Pianist Jason Moran challenges tradition

Boston Globe, January 26, 2007

Whenever Jason Moran, Tarus Mateen, and Nasheet Waits take the stage, one of the tightest units in jazz is about to get cooking. Many consider Moran, 32, the foremost pianist of his generation, with seven albums as a leader on Blue Note since “Soundtrack to Human Motion” in 1999. Bassist Mateen and drummer Waits are his longtime co-conspirators. Known as the Bandwagon, the trio, which plays the Regattabar on Thursday, exhibits the kind of exquisite mind-melding interplay that’s a jazz listener’s Holy Grail.

But look a little more closely, and details emerge that suggest Moran is not content to play the role of the tradition-upholding “young lion.” For one thing, there’s that mini-disc recorder sitting within easy reach atop his instrument. As he plays, he flips the recorder on and off, and odd sounds emanate: speeches from historic figures; a strange scratching sound that turns out to be a pencil running across paper; performance artist (and MIT prof) Joan Jonas intoning in a loop, “Artists ought to be writing …”

What’s going on here? Here’s what: Moran is at the top of his art, which to him means it’s time to question as many of its supposed premises as possible. He is taking methods and ideas from stage performers and multimedia installation artists and looking for ways to incorporate them in small-group, instrumental jazz. He is trawling widely for sounds that speak to his cultural and historical interests, and finding ways to make them jazz. He is challenging his listeners, yes, but most of all challenging himself.

On the phone from his apartment in uptown Manhattan, Moran says he’s interested these days in new approaches to performance technique.

“Since I’ve been working with people who use space, I’ve seen that usually a band comes onstage, and the musicians routinely stay at their instruments,” he says. “But there’s space to explore in your area. If I was to talk to Robert Wilson or Merce Cunningham, they would see myriad possibilities that I don’t see. In that confined area, there should be more freedom.”

Specifically, Moran thinks instrumentalists might be able to build more physical motion and communication in their playing, using physical cues and other techniques. He’s also thinking about costume. Why do jazz performers wear just a few standard outfits – jacket and tie, dark slacks, T-shirt and jeans – whereas for some other fields, costume design is a whole and valued specialty?

“Not that I want to get up and dance,” he says with a laugh. And some experiments, he says, might turn out to be dead ends, but nonetheless they’re worth trying.

For spurring him in these new directions, Moran credits his exposure to visual and stage artists, gained in residencies at art centers that commissioned him to produce new works. “Artist in Residence,” his 2006 album, excerpts multimedia works developed for Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Dia Art Foundation in New York and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It’s a sort of sampler plate, in which each track may lack the original narrative and visual context to do it full justice, but the resulting collage is in itself a viable piece.

“I was kind of thinking of the album as an opera highlight [collection],” he says. “It did become its own entity to a certain degree.” He says it’s his responsibility to make the record intelligible. And performing in a club setting, he makes up for the absence of video projections or of the numerous guest collaborators who appear on the album by telling the audience what the piece is about.

For inspiration, Moran also credits his bandmates – “We all come together as a spirit, our relation has grown into more of a brotherhood” – and especially his wife, classical soprano singer Alicia Hall Moran, with whom he shares an enviable artistic complicity.

“I’m extremely grateful,” he says. “I’m not an intellectual, but she is.” He compares their relationship to that – of all people – of Annie Leibovitz and Susan Sontag, another “true intellectual.” Recently, he says, Hall Moran worked with the Bill T. Jones company, which provided him with another wave of new ideas.

Coming up next for Moran is a project on Thelonious Monk, sponsored by Duke University and the San Francisco Jazz Festival. The institutions asked him to re-create a famous large-group Monk concert, featuring 10 players, held at Town Hall in New York in 1959. He took the theme – but also improvised on it.

“I thought it was a good idea, but quite boring,” he says. “Instead, I wanted to make a historical document about that music, relate it to American history in the late 1950s, and then to popular culture in 2007. It’s much larger than a tribute project. Monk is the reason I started playing piano. I owe him all the investigation I can do.”

Original reel-to-reel tapes of the Monk group rehearsing are among the recordings from the Jazz Loft, a legendary New York playing space of that era, archived at Duke. Moran is about to spend time at Duke hearing some of these tapes for the first time.

“It’s going to be quite wild,” he says. “I’m not sure what I’m going to hear. I’m looking forward to it.”

Don’t be surprised if tape of Monk’s group at work finds its way onto Moran’s mini-disc player in the near future, alongside the spoken word loops and bizarre found-object percussions. The way Moran’s ever-searching jazz mind works, it would make perfect sense.