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Jason Moran

For Soundtrack to Human Motion, jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran's 1999 Blue Note leader debut, the musician balanced an impeccable technique with his love for the jazz tradition and influences drawn from classical, blues, funk, hip-hop, rock, and the art world. Critics immediately signaled his arrival as "the next big thing" and they weren't wrong. Moran has since become one of the most influential and innovative pianists in jazz history. On 2000's Facing Left, he introduced the Bandwagon, his long-standing trio with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, performing a dazzling array of tunes from a wide range of sources. 2002's solo Modernistic explored 20th century rhythmic techniques through readings of boogie woogie, classical, avant-jazz, and funk. 2006's Artist in Residence, with guitarist Marvin Sewell, re-examined emotional and stylistic dimensions in the blues tradition. In 2010, Moran released Ten and won a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant. 2013's All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller began life a few years earlier as a commissioned live theater performance featuring bassist/vocalist/arranger Meshell Ndegeocello as his primary collaborator. In 2014 he composed the score for Ava Duvernay's landmark film Selma. Moran released Looks of a Lot and Music for Joan Jonas in 2018, the latter a recorded collaboration with the performance artist. That year, the touring exhibition Jason Moran opened at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis consolidated much of his interdisciplinary work. In 2021, he recorded Let My People Go, a series of duets with veteran saxophonist Archie Shepp, and the solo outing The Sound Will Tell You. Moran was born in Houston, Texas in 1975. His father was an investment banker and his mother a schoolteacher. They encouraged his aesthetic sensibilities by attending performances of the Houston Symphony and the city's many museums and art galleries. They also collected art. At age six, Moran began formal musical training in the Suzuki method of classical piano, but his father's large record collection, with thousands of volumes ranging across blues, jazz, Motown, classical, and gospel provided at least as much influence and inspiration. As an adolescent, Moran preferred hip-hop and skateboarding. He encountered Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" at 13 and it changed his developing sound-world forever. Initially, Moran didn't feel there was much of a compromise between hip-hop and Monk's music. That notion served him well later when composing for his All Rise album. The youngster considered Monk's nursery-rhyme melodies uncomplicated. He drew comparisons between the composer's sense of space and rhythmic invention and hip-hop's creative beatmaking and production. Moran attended the city's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and studied in Robert Morgan's jazz program. During his senior year he served as student director of the school's jazz combo and in the all-state high school jazz ensemble. He graduated in 1993. Moran attended the Manhattan School of Music. He studied piano and jazz with pianist and composer Jaki Byard and graduated with a bachelor's degree in music in 1997. As a senior he was invited to join saxophonist Greg Osby's band for a European tour, strictly on the basis of a conversation between them about the jazz piano tradition. Osby invited Moran to continue performing with his group after the tour. The pianist's first recorded appearance was on the saxophonist's 1997 Blue Note date, Further Ado. He would subsequently appear on tour and in the studio with the saxophonist performing on such important recordings as the live Banned in New York, Zero, and Friendly Fire (co-billed to Joe Lovano). Osby introduced Moran to Muhal Richard Abrams and Andrew Hill. Those meetings proved fateful as the young pianist soaked up their ideas and suggestions in conversation. He signed his own contract with Blue Note in early 1998 and cut his debut, Soundtrack to Human Motion, with Osby and vibist Stefon Harris as part of a quintet with drummer Eric Harland and bassist Lonnie Plaxico. The album, released in 1999, was composed of all originals, including "Gangsterism on Canvas," which was directly inspired by the work and life of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. The tune would serve as the musical foundation for linked and similarly titled pieces throughout his career. The album received uniformly positive reviews for Moran's writing and expansive piano technique. In 2000 Moran issued Facing Left. Titled after a painting by outsider artist Egon Schiele, it was his first with his Bandwagon trio of bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. Their program included originals by Moran and Mateen, two obscure tunes by Duke Ellington, a reading of "Twelve" by former instructor and mentor Jaki Byard (who had been murdered the year before), Carmine Coppola's classical cue "The Death of Don Fanucci," and Masaru Satô's theme for Akira Kurosawa's film Yojimbo. Topping it off was a tender yet avant reading of Björk's "Joga." That same year, the Bandwagon took part in Osby's New Directions sextet session with saxophonist Mark Shim and Harris. In 2001 Moran issued Black Stars, a quartet date that featured saxophonist and flutist Sam Rivers as a primary soloist and collaborator. The set included seven Moran compositions and tunes by the saxophonist, Ellington, and Byard. Moran followed with the solo outing Modernistic in 2002, wherein he explored the evolution of 20th century rhythmic techniques through the application of stride piano in both original compositions and tunes by James P. Johnson, Robert Schumann, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Afrika Bambaataa. It peaked at 19 on the Traditional Jazz Albums chart. 