew Hill for which both pianists composed original music, and an event in 2014, his first year as artistic director for Jazz at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where he presented a group led by Abrams and played Abrams’ compositions.
“Tyler is much closer in age to me than I am to them, but working with Tyler makes me stay present, and not go into stereotype response,” he says. “That’s how [Refract] came about.”
Moran discussed his current deep dive, Duke Ellington — like Europe, a Harlemite by way of Washington, D.C., and a mentee of Europe’s colleague Will Marion Cook — whose 125th birth anniversary the Kennedy Center will celebrate in 2024. “Ellington is so intentional, especially in his devotion to making sonic paintings about Black America,” Moran says. “It’s the portrait he’ll never find enough colors for, and he animates it again and again. Pianistically, he’s one of the first minimalists. He makes simple three-note riffs that become songs, the same as Monk, and does it with such elegance that we don’t notice. But his music is the knottiest, soil-ridden root, grinding through the concrete, making this incredible forest. He put together a band of people who don’t think the same way, and pulled stuff out of them. Ellington is my model for cross-discipline, from the stage designs to the costumes to the way he sets up the band to the dances, the poetry, the art.”
“These people did so much that often gets shoved into a shelf or stated as a paraphrase. Meanwhile, they mowed all the lawns, paved all the highways, put all the plumbing and electricity in the buildings. Do we really take into account how much groundwork that generation laid 100 years ago? In 1919, the year James Reese Europe died, he was thinking about the problems of 1819, and was unafraid to address them. He has a plantation medley, so you hear a complex idea about his ancestry and the songs that were part of that era. Europe was remixing, which is natural to the way a lot of us work today. I just bought an Army Book of Music that has all the songs Europe’s band was playing at the time. ‘Wade in the Water’ — a spiritual — is in there. So is ‘La Marseillaise,’ the song they famously played upon arriving in France — the remix version. James was writing a lot of music, but he was unafraid to play anyone else’s songs if they were going to raise people’s spirits.
“History humbles me.”
Featured photos courtesy of Red Hook Records.