Against the Tide
When Jason Moran attended Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead workshop a few years ago, the young pianist was required to write and perform an original composition for the notoriously demanding vocalist and instructor. Before debuting his piece, Moran heard the work was creating a stir among his peers, and not a positive one. Because Carter was known for her blunt critiques, most students went the safe route, staying in the pocket and relying on standard instrumentation. But Moran cut loose with "Aquanaut," a composition that made use of three vocalists (singing wordless parts), two basses and two saxophones. Influenced by 20th-century classical music and the avant-garde, the song is, at some points, cacophonous and more than a little outside (a later version of "Aquanaut" can be heard on Moran's Blue Note debut, Soundtrack to Human Emotion). The pianist's fellow students were positive Carter was going to rip into Moran when she heard the tune. It was just too far out of bounds. "They thought my music was just some random note picking," says Moran. "I was like, "Naw, we'll see.' "
As it turned out, Carter fawned over "Aquanaut," while lambasting the more traditional pieces by other students. The lesson was clear: Don't parrot your influences. Build on what's been laid down before you. Develop your own voice, one that reflects your vision, be it outside, inside or on Saturn. "It was kind of comforting for me to hear someone say, "Keep going at it,' " he says. "That has been the consensus with most of the old musicians I meet. They have said I have done the right thing. "You just keep doing it, and things will happen.' I think that is what is happening now."
To say the least. Since the release of last year's Soundtrack to Human Emotion, a well-crafted effort full of left turns and dissonant passages, Moran has been the darling of the jazz press. Earlier this year the pianist appeared on the cover of Jazziz magazine as part of saxophonist Greg Osby's New Directions group. Then came the summer release of Facing Left, one the most well-received sophomore efforts in recent memory. While Moran isn't selling records like vocalist and pianist Diana Krall, or even bassist extraordinaire Christian McBride, he still has created quite a buzz and an enormous amount of publicity. He's being accepted in some circles as a young innovator. But life as an innovator isn't an easy ride.
When attending the High School for Performing and Visual Arts, Moran was something of an outcast. "He had it kind of rough in high school because he was switching from classical to jazz," says drummer Eric Harland, a close friend who attended HSPVA and later the Manhattan School of Music with Moran. Harland, who appears on Human Emotion, recommended Moran to Osby, who was quick to employ the pianist on his Blue Note albums Further Ado, Zero and Banned in New York. "A lot of people didn't think that he was going to be able to put forth the effort to be a true jazz musician," Harland continues. "They always thought he would kind of half play it and not really be able to, I guess, be great in it. As you can see, he just proved all of them wrong."
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While Moran's affinity for cutting-edge jazz and 20th-century classical music didn't endear him to some traditionally minded peers, other students fueled his fascination for outside players, introducing him to the likes of Osby, Steve Coleman, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton and Andrew Hill. At the same time, Moran avoided the seductions of the usual piano giants, like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Bill Evans or McCoy Tyner. Moran insisted on seeking out new territory. "I think a lot of pianists or musicians nowadays only check out a select few musicians," says Moran. "I think that is what is limiting some of the growth of the music."
According to Harland, Moran practices what he preaches. "He would be up in the room listening to all these different artists, always searching for new material." He was "always looking for something that was on the cutting edge, not necessarily the norm," he says. "He never wanted to be like anybody else. Sometimes if he felt like he couldn't bring something different, he would kind of sit there and rock on the piano until he heard something. It was just funny; he never wanted to be redundant."
While attending the Manhattan School of Music, Moran received private instruction from pianist Jaki Byard, another outside musician who encouraged him to pursue a less traditional path. Moran later studied with Hill and Abrams, but it was in Osby's band that the pianist blossomed. He finally had found a working ensemble devoted to breaking down barriers and trying out new concepts. He had the perfect opportunity to explore his own voice and, at the same time, learn from and feed off Osby. When Osby released Further Ado in 1997, the press took note of the young pianist, who was comfortable playing on the saxophonist's rarified turf, but it was Moran's own Soundtrack that brought him national attention. With Facing Left, the former Houstonian became a true darling of the critics.
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."
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.
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 right for 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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