Against the Tide

Pianist and former Houstonian Jason Moran refuses to flow with mainstream jazz

Despite positive press, Moran and his unconventional style are not easy to sell, either to the public or to other musicians. "You can get a lot of work by copying" Evans, Monk and Tyner, Moran says. "You can be working nine to ten months out of the year in a lot of clubs because [you're playing] something that people can recognize easily."

Stylistically Moran isn't going to be mistaken for a clone. When he's on a gig, he won't comp like the average bop pianist. He'll use different chord variations or emphasize different beats. He'll cause a fellow musician to think twice on stage. "He looks at straight-up traditional jazz like a disease almost," says Harland. "It is not like a bad disease. I don't want to make it sound like he just hates it, but he uses that as a motivation to sometimes not go that route. It helps him grow in a new direction."

There is a price to pay for this kind of individualism. "You don't receive flak, but you don't get as many calls," he says. "That is fine, because I want to be selective about who I play with anyway. You did not see Andrew Hill on everybody's record. You did not see Thelonious Monk on everybody's record. You saw him in his own context or with people he could deal with."

Pianist Jason Moran: You can't box him in.
Eric Wong
Pianist Jason Moran: You can't box him in.

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That's not to say Moran isn't receiving his fair share of gigs. He was commissioned to write a piece for the San Francisco Jazz Festival, one of the most important jazz festivals in the United States. His composition will premiere there on Halloween. But his touring schedule is limited at the moment, which allows him more time to compose and practice. It has its benefits. "I know a lot of bands that work nine months out of the year," says Moran, always a gentleman despite his frank words. "Preferably they should be practicing six to seven months out of the year, because I don't hear the development from year to year."

While the press has been good to Moran, his name is not exactly spoken regularly in mainstream jazz circles -- yet. Which is just fine with him. "I don't expect it to be for many years, nor do I want it to for many years," he says. "I want it to come very naturally. I don't want it to all of a sudden be this huge push on this pianist: Then his stock rises and then his stock falls. That would only happen if I allowed it to, which I won't, because I am all about working on music rather than performing it a lot, because the performance will come.


Jason Moran
Facing Left (Blue Note)

"It doesn't matter how Houston proud you are, if you like your jazz in the pocket without a lot of dissonance or surprises, then Facing Left is definitely out in left field for you. Pianist Jason Moran, a former Houstonian, prefers to attack your intellect rather than swing your soul. His music seems to owe more to Bartók or Schoenberg than to Hancock. If you're prepared for that, then Facing Left, which Moran dedicated to his late teacher Jaki Byard, may just be rightfor you.

True to his unconventional nature, Moran's compositions come from unusual ideas. "Thief Without Loot" is a musical transcription of a Japanese woman talking. The almost nagging melody is unique, and when Moran doubles the melodic line with a Fender Rhodes piano, it adds to the sense of attack. "Lies Are Sold" is built around three notes; here, Moran uses a Fender Rhodes to create a sense of orchestration, and the relaxed theme (by Moran standards) is in contrast to his almost anxiety-ridden solo. "Fragment of a Necklace" employs the Schillinger system of musical composition, which applies mathematical principles, namely geometry, to composing. Rooted in 20th-century classical music, the haunting themes are at once pleasing and discerning.

Moran's source material ranges even farther afield: He looks to Björk and gives us an interpretation of her song "Joga." One of the album's more accessible tracks, "Joga" is generally a ballad, but Moran flits between melodicism and dissonance, always returning to a calming center after a few measures. He employs this technique on several songs, and it's a clever and skillful way to introduce more challenging harmonic ideas without alienating a listener with a tune full of dissonant chords. Moran also dips into soundtrack music with a version of "Yojimbo," lifted from an Akira Kurosawa film. The marchlike tune has something of a funky bass line, but on top of the groove Moran remains on the outside, creating an odd contrast. In a paradoxical twist, the most in-the-pocket performance is an interpretation of Byard's bluesy and swinging "Twelve." The most accessible and radio-friendly of the 13 tracks here, the tune is just plain fun.

Facing Left is the work of an artist intent on creating a unique voice while smashing barriers. It's not always accessible, or even easy to listen to, but it will make you think. Byard would be proud.

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