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Jason Moran & The Bandwagon(Profile/Biography)

United States
8th April 2010 — In 1999, the same year that Jason Moran released his debut recording Soundtrack To Human Motion, the prodigy pianist and composer also joined New Directions, a band made up of young stars from the Blue Note roster that went on tour in celebration of the label’s 60th anniversary. At the core of New Directions was the genesis of a rhythm section—with Moran, bassist Tarus Mateen, and drummer Nasheet Waits—that would go on to become one of the most enduringly creative piano trios in jazz.

Ten years later, the trailblazing trio—which Moran has since dubbed The Bandwagon—headed into Avatar Studios in Manhattan to record Ten, the most assured and focused album of Moran’s acclaimed career, a snapshot of a mature band with a decade of shared musical experience from which to draw.

“Ten is our first record that doesn’t rely on a concept to drive it. The only concept is us as a band today,” says Moran. “As we have evolved over ten years, there’s a certain ease that we now function within, an ease to let the music be. On some of my earlier recordings, I was making sure I exposed my ideas as a thinker. Now we refrain from jumping through every musical window of opportunity, but only jump through the good windows.” 

The Bandwagon made their first recording as a trio with Facing Left in 2000, and has been the foundation of the majority of Moran’s artistic statements since. The trio has been augmented by saxophonist Sam Rivers for 2001’s Black Stars, (which was named to NPR’s list of “The Decade’s 50 Most Important Recordings”) and guitarist Marvin Sewell on 2005’s blues exploration Same Mother as well as 2006’s Artist In Residence, a compendium of Moran’s arts institution commissions that also featured collaborations with soprano Alicia Hall Moran and conceptual artist Adrian Piper.

Rolling Stone has called Moran “the most provocative thinker in current jazz,” and in Mateen and Waits, he has found his ideal companions, two distinctive voices on their instruments who are restlessly creative and share his open-mindedness and diversity of influences, not just beyond jazz in classical music and hip hop, but also beyond music in art, film, dance, and theater. Over ten years the trio has developed an intuitive level of musical communication. “When we get together and rehearse,” explains Moran, “there are few words directing how the music should go. We have to communicate as thinking people, not just want to feel the same things from our music over and over.”

In a recent live review in The New York Times, critic Nate Chinen praised Moran’s “fierce longstanding group,” adding that they “didn’t follow his lead so much as flank him on both sides. Though it’s a trio its sound described something bigger and more indivisible.”

“Gangsterism Over 10 Years” is probably the track on Ten that best indicates where The Bandwagon has been and where they are going. Here in its ninth incarnation, “Gangsterism” is an ongoing set of variations on a single theme Moran has been exploring in various settings since his debut.

Although the trio is undoubtedly the focus of Ten, Moran pulls material from several of his various recent projects. “Blue Blocks,” which opens the album with a bluesy cascade of chords, comes from Live: Time, a rhapsodic gospel suite inspired by the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, that was commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and originally featured The Bandwagon with guitarist Bill Frisell. The elegiac “Feedback Pt. 2” was part of a piece commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival for which Moran drew inspiration from Jimi Hendrix’s performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. “Hendrix intentionally created guitar feedback and used the effect in a very musical way. So I extracted each feedback moment from that concert and then composed a sort of ballad over it and sampled Jimi. For us, performing the piece onstage was like having a séance with his spirit.”

“RFK In The Land Of Apartheid” is the main theme from a film score that Moran composed for Larry Shore’s documentary RFK In The Land Of Apartheid about Robert Kennedy’s historic 1966 visit to South Africa. “At the time, apartheid was raging and Kennedy makes this famous speech, the ‘Ripple Of Hope’ speech, saying that each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

“Pas De Deux,” the sole solo performance on the album, comes from Moran’s first-ever dance collaboration with choreographer Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet company. “Working with a ballet company is very inspiring,” explains Moran. “They are breathing. And when they exert in one direction it shows in the next move, forces at continual play. It’s like the science of music made visible. Usually when we perform, our music goes directly to an audience, and they give us back the energy they’re feeling from the experience. But with a dance company the music goes directly to each dancer. We must inspire them to move. We  have to play with enough weight, and air, and grace, that then allows them to feel like they’re ready to thrust from this chord, or bass drum, or bass line. And that was a real challenge to not think outward to the audience but through the dancers.”

“Pas De Deux” is bookcased by two remarkably different renditions of “Study No. 6” by the American classical composer Conlon Nancarrow. “He wrote these lightening fast pieces for player piano,” says Moran, “but there’s something really simple and beautiful about them, too. The slow version was easy to get to. But then Nasheet found this rhythm, this little element that became the landscape for a much faster version. So it was just by chance we got two versions I liked equally and that’s how this band works. We don’t sanitize the musical activity, there are lots of blurred lines, lots of information, lots of scattering and refraction. But then sometimes when we want to center on one object, that focus can be searing, so that’s what we did with this piece.”

Also on Ten are compositions by three of Moran’s foremost influences: Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, and Jaki Byard. “Crepuscule With Nellie” was featured in Moran’s multimedia concert event In My Mind: Monk At Town Hall, 1957, which The New York Times called “stunning.” The arrangement uses a cut and splice technique that reveals Moran’s deep hip hop influence; selecting certain phrases, reordering them, and discarding the rest. “It was just to tamper with Monk,” he laughs, “because his compositional style has such seductive pianistic qualities that when I go to play his work I inevitably try to play it exactly as Monk himself would have approached it. Chopping up his song and reorganizing the parts is a tactic to get away from that urge.”

Moran also includes pieces by two of his teachers, Byard’s “To Bob Vatel Of Paris” and “Play To Live,” a piece he co-wrote with Hill, who died of lung cancer in 2007. “I remember having a conversation with Andrew,” recalls Moran. “He was talking about his illness, that he wanted to work because he knew his time was getting short, and during our conversation he said ‘I play to live.’ That’s why I am constantly playing Jaki Byard’s music too. With these two guys now gone, I really have to make sure that I continue to share their music as much as possible, because they aren’t as popular as Keith Jarrett or Herbie Hancock. But they are people who have shaped my path so firmly that I think my audience should know who they are.”

The track “Old Babies” gives us another window into one of the most profound influences on Moran these days, his identical twin sons Jonas and Malcolm, who were born in 2007. “Fatherhood has contributed to this record,” muses Moran. “My boys have calmed me and centered me. They’ve changed the focus of my life and the quality of the focus on my music because they are, frankly, such candid critics—even at two. It’s a really beautiful thing to have young people interact with the music. When I play piano at home, Jonas occasionally chimes in with these amazing harmonies he sings. It’s kind of shocking. The phrase he sings on this track was just totally out of the blue, an unexpected utterance.”

Moran closes the album with “Nobody,” a surprise hidden track drawn from a surprising source. “This is a Bert Williams song,” says Moran, referencing the minstrel pioneer. “He was a huge star at the turn of the century, a black performer who performed in exaggerated blackface. I am an African American performer; it’s part of my history then, and really part of all American history, and human history. You know, what do we do to ourselves? What do we do to others? Who are we doing it for?”
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