Thanksgiving in NY: Jason Moran and Maria Schneider
Those of you in the New York area for the holidays (or for all times) should know that two of the best jazz groups around are playing at the two best jazz clubs: Maria Schneider and her Jazz Orchestra make their traditional Thanksgiving-week appearance at the Jazz Standard, and Jason Moran and his Bandwagon trio are at the Village Vanguard.
I caught Moran's jam-packed opening set last night. It was thrilling as usual, but in an unusual way. Two new, or rather continually evolving, things struck me while listening. First, Bandwagonwhich includes Tarus Mateen on electric bass and Nasheet Waits on drumsis getting stronger and stronger all the time. When this trio started out, it was a lopsided affair: Moran was way better than his bandmates, who would spend most of the set doing their best to keep up. Now they form a cohesive unit, not quite an equilateral triangle but the asymmetry is purposefully edgy and propulsively rhythmic (maybe a bit more than proper last night night: Mateen's bass amp was turned up too loud).
Second, Moran, who's always been a playful pianist and composer, is occasionally veering toward conceptual art. Last night, after traversing "Body and Soul" in a way that nobody had before, he switched on an MP3 recording of Eddie Jefferson singing "Body and Soul," then played along; after playing Monk's "Thelonious," he picked up an industrial-size flashlight and shined it on Monk's picture on the Vanguard walls, then conducted a spotlight tour of the various photos of great pianists on those hallowed walls, before settling into a composition by the late Andrew Hill (one of Moran's mentors, who, some may have noted, is missing from that gallery).
In most musicians' hands, this would have been too twee. I'm thinking of the saxophonist James Carter, who not long after a spectacular debut, started getting cute on the bandstand (throwing out one reed after another, scaling arpeggios at lightning speed for no good reason) and never quite reversed his slide from protean artist to mere virtuoso.
The thing about Moran is that, even when he's goofing around, his artistry never subsides. (A remark I tossed up a couple years ago, that Moran is the Rauschenberg of modern jazz, is truer than ever.) Take his cover of "Thelonious." He started out repeating the motif over and over, then laced it with his own filigrees, seguing into ever more-elaborate improvisations, which widened into brash Cecil Taylor brushstrokes, then wound back down into the melody, all the while never losing the pulse or the essential Monkishness (in this sense, Moran recalls less Taylor than Don Pullen). He ended the set with Fats Waller's "The Sheik of Araby," proving once more (the first time was with the James P. Johnson title track on his solo album, Modernistic) what a fine stride pianist Moran can beand how seamlessly he can fuse the ancient with the avant-garde with everything in between, and still impress on all of it his merrily distinctive signature.