Jason Moran is making jazz history – don’t miss it

Chris Richards

WASHINGTON (THE WASHINGTON POST) – When was the last time you visited the observation deck of the Washington Monument? Amazing view, but what’s the rush to see it? In a city that constantly beckons us to check out its most astonishing perma-stuff, it’s easy to put things off forever.

I’m ashamed to admit that I thought of Jason Moran the same way. As the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Director for Jazz, the New York-based pianist graces our town nearly a dozen times a year, routinely proving he’s one of the most sensitive and inventive musicians alive. And while Moran has been working intensely with the Kennedy Center since 2011, it was only recently that I realised I was suffering a bad case of the I’ll-catch-him-next-times.

To remedy that, I resolved to hear him as often as possible in 2019, and here’s one thing I learned very quickly: Moran isn’t like all those other Washington monuments. He changes.

From show to show, he adapts to the contours of the moment, and his flexibility sparks big questions about how artists square bold vision with deep empathy.

Moran grew up in Houston listening to The lonious Monk and hip-hop, and by the time he turned 22, he was one of jazz music’s brightest rising stars. He won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2010 and became Kennedy Centre’s Artistic Adviser for jazz in 2011 before being promoted to Artistic Director in 2014. Now, at 44, Moran is a towering figure in this music of endless possibility, and he appears to be taking those possibilities more seriously than ever.

Jason Moran performing Black Stars at the Kennedy Center on November 9, 2019. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

The New York Times recently declared that the work Moran has undertaken in 2019 ranks among the decade’s most significant achievements in jazz. His performances in Washington were only a part of it. Moran opened a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York in September 2019, blending live performance and installation to enthusiastic reviews. Before that, the pianist and his wife, vocalist Alicia Hall Moran, had assembled Two Wings an ambitious musical programme about the Great Migration that they toured from Carnegie Hall to the Kennedy Center to Berlin. It’s been a massive year for sure.

And when an aesthetic proposition feels as broad as Jason Moran’s, the best way to understand it is to experience as much of it as you can. I tried. I only managed to catch roughly half of Moran’s performances at the Kennedy Center over the past 12 months, but listening closely made the world feel exponentially bigger.

I wanted to figure out where Moran stands in that borderless bigness. Is there a line that separates collaboration from facilitation? And how does he always seem to end up on the right side of it? How far can Moran stretch himself and still sound like himself?

Everything between – February 2, 2019 with Ron Miles

A pianist rooted in empathy, Moran specialises in open-armed gestures, sometimes literally.

Near the start of this breath-stealing show with trumpeter, cornetist and composer Ron Miles, Moran stretched his hands out to opposite sides of the piano and struck a chiming chord that felt tangy and capacious. He seemed to be announcing a strategy: Let’s do everything between.

Brash declarations like that aren’t common in Moran’s playing, though, and this one was fleeting. Miles introduced him to the audience as “our host” and in this music, Moran appeared to relish his assignment, supporting the other musicians with wide, welcoming gestures that sounded like sparkling filigree but worked like steel rebar.

With drummer Brian Blade flickering in the background, Moran traded solos with guitarist Bill Frisell to disorienting effect – instead of playing hot potato, it was as if they were secretly slipping love notes under the table. At times, the pianist and the guitarist merged so thoroughly, it became impossible to distinguish who was playing what.

What a sublime kick. Instead of approaching the solo as a heroic foregrounding gesture, Moran finds ways to blend and blur. He’d rather sink in than stand out.

During I Am a Man – the title track of Miles’ 2017 album from which the band was culling – his solo had the beauty of skywriting over the ocean, but it felt more like water vanishing into beach sand. He made his presence felt by disappearing.

‘Ready for ‘em’ – April 14, 2019 with Alicia Hall Moran

Jason and Alicia Hall Moran say they conceived Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration as a way to memorialise the Great Migration out of the rural South after the abolition of slavery. Accordingly, this programme felt aptly epic, chaotic and vast. At the Kennedy Center, it featured gospel hero Smokie Norful, Operatic Tenor Lawrence Brownlee and many others, performing a slate of history-minded songs that illuminated a path toward justice.

Moran was as hospitable as the sprawling programme required, but if you were listening for him, you could hear everything he’s good at.

During a suite of Moran-penned music alongside the Imani Winds, a woodwind quintet, he delivered clear, purposeful melody in tiptoe staccato, evoking the emotionally charged footfalls of the march northward. Before long, the music had veered into a vintage New Orleans stomp, but with every musician onstage working in soft focus, as if they were dreaming up the past instead of re-enacting it.

