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."

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.

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Paul J. MacArthur