Jason Moran: In New York City, Houston Means Jazz

Jazz pianist Jason Moran thought he'd vary the routine for recording his latest album, Ten. Usually, Moran and his bandmates would be at the studio by 10 a.m. -"That's really early for jazz musicians," he jokes - and work through the day.

This time the Houston born Moran decided to be a little bit more laid-back about things.

"We'd go eat barbecue for lunch and then get to the studio around 1 p.m., so everything was more casual," he says.

Barbecue? In New York City? Where could a guy that grew up in Third Ward find decent barbecue in NYC?

"Oh, there's a place here, I promise I could take anyone there and they would swear they were in Texas," he says.

There's something else that frequently reminds Moran of home - all the Houston jazz musicians currently working in the Big Apple. Moran admits that most people living in Texas would think the state is best known for producing blues and country musicians, but in New York City, Houston has the reputation for producing jazz musicians.

"I think HSPVA had a lot to do with that," he tells Rocks Off. "More and more of us came up here after graduating to go to school and then ended up staying. Now when you meet someone here and say you're from Houston, they say, 'Oh, you play jazz.' I run into somebody from Houston every week. We're all over here."

Moran admits the transition from Houston to New York isn't easy, even with the promise of great training and more opportunities to gig.

"Lots of people go home. It's so expensive here," he says. "Everything is so rushed and people are ... not rude, just rushed.

"I cried the night before I left Houston to come up here," he laughs. "I just sat down and cried. But after a couple of weeks, I was kind of settling in. I thought, 'This isn't so bad. I can do this.' So I stayed."

Soon he was performing regularly and eventually signed to Blue Note Records. "I love working with Blue Note," Moran says. "They let me record whatever I want; they don't interfere. Sure they want to make money, but they trust the performers to know what their audience wants."

Moran quickly added composing, commissions, teaching and lecturing to his performing duties. And then earlier this year, there was that MacArthur Foundation fellowship. Called the Genius Grant, the fellowship comes with a $500,000 cash award.

Moran didn't write much new music for Ten. "Mostly it was music that we've been playing in our live shows, but that for whatever reason we had just never recorded," he says.

Fans that have seen Moran on his last two or three tours will find much of Ten familiar, even though he has made some changes to the tunes. Musicians change and grow over time, he says, and so does the music they play. A song that he'd played at a faster tempo three years ago may have mellowed over time and slowed down.

"I'm always trying new things, not just to do them different, but because I discover something in the melody that I hadn't heard before."

When he's writing new tunes, Moran often takes his clues from 20th century painters. The arts aren't all separate, he insists.

One of his favorite painters is Jean-Michel Basquiat, while a huge musical influence is Thelonious Monk. For Moran, the men might use different mediums, but they both inspire him to respond through music.

Jason Moran and Bandwagon perform with the HSPVA Jazz Ensemble, 7 p.m. tonight at Discovery Green, 1515 McKinney. Free.

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