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Jason Moran once loved the Dead Kennedys. As a teen, the jazz pianist also rode a skateboard and loved to draw skulls. Eventually, his parents took away his punk records, stuffing his DKs discs in the dumpster in hope of stifling Moran’s rebellious side.
They didn’t. As Moran told a piano student in 1999: “Next time you go to a jam session and you have to play some corny song, you should try to jump really far afield into some really existential shit, so if somebody’s walking by, they say, ‘Whoa, who is this cat?’ Or maybe they’ll say, ‘Aw, he’s just bullshitting.’ Me, I’d rather they said I’m bullshitting.”
There’s no bullshitting on Black Stars, however, the 26-year-old Moran’s third release as a leader. His playing is still informed by the simple, muscular drive of the punk and hiphop he grew up on, but he has filled the album with music as difficult and cerebral as that made by the jazz pianists who have inspired him in the years since those skull-and-crossbones days: Jaki Byard, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Andrew Hill.
Like Cecil Taylor, Moran is a physical pianist; you can feel his fingers clamp down on the keys, the mallets smack down on the strings. Unlike Taylor, however, Moran is never wildly atonal or brutish. In recent years, Taylor’s playing has been about the release of energy; listening to it is like watching the flash of a lightning bolt. Moran’s music is more like a stun-gun charge: filled with raw power but controlled enough to merely knock you off your feet, not smoke you out of your shoes.
Nonetheless, Moran’s muscle sets him apart from many jazz musicians in his age group. Sometimes it seems as if every other contemporary young pianist is influenced by the gentle melodicism and lyrical introspection of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. Some, such as Brad Mehldau, build on that tradition, but most sound good only at the cocktail hour.
Moran, by contrast, sounds good at any time. Be it as an integral sideman to former avant-funkist, current leading modernist, and all-round crank Greg Osby or as the self-confident leader of his own various bands, Moran makes music that’s jagged and emphatic but open-ended enough to encourage fluid improvisations from his bandmates.
Although his 1999 debut, the quintet CD Soundtrack to Human Motion, occasionally found Osby, vibist Stefon Harris, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and drummer Eric Harland fighting each other for time in the spotlight, no such focus problems marred Moran’s trio disc from last year, Facing Left. On that album, Moran was joined by bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, perhaps the most exciting new rhythm section in jazz. The twosome cut through Moran’s music, enlivening his already vibrant compositions with barely contained energy and unbridled joy. The trio’s subtle, simmering take on Björk’s “Jöa” is worth the price of the CD alone, and the highly attuned trio is as tight as Marlon Brando’s pants on burning numbers such as “Lies Are Sold” and “Another One.”
On Black Stars, the three again form a breathtaking trio. Like Moran, Mateen and Waits have a perfect surge-and-release rhythmic sense. And both are far from typical players. There are no in-the-pocket walking bass lines from Mateen; there is no dinga-ding-ding-ding swinging on the ride from Waits. And this time out, in a nod to the ’60s Blue Note scene whose legacy Moran is busy extending, the trio is joined by 78-year-old veteran saxophonist/flutist/pianist/composer Sam Rivers, whose contributions prove to be smart, subtle, and relatively brief.
Throughout Black Stars, Rivers functions almost like a tonal sorbet, cleansing the sonic palate to give your ears a fresh perspective on the threesome when it does play alone. As much as Rivers contributes here, though, it’s more interesting to hear Moran, Mateen, and Waits perform by themselves. After all, both Hüsker Dü and Evans’ trio did just fine without guestsand these guys are well on their way to joining them as one of music’s best-ever threesomes.
The album opener, “Foot Under Foot,” neatly encapsulates Moran’s approach to composition and playing in five-and-a-half minutes: dynamism, contrast, brief melodies, jagged intervals, and rhythmic freedom. It’s what post-punk is to punk, capturing the energy of the original formin Moran’s case, bopbut with a wider range of musical invention.
“Kinda Dukish,” part choppy Ellington, part funky Herbie Hancock, follows the post-punk-bop spirit established by “Foot Under Foot.” The track grooves even as it modulates from tight composition to freewheeling vamp, with Moran quoting the funeral march from Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” with his right hand as his left pounds out a drunken six-note phrase in tandem with Mateen.
The pianist shines again on Rivers’ “Earth Song,” which builds off a rushing seven-note piano arpeggio and features extensive playing by Rivers, but it is especially notable for Moran’s rabbit-punch soloing. And “Skitter In” is an apt description of both Moran’s playing and his trio’s ability to flit in and out of melodies, harmonies, and rhythms without indulging any of them for too long. It’s like thrash-punk pioneers D.R.I. stringing together 28 songs in 25 minutes and calling it an albumexcept that Moran calls it a song. The lone clunker, relatively speaking, that takes the album opener’s freeform prescription is “The Sun at Midnight”: The track is somewhat unfocused, and the band sounds tentative in comparison with its confident performances on other tracks.
Though the songs with rhythmic drive, inside-out structures, and loose-limbed playing display where Moran and his band excel, the group, unlike a lot of energy-first combos, can have its way with ballads and slower tempos, as well. “Summit” begins with Rivers’ Asiatic flute melodies and Moran’s tinkling piano, which play together for nearly two minutes before the whole band smoothly wades into the water. It’s the most beatific tune on the album: From Moran’s crisp piano melodies and Rivers’ soprano sax dances to Waits’ loose tom-tom-centered beats and Mateen’s free-roaming bass line, “Summit” has the compact dizziness of a new romance. “Say Peace,” a duet between Rivers and Moran, is almost as beautiful; if Black Stars were a vinyl LP, the track would be a perfect end-of-Side-1 interlude.
But the men’s most impressive collaboration on Black Stars is the album closer, “Sound It Out,” on which Moran gives the piano chair to Rivers for the intro. With dazzling facility, the old-schooler shows the former punker what it means to disassemble sound and song with purpose, not just force, with Rivers biting through the song’s theme with precision and taste, twisting the melody without turning it completely inside out. Seems as if Moran was paying attention: As Rivers picks up his flute and Moran takes over the piano two minutes in, it sounds like one generation of intelligent musical rebels quietly handing off to the next. CP