2003's The Bandwagon showcased Moran's trio in a live setting; in addition to his own tunes, he offered compositions by Mateen, Brahms, and Byard. It landed inside the Top Five on the Jazz Albums chart. The following year, Same Mother showcased the Bandwagon with guitarist Marvin Sewell, and the latter's emotionally gritty playing added to Moran's exploration of jazz's rhythmic history through the influence of the blues, even in classical pieces such as the original "Aubade" and "Field of the Dead" (an excerpt from Sergey Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky). It also included visionary readings of Mal Waldron's "Fire Waltz" and the Albert King standard "I'll Play the Blues for You." The set peaked inside the Top 30 at Jazz Albums. For 2006's Artist in Residence, the pianist brought Sewell back, but in a radically different outing that included several works commissioned by museums. Opener "Break Down" featured the looped vocal of conceptual artist and philosopher Adrian Piper -- then at the Walker Art Center -- the tune "Milestone" was centered on one of her visual works (and featured the mezzo-soprano stylings of Alicia Hall Moran). The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things was incorporated into a pre-existing installation of the same title by performance artist Joan Jonas, while "Rain" was inspired by ring shouts of African-American slaves. In addition to Sewell, Moran enlisted trumpeter Ralph Alessi and Senegalese kora master Abdou Mboup. In 2007 Moran took the piano seat in Charles Lloyd's quartet, succeeding Geri Allen, and toured through 2016 as part of one of the saxophonist's ongoing projects. That year Moran was also commissioned to create In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall 1959, a multimedia performance composed of crafted and found audio and newsreel archival material to join a new video by David Dempewolf, paintings by Glenn Ligon, and photographs by W. Eugene Smith. It contained Moran's reharmonization of Monk's original big-band charts and became the subject of a documentary film in 2012. Between its premiere in 2007 and 2018, it has seen more than 100 sold-out performances internationally. In 2008, Moran was named a United States Artists Fellow and in 2009 began a touring role with Dave Holland's quartet that lasted three years. In 2010 Moran joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music and issued the album Ten. While its title referred to his anniversary as a bandleader, the music was firmly focused on the future. Recorded with the Bandwagon, it contained originals such as "Blue Blocks," commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and "RFK in the Land of Apartheid," composed for a film documenting Robert Kennedy's historic visit to South Africa in 1966. It also offered a raucous take on Leonard Bernstein's "Big Stuff" and included "Feedback, Pt. 2," which contained sampled feedback from Jimi Hendrix's Woodstock performance, a reading of Byard's "To Bob Vatel of Paris," the ballad "Play to Live" co-composed with Andrew Hill, and a pair of Monk tunes. Critical and popular response was as abundant as it was complimentary. The album spent 12 weeks on the Jazz albums charts and peaked at 11. To cap off the year, Moran was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant. In 2012, his long-standing collaborative practice with his wife, singer and Broadway actress Alicia Hall Moran, resulted in BLEED, a five-day live music series for the Whitney Biennial that explored the live performance as a force powerful enough to challenge cultural and societal assumptions. The pianist was also invited to join Trio 3 for a residency at N.Y.C.'s Birdland. The contemporary avant-jazz group included Oliver Lake, Andrew Cyrille, and Reggie Workman. Together since 1986, they regularly featured piano-playing collaborators -- Irene Schweizer and Allen had worked with them previously. After the residency ended they cut Refraction - Breakin' Glass, for Intakt, billed to Trio 3 + Jason Moran. Issued in 2013, it appeared as one of three albums featuring the pianist that year. Another, Hagar's Song, showcased Moran in a duo setting with Charles Lloyd. That year he also released what many perceive as his masterwork, All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller. Originating as a 2011 commission by the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, Moran was hired to create a live Waller tribute as part of its Harlem Jazz Shrines series. Moran's unique conception combined piano, vocal jazz (from chief collaborator and co-arranger Meshell Ndegeocello), and interpretive dance using Waller's songs as creative springboards. During performances, Moran wore an oversize papier-mâché replica mask of Waller's head created by Haitian artist Didier Civil. Moran called the tribute The Fats Waller Dance Party, and concert attendees did just that. The recorded work for Blue Note offered a similar yet recontextualized approach that was anything but nostalgic. Moran employed a Rhodes electric piano and a Wurlitzer in his Waller versions, accompanied by Ndegeocello on lead vocals with a backing chorus, rappers, and a funky horn section all