Jason Moran: The Rauschenberg of Jazz

Jason Moran finished a week at the Jazz Standard in New York City last night and confirmed his standing, at age 32, as the jazz pianist of our times. A few years ago, I saw Moran playing in duet at Merkin Hall with Andrew Hill, one of his mentors, more than twice his age. Afterward, a friend of mine, a trumpeter just a little older than Moran, made a sharp observation about their respective generations: Hill, a leading avant-gardist from the ‘60s then undergoing a renaissance, played in one style, his style; Moran played in many styles, all styles. Though he didn’t put it in these terms, Hill (who recently died of cancer) was the jazz equivalent of an abstract expressionist painter (say, Franz Kline or Robert Motherwell), while Moran is the supreme post-modernist (say, Robert Rauschenberg) who appropriates everything around him, including ready-made objects, and somehow makes it all his own.

In Sunday’s early set, Moran navigated a wide ranging course of pieces—by Andrew Hill, Mal Waldron, Albert King, the minstrelist Bert Walker, an original composition, and a lovely ballad by his wife, Alicia Hall, an accomplished singer—all with his seemingly effortless virtuosity, emotional depth, and swing. They were interspersed by tapes of sound from old movies, hip-hop rhythms, and random sounds—like the rubbed-in drawings of a Rauschenberg collage—yet the design was seamless and the effect transporting. The set’s one original song (which also appears on his most recent CD, Artist in Residence) began with a tape of the artist Adrian Piper talking about the breakdown in relations between art and society; Moran stepped in with a melody that matched Piper’s cadences, then gradually built a grand improvisation on top of that.

Moran was playing with his Bandwagon trio: Tarus Mateen on electric bass, Nasheet Waits on drums. I used to think the group hampered Moran, but in the past couple years they’ve been meshing perfectly. There’s a tight rhythm, a free spirit, and a solid sense of the blues in their work—a combination as rare as it is fine.

On CD, Moran’s best work remains his solo Modernistic, maybe the most inventive solo jazz piano album in a decade. (Its playlist includes James Johnson, Muhal Richard Abrams, Afrika Bambaata, a very creditable Schumann, and the most original take on “Body and Soul” since Coleman Hawkins.) But I also highly recommend Artist in Residence, Same Mother, and his sideman work with Greg Osby.

Donald's picture

Well put.