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Jason Moran has been holding fast the line between the mainstream and the avant garde ever since he appeared on the jazz scene in the ’90s, barely in his 20s and playing piano for alto saxophonist and composer Greg Osby. Osby’s intricate compositions have never allowed for autopilot performances, but Moran’s solos were still noticeably bold, loaded with dense harmonies, abstract melodies, and dramatic exclamations that often leaned toward cacophony but never fell off the edge. When Moran released his debut as a leader in 1999, it turned out that the pianist’s restive improvisational style merged seamlessly with his own capricious compositions. Signaling the arrival of one of the first distinctive jazz stylists of the 21st century, Soundtrack to Human Motion swooped dramatically from euphoria to melancholy and back again, sometimes within the span of a single short piece.
Though Moran is revered in jazz circleshe won three Rising Star awards in the 2003 Down Beat Critics Poll and was named Up ‘n’ Coming Musician of the Year at this year’s Jazz Journalists Association’s Jazz Awardshe has never gained the level of crossover success enjoyed by some of his contemporaries. Unlike other gifted young stylists such as Brad Mehldau and Ethan Iverson, whose elaborate embellishments of American popular songs and contemporary rock numbers have earned them coverage from such unlikely outlets as VH1 and Blender, Moran has remained just another one of those inscrutable jazz cats.
The Bandwagon, the New Yorker’s fifth album under his own name, isn’t likely to change that perception. Captured during a six-day stint at the Village Vanguard, the disc offers a few performances that even the most dedicated Radiohead fan would find stupefying. Moran’s music is very much emblematic of the Information Age, referencing everything from European classical music to contemporary architecture to hiphop. In concert, he’s likely to follow up a standard like “Blueberry Hill” with something as inconsequential as “Bootylicious.” And thanks to a grant from Chamber Music of America, some of Moran’s recent pieces have evolved into wily interactive multimedia exercises, presented here in three performances that vary greatly in their musical directness and emotional impact.
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Moran demonstrated his fondness for speech patterns early in his solo career, saying that he often taped conversations and later used their cadences and tonalities to create blueprints for new compositions. On The Bandwagon, he lets the audience in on the process on both “Ringing My Phone (Straight Outta Istanbul)” and “Infospace.” The latter, in which Moran, drummer Nasheet Waits, and bassist Tarus Mateen improvise atop a recording of a Chinese stock-market report, is characterized by such unabashed experimentalism that it’s no surprise to hear the audience’s tentative applause at track’s end. Things start out with Moran pecking out melodic fragments against Mateen’s pizzicato bass lines and Waits’ pointillistic cymbal work; then, out of nowhere, comes a barrage of spoken Chinese that Moran shadows almost note-for-word. No discernible melody or groove unfolds, and just as you’re getting used to the lofty exercise, the piece abruptly stops, conjuring nothing so much as sudden cell-phone interference.
Much more engaging is “Ringing My Phone,” which is built on a taped conversation between two women speaking Turkish. This time, the spoken passage enters less hastily, and Moran allots more time and space in which to craft miniature melodies and grooves. This conversation contains longer lines and more natural pauses, too, so it lends itself better to jazz interpretation than the strident monologue of “Infospace.” With Waits keeping the momentum going through splintered rhythmic figures, “Ringing My Phone” still makes for demanding listening, but if you were to take away the source tape, the piece would sound remarkably like the score for a silent movieespecially when Moran hammers out suspenseful melodies and whimsical refrains. And once the trio reaches the midsection, it concocts an infectious push-pull groove around a two-bar loop that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Missy Elliott cut.
Moran doesn’t always rely on sampled material to convey his affinity for hiphop culture. He’s done it more subtly with his Gangsterism series, evoking both Jean-Michel Basquiat and Suge Knight with titles such as “Gangsterism on Canvas” (from Human Motion) and “Gangsterism on a Lunchtable” (from last year’s Modernistic). And he’s done it much more explicitly with his reworking of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” a rather dubious vehicle for jazz expression. On Modernistic, Moran approached that old-school jam in a fairly didactic manner that revealed more about the song’s inherent limitations than about his own ingenuity. He fares better with the live take here, thanks to the superbly empathetic support of Waits and Mateen, who engage him in a heated triologue, imbuing the tune with the three-dimensionality that Moran’s solo
But for all the inspiration Moran draws from hiphop, he’s not a member of the newfangled jazz school that completely ignores the past. The spectral “Gentle Shifts South,” instead of building on perplexing speech patterns, simply underscores Moran’s elegant meditation with conversations between his grandparents about their family history. The pianist gives a loving pound to his late mentor, Jaki Byard, on “Out Front,” an ebullient abstraction of stride-piano-playing in which Moran & Co. swing with mischievous élan. And just when you thought you’d heard enough versions of “Body & Soul” to last a lifetime, Moran transforms the chestnut into a sensual neo-soul tune with a sultry piano vamp that sticks to the melody as closely as any R&B crooner.
Moran goes really old-school with his magical rendering of Brahms’ Intermezzo, Opus 118, No. 2, which threatens to become too recital-like in its stateliness before he and Waits nestle into a groove that provides a lovely foundation for Mateen’s contemplative fretless bass solo. It’s a significantly more approachable recording than Moran’s multimedia exploits or clever flips on hiphop, but, significantly, a no less unpredictable one. If The Bandwagon is a sometimes impenetrable listening experience, it does make one thing clear: Moran is one avant-gardist who isn’t about to give in to the mainstream. CP