Bald Ambition: Moran’s conceptual brilliance can be a boon and a drag.
Bald Ambition: Moran’s conceptual brilliance can be a boon and a drag.

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Jason Moran makes music with a decidedly arty veneer. One of the most original and conceptually brilliant jazz artists of his generation, the pianist tends to wear depth on his sleeve; even his 2002 cover of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” has a cerebral finesse. It’s ambitious, impressive stuff, but it can also be off-putting, the kind of accomplishment for accomplishment’s sake that often makes jazz seem so elitist.

No more, however. Ten, which marks Moran’s first decade as a bandleader, is the most immediately pleasurable album of his career, yet in the intellect department it never gives an inch. The difference is obvious from the bouncing first chords of the opener, “Blue Blocks”: Moran’s notes possess such warmth and bonhomie that when they crash into a gospel melody, spiritual ecstasy seems imminently attainable. Equally rapturous is the next track, “RFK in the Land of Apartheid” (Moran’s theme for a documentary of the same name), which tackles African rhythms via an astonishing multilayered syncopation. Bassist Tarus Mateen begins with an offbeat eighth-note vamp, with drummer Nasheet Waits soon entering with a whispered counter-rhythm; Moran at first doubles Mateen, then cuts in with a soft-stepping tune that he deconstructs in his solo, so that one section overlaps another and careens into disjointed harmonies. It’s abstract, sure, but the abstractions are on a stirring and instantly memorable theme—built with such cunning that they’re all but impossible not to follow down the rabbit hole.

Ten doesn’t become less inviting once that leap’s been made, although the access points move around a bit. “Gangsterism Over 10 Years,” the latest installment of Moran’s ongoing Gangsterism series, offers fewer melodic footholds than, say, 1999’s “Gangsterism on Canvas” or 2003’s live “Gangsterism on Stage”—but it does have a funky, hip-hoppy rhythm and rock ’n’ roll energy to spare. “Play to Live,” which Moran co-wrote with mentor Andrew Hill, moves slowly and rests on harmonies so weird that even Mateen sometimes seems stumped working them out, but the phrasing itself is all smiles and sweetness. “Old Babies” is equally irresistible: Here, Moran balances a lullaby lilt with samples of his cooing young twins. Every one of these developments, though, is a surprise: This most heady and refined of pianists is now, without warning, almost ingratiating in his desire to entertain and emotionally connect.

The intellectual heft of Ten comes in two forms. The first is its demonstration of Moran’s profound knowledge of musical history, jazz and otherwise. He finds insight in covers of bop pianists Thelonious Monk (the jaunty “Crepuscule With Nellie”) and Jaki Byard (the surreal “To Bob Vatel of Paris”), but also unfurls two versions—slow and fast—of a lovely melody by the American classical composer Conlon Nancarrow, each set to an entirely different rhythmic pattern led by Waits, and both gleaming.

Then there’s the musicians’ interplay, which surely involves some sort of obscure algorithm: Could Waits’ brushwork on “Play to Live” meld so flawlessly with Mateen’s graceful plucking, or the ride cymbal so fittingly emphasize Moran’s high register on “Feedback Pt. 2” outside of some acoustical laboratory? Perhaps not—but somehow the players bring an immediacy and joy that helps the album sail through its more academic accomplishments.

Never in Moran’s 10 years as a leader has there been doubt that he’s a visionary, destined to be counted among the greats. Until now, however, he’s been more of a master chef who favored subtle flavors and delicate presentation. Ten hardly brings Moran down to the level of serving up a Big Mac with fries, but it does give his creations some populist zest—even while ensuring that the pianist’s singular blend of originality and literacy remains his chief ingredient.

At the other extreme lies Lost in a Dream, which taxes even Moran’s most esoteric instincts. But that’s not his fault—it’s not his album. It belongs to Paul Motian, the ever-adventurous septuagenarian drummer, leading a trio that also includes tenor saxophonist Chris Potter through a set focused on ballads and recorded live at the Village Vanguard. Like Ten, the album’s most telling moments come at its beginning: six seconds of dead silence, just enough to suggest a technical glitch. Both crowd noise and saxophone eventually kick in, but the point has been made: This album doesn’t concede even to the listener’s most basic expectations.

Actually, Lost in a Dream is beautiful music; it’s lovingly and painstakingly crafted, and it shows grace and elegance throughout. But it doesn’t make those qualities easy to appreciate. For one thing, the rhythms tend to hide. There’s no bassist, and Motian’s main concern on the drums is for color—at several points during the opening “Mode VI,” he seems to be ticking off a beat only to leave it completely after an ostensible measure. Moran is a percussive player, but his chordings on tunes like “Casino” and “Blue Midnight” follow Potter’s gorgeous melodies rather than establishing a pulse. Trying to decipher these performances means abandoning all attempts to find the groove and simply letting the sound wash over you.

But there’s treachery afoot here, too: The tempos on eight of the 10 tracks are slow to the point of sleepy. For the audience at the Vanguard, where there’s a drink minimum, it must have taken heroic effort to stay focused; for the home audience, it merely takes patience and concentration. This is easier with the pieces on which Motian keeps actual time. “Lost in a Dream,” for example, has a soft 4/4 swing from the drums and a pointed left-hand comp from Moran that acts as a bass of sorts, the two working together for a full minute before Potter comes in. Once he does, however, his part develops at such a snail’s pace that the mind inevitably wanders. (Perhaps that explains the disc’s title, given that “Lost in a Dream”’s mood isn’t dreamy at all, but sinister and suspenseful.) The waltz “Birdsong” is better, finding Moran and Motian both playing a quiet three-to-the-bar and Potter playing with, and not against, that rhythm on a melody of aching beauty—albeit one that Moran tops in his improvisation.

Some energy finally breaks through with the free-improv one-two punch of “Drum Music” and “Abacus,” two older Motian compositions; neither has a discernible rhythm pattern, but both feature intense drum solos and vicious heat from the saxophone and piano. “Drum Music” is certainly fiery, with a snare- and bass-heavy slow burn from Motian and gut-churning solos from Moran and (especially) Potter. But “Abacus” has a tense theme that’s more instantly compelling. Too bad these cuts, which would excite even the most passive listener, are buried deep among tracks whose superior quality is evident only to truly dedicated ears.

The best way to approach these two Moran features might be this: Use Ten as a beginner’s guide, and Lost in a Dream for doctoral studies. Both are surprises in relation to the pianist’s oeuvre; those who expended effort on 2001’s Black Stars or 2006’s Artist in Residence will likely be startled by Ten’s approachability but confounded by Lost’s Motian-generated opacity. But never let it be said that Moran, although set in his arty ways, has ever done the same project twice.