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Wise Young Man

Not a young lion or flavor of the month, Jason Moran keeps pushing himself and his music.
Michael Wong

Learning to be patient takes some people years, maybe even a lifetime. Jason Moran is already grasping the virtues of that principle; of course, the young jazz pianist had a good teacher, the late Jaki Byard, who taught Moran the benefits of waiting your turn.

When Moran was a sophomore in college, Byard, the eccentric, unconventional pianist who didn't make his debut recording until he was 40 years old, told the upstart that his time would come. " 'The most important thing you can learn is patience. There's no rush in life,' " Moran recalls Byard saying.

"Things have a way of working themselves out," says Moran. "To try to force an issue is something unnatural."

The irony here is that Moran hasn't had to wait long for things to work out. A native Houstonian and graduate of the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the 24-year-old has spent the year touring with marquee acts Greg Osby and Cassandra Wilson. And he recently released his first solo recording, Soundtrack to Human Motion, for Blue Note.

Despite his youth and quick success, Moran isn't exactly one of jazz's young lions or the latest flavor of the month. He has carved out a reputation as a musician who does things his own way -- no formulas, no songbooks, no piano standard-bearers to imitate. Moran's music draws from painting, films, sculpture, whatever is going on in his head. But more important, it draws from his study of pianists who have been overlooked: Herbie Nichols, Andrew Hill and Muhal Richard Abrams.

"I'm studying more of the pianists who really didn't receive acclaim but I think are geniuses," says Moran. "My task is to seek these musicians out if they are still living, get under their wing and learn from them. You can adapt anything to your style if you have an understanding of who you are as a musician."

At HSPVA, Moran remembers, he mentioned that he would release an album by 2000. To get there, Moran first enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. He had turned down full scholarships at other places to attend school in New York, where -- unlike Houston -- a lot of envelope-pushing music is performed.

By his second year Moran was studying with Byard. An enormously versatile musician with an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz piano and European classical music, Byard encouraged Moran to explore and become proficient at everything.

In 1997, during his fourth year of schooling, Moran got an opportunity to play a gig with saxophonist Greg Osby. Osby was short a piano player for a three-week European tour, and although Osby had never heard Moran play, the sax man's drummer, Eric Harland, a fellow Houstonian and HSPVA graduate, recommended Moran for the gig.

After the band's first gig in Austria, Osby came to Moran and told him how much he enjoyed playing with him.

"I was very relieved," says Moran. "At that stage of my playing, it wouldn't have made any difference who asked me. But after playing with Greg Osby and the people he had assembled, I knew that was the musical path that I wanted to follow."

Moran was considered a full-time member of Osby's band after the three-week tour, not only because Osby enjoyed Moran's playing but also because he liked Moran's outlook on music in general.

After the tour, Osby went into the studio to record Further Ado (Blue Note). Osby doesn't use sidemen on his recordings. He uses band members. Which included Moran.

"That was my first recording," Moran says. "The first lesson I learned from recording was to really know the music inside out in order to feel comfortable playing it. In Greg's case, everything was written out beforehand. He also gave me a tape of the compositions, so I had a good grasp of the music.

"The second thing was being able to perform cohesively with the other musicians. In the studio, you have to temper what you're going to play. You don't have five or ten minutes to expand on a solo. You have to give the condensed version. That means thinking seriously about what you're going to play."

At that point things started rolling fast. There was a heavy buzz in the jazz community about Moran, and Blue Note began to look at him as a possible signee. Blue Note President Bruce Lundvall approached Moran after an Osby gig. Let's make a record, Lundvall said to Moran. Let's do it, Moran said in return.

Moran took what he had learned from Osby into the studio in August 1998: how to run a session, how to perform well, how to achieve a group sound and how to have every musician feel comfortable. Of course, it wasn't that difficult. Moran's "sidemen" were the cats in Osby's band -- Osby on soprano and alto saxophones, Stefon Harris on vibes, Lonnie Plaxico on bass and Eric Harland on drums. Much of the music on Soundtrack to Human Motion was written during Moran's college years. Cuts such as "Retrograde," "Root Progression" and "Snake's Stance" are more recent. They are the tunes with more rhythmic structures and different chord progressions.

Moran's music comes from many places. He quotes both Maurice Ravel ("Le Tombeau de Couperin") and Andrew Hill ("Retrograde") with equal facility. The tune "JAMO Meets SAMO" is inspired by the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat. "Kinesics" is a purely improvised piece of music that came to Moran as he finished the tune "JAMO."

Moran doesn't have the traditional solo piano touch. His sound is sometimes a little like 20th-century classical, sometimes like post-bop, sometimes like a mantra. His pieces will end abruptly and leave the listener with a slightly uneasy feeling. Moran doesn't accent the strong beats. He plays the off beats, so his music has a slightly teetering feeling, which comes as a result of his listening to a lot of African drummers and pianists, such as Hill, who've studied African rhythms.

"[Hill] calls it 'African retention,' a kind of a subconscious connection with your ancestors," says Moran. "That's where it all comes from."

Moran's album, mixed last September, wasn't released until this summer. Meanwhile, the pianist has recorded as part of Osby's band on Zero and Banned in New York, played with Steve Coleman and appeared as a guest on Coleman's The Sonic Language of Myth, among other things. In between juggling the different styles of Osby, Coleman and Wilson, Moran keeps studying older musicians.

Moran says that artists such as Hill, Abrams and Billy Hart have been "amazingly open" with their time and musical wisdom. Maybe that's because Moran is attracted to people who have a positive outlook toward music and life. Or maybe it's because as artists with experience in musical collectivism, they all see themselves as part of a reservoir of artistic knowledge, to be shared with all who come to drink.

"Lots of musicians have told me that I'm doing the right thing. They're telling me that I'm keeping the fire alive," says Moran. "I'm still in my formative studies, but I think I'll always be searching for new ways to approach music. I never want to feel stagnant or feel comfortable. I want to feel like I need to make another effort. As soon as you feel comfortable, your music starts to become repetitive, over and over again, and that becomes tired."


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