Moran’s strongest solo turn came during Carolina Shout a James P Johnson tune that Moran used like a time machine, accelerating through the rhythms of ragtime, bop, hip-hop and techno. As the music gained momentum, Moran gently increased the pressure on his piano’s sustain pedal, loosening the notes as they charged forward. It sounded like an old song becoming possessed by the future.

When he was finished, he grabbed the microphone to explain that jazz musicians in Harlem used to play Carolina Shout in their nightly games of one-upsmanship. Then he pointed an index finger toward heaven. “When I get to the other gig,” Moran said, “I’ma be ready for ‘em!” Hopefully, the audience’s laughter didn’t blot out the significance of that idea. Even when he’s playing alone, he’s never playing alone.

Organic futurism – September 8, 2019 with Kelela and the Bandwagon

Patience is another Moran hallmark, but at this show – a collaboration with the R&B futurist Kelela and Moran’s decades-deep combo the Bandwagon – the pianist had his itchy fingers on the keys before he even sat down in his chair.

With Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums, the trio warmed things up instantly, establishing their mind-meld in a groove so tight, it was hard to imagine how Kelela might sing her way into the centre of the telepathic triangle.

Every other day of the year, Kelela’s music involves synthesisers and drum machines – and somehow, the Bandwagon managed to translate that sci-fi feeling to traditional instruments without turning everything into Sunday gospel brunch.

To properly frame the singer’s plaintiveness, the band conjured future-funk with a sleekness that felt completely organic.

And whenever Moran introduced a clustered chord that didn’t previously exist in Kelela’s music, he made it sound like it had always been there, like a knot inside wood.

Perhaps to give the set some symmetry, Kelela floated off the stage a few minutes early, allowing the Bandwagon to generate a conclusion.

The trio didn’t coast off into the night. Instead, the music suddenly became busy, excited, almost chatty – three friends talking about the fun they’d just had.

Air traffic control – September 12, 2019 with Renée Fleming

Just a few nights after his gig with Kelela, Moran was an entirely different player, accommodating an entirely different vocalist, taking an entirely different set of risks.

Joining Renée Fleming for a programme of pristine music that swung from Rachmaninoff to Johnny Hartman, the pianist carried all of the music’s secret tension in his hands – 10 fingertips advancing meticulous rhythms without ever stepping in front of Fleming’s celebrated soprano.

With Fleming in pure finesse mode, every note Moran struck counted as a supportive gesture, all the way down to the solos. During Hartman’s My One and Only Love, Moran’s shimmering phrases didn’t follow a narrative arc so much as build momentum toward Fleming’s next verse. Even during the singer’s stage chatter, Moran became the most generous lounge pianist on Earth, summoning soft chords that dissipated like expensive puffs of perfume.

Fleming’s voice consistently pushed to the fore, but she wasn’t the loudest sound of the night. This concert was held outdoors in the shadow of heavy air traffic, with screaming airplanes and woofing helicopters flying overhead every 10 minutes or so. Moran was pure concentration. He never flinched.

Signatures and synapses – November 9, 2019 with the Bandwagon and Ingrid Laubrock

Unlike any other Moran concert I caught last year, this one – a celebration of the Bandwagon’s 2001 album Black Stars with some assistance from saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock – finally revealed at least one big truth about Moran’s hyper-empathetic playing, a fundamental quality that belongs to him.

It came during Skitter In a tune that allowed Moran to nod to Thelonious Monk without exactly sounding like him.

Monk might be the brightest star in his sky, but Moran has too much grace to re-create the dazzling clunkiness of his hero. Monk shoves. Moran uses the same amount of force, but pulls in the opposite direction. It’s powerful, like a signature: His playing does what rudeness does without being rude.

Then there was the stuff we couldn’t hear. Midway through the set, Moran talked about how difficult it can be to “wrestle with this music”. Could that really be true? He radiates such facility and generosity from behind that piano.

With his eloquence flooding our ears, we were suddenly invited to listen for a private friction in his brain. We’ll never be able to hear those firing synapses, only the decisions that they create. That’s fine. That’s music.

Instead of settling into the center of his expanding sound-world, Moran decides to keep moving. We can learn something about who he is by where he decides to go, how he decides to get there, and what he decides to do once he arrives. But after a year of following closely, I don’t think Moran is trying to tell us who he is. I think he’s trying to show us the difference between anywhere and everywhere, anything and everything.