Jason Moran & Herlin Riley at the Blue Note
The marvel was a duet set, at the Blue Note jazz club in New York City, featuring Jason Moran on piano and Herlin Riley on drums. This was bound to be interesting; the mystery was what it would sound like; the marvel was that it turned out to be sensational, a stream of virtuosic, playful joy.
The downside, dear reader, is that you will almost never experience this wonderneither the concert itself (one night only, two sets) nor a reprise. Moran is contracted to Blue Note (the label, which has no relation to the club), where he records either solo or with his own trio, The Bandwagon; Riley’s main gig is with Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which has its own label these days. It’s unlikely the twain shall meet on vinyl or aluminum-coated disc.
But what about digital downloads? There is so much happening on the live music scene, and it’s often so different from what we hear on commercial recordings. In the past this might have merely been lamentable, but in the era of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and all the rest, it should be a lapse worth repairing. If it’s commonplace to know, in practically real time, what millions of people are eating or reading or mulling over, why can’t everybody listen to Jason Moran and Herlin Riley playing duets? I don’t mean for free. Let whoever’s putting the feed online charge for it. (I would pay to hear again what I heard Wednesday night.) Let the artists receive royalties and, if necessary, their record labels take a piece of the action. (Especially given the vast range of music Moran is playing at clubs and concert halls, it’s a shame to restrict his documented output to one CD a year.)
Wednesday’s early set seemed completely improvised. Moran or Riley started to play, the other joined in; the interplay evolved into a piece, usually a Moran composition or a standard, but taken in different directions from what anyone has ever heardlush ballads, carousing Latin, minimalist fugues, Cecil Taylor-style eruptions, Monk-ish syncopationsall interweaving, but never random; by the end of the hour, I felt like I’d been through an epic voyage, sinuous, exhaustive, yet never pretentious, repetitious, derivative or even uncertain.
I expected this of Moran, the most agile and inventive pianist in jazz today. But Herlin Riley surprised me! I’ve known his work mainly as Wynton Marsalis’ drummer and found it impressive, swinging, but not particularly adventurous. With Moran, he pulled Alpine twists and turns that raised hair and eyebrows: rhythms at once shifting and propulsive, tasty brushstrokes that segued without seams into insistent snare shots, tambourine rattles that collided with bass drum beats and cymbal sizzles. And the two musicians were clearly having a ball, amused and amazed at their synchronicity.
At one point, after playing “Body and Soul” (in a shivering style similar to his re-arrangement of the tune on his solo CD, Modernistic), Moran announced, “That was a song called ‘Body and Soul,’” then, turning on an MP3 player, “And this is a song called ‘Body and Soul,’ sung by Eddie Jefferson.” He and Riley sat there, listening to the song, smiling, swaying. Occasionally, Moran would play along with it, matching Henderson’s speediest passages with sterling precision and all ten fingers. When it was over, he said that “group listening” is a good experience, noted that Eddie Jefferson was singing the exact notes and phrases as “another guy” who’d played the song, and that his lyrics were commentary on how that other guy (Coleman Hawkins) played, that the song as he sung it was in essence a “journal” of what he was hearing; he also said that every time he plays that song, he puts on Jefferson and plays along.
And so what might have been a Dada stunt, Moran turned into an intimate act of sharing with his audience and an insight into his own creative process. Jason Moran is to modern jazz what Robert Rauschenberg was to modern art: he can play everything in every style while staying true to the genre’s integrity, yet instilling it with his own distinctive signature. In Herlin Riley, he foundunexpectedly, to me anywaya drummer who could serve as more than merely a backdrop, a canvas, but a full collaborator. It would be a shame if this action-combine couldn’t be heard or seen again.