SFJAZZ.org | QA Jason Moran

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Places in History:
A Q&A with jason moran

January 17, 2023 | by Richard Scheinin

Jason Moran at SFJAZZ Center, 5/4/13. (photo by Tadashi Yamaoda)

Almost 10 years after his debut week as an SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director during Season 1 at the SFJAZZ Center in 2013, Jason Moran returns with another four-night residency (1/18-22). Staff writer Richard Scheinin talked to the pianist and composer about his current residency and his memories of that first season, including the historic Opening Night concert.

Pianist Jason Moran is an out-of-the-box musician, a MacArthur “genius” award winner, a 21st century conceptualist whose roots in the jazz tradition are profound.

He’s always exploring, always delivering surprises, and always finding connections. As an example, when he talks about Thelonious Monk, one of his heroes, he likens the pace and flow of Monk’s compositions to “a lope, the way a person walks, a gait. And sometimes with some of his songs, I move my neck in the same way I would if I were listening to Wu-Tang.”

When Moran returns to the SFJAZZ Center this month for a nearly week-long residency (Jan. 18-22), audiences inevitably will be drawn into his investigations of blues, swing, and the entire jazz tradition. His music is loaded with smart, subversive energy: Moran is in the great lineage of jazz players who reenergize the tradition by messing with it.

His San Francisco residency begins with a Listening Party, as Moran spins and talks about some of his favorite records — music that intrigues him (Jan. 18, co-hosted by Randall Kline, the Executive Artistic Director of SFJAZZ).

It continues with an evening of solo piano (Jan. 19), followed by a night of duets with singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello (Jan. 20). Another out-of-the-box musician — keeping her options open, delivering surprises — she collaborated with Moran on his 2014 Blue Note album All Rise: A Joyful Elegy to Fats Waller.

Moran has a way of re-dreaming the tradition: He’s done it with Waller, the Harlem stride pianist and composer, and he’s done it with Monk. Lately, he’s been doing it with James Reese Europe, the early 20th-century bandleader who often gets left out of the history books, but who Moran venerates as both pioneering activist and musical progenitor of much of the Black jazz that followed him. On Jan. 21, with a 10-piece band, Moran will perform music from his new album From the Dancehall to the Battlefield, out this month on Yes Records (Moran’s label) and available on Bandcamp. It’s his meditation on Europe, whose influence is vast and in need of reclamation, Moran says, calling him “the Big Bang of jazz.”

The residency concludes on Jan. 22 with a performance by Moran and his trio, known as the Bandwagon, which has been performing for nearly a quarter-century. With Moran on piano, bassist Tarus Mateen, and drummer Nasheet Waits, it is one of the great bands of our era. It has a way of flowing suite-like through a century’s worth of touchstone sounds — a “sampling” of genres that gets under your skin and into your head. It twists, undermines, and even pulverizes the groove, but never dispenses with it. In fact, the Bandwagon grooves hard, and you never know what’s coming next: a rhumba, some hip-hop. Or Moran’s light-as-a-tickle stride piano may slide or crumble into clusters and crashes, free rhythmic spaces that mysteriously reassemble into a Duke Ellington tune, a flash of ragtime, or Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock.”

Always, Moran finds freedom in the song.

I spoke to him about his residency — and about a pair of late piano giants, McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea, whose music was performed during the Tenth Anniversary Week of the SFJAZZ Center (Jan. 12-15).

Jason Moran and Eric Harland at the SFJAZZ Center Opening Night Concert, 1/23/13. (photo by Scott Chernis)

Moran was part of the Center’s opening night festivities on Jan. 23, 2013, an event that sticks in his mind, at least partly because Tyner, Corea and a bevy of other legendary musicians (e.g. Bobby Hutcherson, John Handy) were on stage that night: “It was the kind of cast that SFJAZZ is well known for putting together, a unique mix,” Moran says. “And it was multi-generational — elder musicians, but younger musicians, too, and that was powerful. It was humbling to be there. I think that was the greatest thing about that night — that it would humble your ass. The breadth and scope of it was extraordinary, and the audience was just sitting there and waiting for the music. And I’ve come to know that it’s almost always like that when I play in that hall. It’s a beacon to the way this music can be presented in America.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Your residency opens with a solo piano show. I remember the first time I saw you play a solo set, a good 20 years ago — you combined the piano with looping and electronics. How has your solo playing evolved over the years?

A: It’s evolved a lot. In the past five years, it’s where I’ve been spending the most time, developing the solo thing without any amplification or any electronics, and I feel that I’ve gotten stronger at it, more confident. I really dive into the music, and it’s music that I’ve written for solo piano. Most of the music I’ll play in San Francisco will probably come from my two solo records, The Armory Concert and The Sound Will Tell You.

Q: And who are your “role models” for solo piano playing?

A: Earl Hines is one and, of course, my teacher Jaki Byard is another. And just recently I’ve watched this video of Geri Allen where you see how she almost seems to fly away from the piano. That’s how well she knows it. She is not burdened by the responsibility of playing solo, and that’s a model for how I want to be.

I want to make people really hear the piano, and I’d also like to make them ask, “Is that a piano I’m hearing?” There should be a moment where they say, “I didn’t know the piano could do that.” That’s a goal I have.

Q: I imagine you had plenty of time to practice during the pandemic.

