Written by Becca Pulliam from WBGO-FM
He’s not 40 yet, but Jason Moran is a 2010 MacArthur Fellow, the Artistic Advisor for Jazz at the Kennedy Center, and a Resident Artistic Director at SFJAZZ in San Francisco. He grew up in Houston, teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music and lives in New York, home to an early 20th century piano tradition of which he is more than aware. Moran has led this trio, The Bandwagon, for more than a dozen years.
In Moran’s 2000 solo album, You’ve Got to Be Modernistic, he tapped into a foundational piece of Harlem stride piano and its composer James P. Johnson (1894-1955), who wrote and recorded “Modernistic” in the late 1920s. Moran honored the piece — and he took it apart. He deconstructs and reconstructs, liberates figures coiled inside and works them, taking a known composition to a new place. It’s as true on “Honeysuckle Rose” by Fats Waller as it is on “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic.”
Thomas “Fats” Waller, born in 1904 to a minister’s family, was Johnson’s youthful understudy. Waller had mischief in his hands and double meanings in his lyrics. Though he made the Great Depression seem fun, his piano playing is so in-the-moment, spot-on and technically impossible that you know he was serious. Waller died young, in 1943.
At HarlemStage in 2011, Moran, the multi-talented Meshell Ndegeocello, musicians and dancers presented their first Fats Waller Dance Party. Chairs moved out; the audience filled the floor. Moran introduced a giant papier maché mask of the iconic Waller, eyebrows raised and cigarette dangling. He set the mask on the piano and later pulled it over his head as the music went modernistic with hip-hop beats and more. More performances are coming in 2014, with the release of Moran’s Fats Waller album on the Blue Note label.
Last year at the KC Jazz Club and on JazzSet, Moran and The Bandwagon played a suite with a singer and narrative commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Ala.
This evening at the KC Jazz Club, Moran shows that radio theater lives in his creative soul as he sets up two tunes with pre-produced field recordings and sound montages. After finishing a piece, he shares a back story about a blues pianist (and relative) who came through Texas to his home, played the piano Moran has in his New York living room today, and made the young Moran think, “I never have that much fun with Brahms.” Moran is a leading musician of his generation and an artistic polymath, and now in his second year as Artistic Advisor for Jazz, he says from the stage, “The Kennedy Center [is where] it’s all under one roof!”
- Jason Moran, piano
- Tarus Mateen, bass
- Nasheet Waits, drums
- “Honeysuckle Rose” (Thomas Waller)
- “I’ll Play the Blues for You” (Jerry Beach)
- “The Subtle One” (Mateen)
- “Lulu’s Back in Town” (Harry Warren, Al Dubin)
- “Blessing the Boats” (Alicia Hall Moran)
- “Crepuscule with Nellie” (Thelonious Monk)