rendered with thoroughly contemporary post-bop piano stylings. All Rise spent five weeks on the Jazz albums chart and peaked at number seven. It marked Moran's final outing for Blue Note. In 2014 Moran was named Artistic Director for Jazz at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. He composed the score for Ava Duvernay's landmark film Selma and joined the artist roster at the prestigious Luhring Augustine gallery. Further, he and Alicia started their own label, Yes Records. Their debut issue was Heavy Blue by Alicia Hall Moran; her husband produced it and played on two tracks. That year, Moran was the central participant in Luanda-Kinshasa, a six-hour looped film by Vancouver-based artist Stan Douglas. The single-channel film depicts a fictional jazz-funk band led by Moran recording an "endless jam" session among fictional technicians, photographers, journalists, and groupies in a re-created version of Columbia's legendary, long-defunct 30th Street studio known as "The Church." A limited-edition vinyl set was compiled and issued from the performance. Two years later, Moran released his second solo piano album, the live Armory Concert. Consisting of all-original compositions, it was created in commemoration of the inaugural concert of the Artists Studio Series. In 2015, he created Jason Moran STAGED, a mixed-media installation with sound for the Venice Biennale. It offered interactive sculptural renderings of two of New York City’s most iconic jazz club stages: The Savoy Ballroom and The Three Deuces. They represented distinct eras in American jazz: The Savoy stood for the swing era of the 1930s, while The Three Deuces reflected the spot for bebop and hard bop in the 1950s. The dramatically shifting musical repertoire mirrored those of the political, social, and economic landscapes experienced by African-Americans before the Civil Rights era. In 2016, Moran issued the live solo outing The Armory Concert and scored Duvernay's documentary 13th. The following year he released Bangs, a trio set with guitarist Mary Halvorson and trumpeter Ron Miles, and MASS {Howl, eon}. The latter was the result of a collaboration with painter Julie Mehretu in real time. A few days after the 2016 presidential election, Mehretu began painting massive murals at the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle in Harlem, New York. Moran composed music while she painted. He then recorded his music inside the church, accompanied by Graham Haynes on cornet and electronics and Jamire Williams on drums. He also released Thanksgiving at the Vanguard, a trio set with the Bandwagon performed and recorded the previous year. 2018 saw Moran involved in numerous multi-media collaborations. He created The Harlem Hellfighters: James Reece Europe and the Absence of Ruin, a multimedia performance with the Bandwagon and other musicians selected by Gary Crosby of Tomorrow’s Warriors, and film projections. It debuted at London's Barbican Center. He worked with Nick Cave on Untitled, a video projection work by the Australian songwriter for which he delivered a musical response. It debuted at the By the People Festival, in Washington, D.C.'s National Cathedral. He composed music for Ta-Nehisi Coates' performance of his published polemic Between the World and Me. The biggest event of his year, however, was the premiere of Jason Moran, a touring exhibition curated by The Walker Art Center. It highlighted both of his STAGED mixed-media installations and premiered the addition of a third installation that represented Slugs' Saloon. Open from 1964 to 1972, the club was home to New York's avant-jazz scene. Moran's interpretation of it offered a representative journey that gave voice not only to the music scene, but the Civil Rights era itself. The exhibit also included a selection of Moran's charcoal drawings and time-based media works from his long-standing collaborations with visual artists Joan Jonas, Glenn Ligon, Julie Mehretu, and many others. The show included in-gallery musical performances to complement the presentation as well as a large exhibition catalog. Moran returned to the center's McGuire Theater to premiere a commissioned work for the exhibit The Last Jazz Fest. He also issued two albums in 2018, Music for Joan Jonas, consisting of recorded versions of their three collaborations over the years, and Looks of a Lot. Commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the latter work featured the Bandwagon in the company of the Kenwood Academy Band, saxophonist Ken Vandermark, and vocalists Katie Ernst and Theaster Gates. After extended runs in four major American museums, the Jason Moran exhibit closed at the Whitney in January of 2020. In February 2021, Moran and saxophonist Archie Shepp issued the duo outing Let My People Go, a set of spirituals, standards, and covers on the saxist's Archieball label. In March, The Sound Will Tell You appeared from Yes Records. A solo piano outing, it was recorded over three days in January. Half its works employed an effects filter dubbed "DRIP" that allows sound to cast a shadow, adding another gravitational sense to every note. Each of these pieces are marked by their subtitles -- "tear," "honey," and "shadow" -- and informed by the example of Houston's own original chopped-and-screwed progenitor, the late DJ Screw. Some of Moran's compositions on the set were titled after works and pieces by Toni Morrison, the author he read most frequently during quarantine.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo


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