A: Right. I’ve just been doing it more, so I’m stronger at it, and less intimidated by time. When I was younger, I thought I could muster up a good 45 or 50 minutes of solo playing — but that was it! Because it takes time to understand the piano, and I think I understand it better now. The pandemic helped, because we were trapped at home. It slowed things down. It gave me time as a player to check whether or not I still believe the same things I believed about music 10 years prior. And it gave me time to choose material that helps me understand where I stand at the piano right now. I’m not a kid anymore, so I want to stand up in a different way. It’s partially why I don’t use the electronics anymore, because it was kind of representative of another era of time for me. Right now, I want to play the piano unfiltered.

Q: Let’s talk about Meshell Ndegeocello. It’s been a decade since the two of you started working on the material for your Fats Waller project. What’s the nature of your collaboration, and why did you choose her as a duo partner?

A: Meshell is one of the brightest and most sensitive voices of our time. She has always had a voice that finds the sensitive break. She uses her voice to both be a catalyst and an embrace.

Q: Tell me more: What’s the feeling of performing with Meshell? How did you meet, and will you return to some of Fats’s tunes?

A: Years ago, we would pass each other and talk about how we hoped to spend time together and make music. When I approached her about Fats Waller, I knew she would find both the light and the darkness of Waller’s ability to give light during the Great Depression… We’ve remained close since making the Fats record. Of course, a few of those songs will root our concert, but we will also perform some of our other music together. We’ll let the repertoire be a surprise. As for a feeling, the only thing I expect are tears. This is a debut of sorts, and that freshness excites me tremendously.

Q: That’s “tears,” as in tears of joy?

A: Yes, tears as in excretions from the eyes. Tears of everything.

Q: You’ve been refining your James Reese Europe project for a number of years now. What an amazing figure — performing with a massive ensemble at Carnegie Hall in 1912, and organizing on behalf of Black musicians. During World War I, he fought in Europe with the 369th Infantry Regiment — the Harlem Hell Fighters — and led its famous regimental band. He made popular records. He was a superstar, ahead of his time.

A: I like to say he’s the Big Bang of jazz. There’s something that he does with scale. We think about Louis Armstrong or King Oliver down in New Orleans; the scale of what they were doing is kind of small and it’s nimble. But what James Reese is doing at the same time, or even earlier, is he’s taking 125 musicians into Carnegie Hall, and he’s making a Black musicians union (called the Clef Club) at the same time. So he is both an activist and a seminal composer at this Big Bang moment. He’s what leads to the big band era of the ‘20s. He shows that you can have a big band, and you can play entirely Black music, and you can do it entirely with Black musicians. It’s like, “We don’t have to be imitating Europeans. We can be a Black band with a Black canon,” and it’s really profound to be saying that in the 1920s. He’s a force — far beyond the imagination of what people can understand right now.

Jason Moran: History of James Reese Europe, Kennedy Center, 2018

Q: There are photos of Europe and his band marching up Fifth Avenue with the Harlem Hell Fighters in 1919 — a big parade, with something like 3,000 soldiers, and many thousands cheering them on.

A: They walked up Fifth Avenue, all the way to Harlem. It’s a powerful gesture that I retraced with my kids on the 100th anniversary of that event — on Feb. 19, 2019, which was a cold, cold day!

Q: The name of your new album of James Reese Europe’s music is From the Dancehall to the Battlefield. Previously, you had titled the project “The Absence of Ruin.” What is the meaning of that phrase?

A: He’s kind of wiped away from American history. There’s no plaque that talks about who he was. There’s no Colosseum like you have in Rome — a place that’s fallen into decay, but you still know what went on there. James Reese doesn’t have that; there’s no visible heritage. His legendary achievement lives somewhere else. So this piece kind of addresses the unwriting of his history. It’s a meditation about his life.

Q: Let’s move on to the Bandwagon, and the last night of your residency. Man, you guys have been playing together for a long time.

A: It’s 23 or 24 years. I have to be honest: When we first began, some people who heard us said, “Enough!” There was a rumble around us, like, “This is not good,” and that we should disband. So there were things that we were trying to fight against and there were things I wanted to fight for as a band. We were looking at making some music that didn’t treat the trio as a dinner party kind of thing. Also, Tarus and Nasheet are very original on their instruments and there weren’t a lot of trios that functioned as we did. We were trying to work on a language, and language takes time.

Q: Still, how do you explain your longevity?

A: One of the things that may have led to the breakups of other bands is that they’re constantly on the road — all the time. I didn’t want that. That was not a model that I thought was interesting. So we’ve always kept gaps in our touring. And that’s why we work in other situations, too. We work with Alonzo King and LINES Ballet, or if we do the Thelonious Monk thing, we bring other musicians on to widen it out.

Q: You didn’t want to tour too much? Most bandleaders wouldn’t admit that.

A: If you overwork a band, people get tired of each other. There was only so much demand for our band, anyway!

Q: How do you keep it fresh — there’s got to be some explanation other than not playing too often.

A: We keep bringing new music in. Our canon covers like 24 years, so we can jump into any era of our lives together. But then we keep bringing in more songs to play, so the canon keeps widening, and that also leads us into other projects. When I start a new project, like James Reese, it begins by playing the compositions with Tarus and Nasheet. That’s how we get the songs better. We play them as a trio and then we widen them out.

Jason Moran & The Bandwagon

Q: SFJAZZ presented a tribute to McCoy Tyner on Jan. 12. Joe Lovano put the band together — it included Gary Bartz, Kenny Barron, “Tain” Watts. Tell me about your relationship to Tyner and his music.

A: McCoy was the first idol I ever met. He came to my high school in Houston when I was 17. Me and (drummer) Eric Harland, we got to play for him, and years later, Eric went on to be in his band.

McCoy defined for me a kind of realism through force and energy, and he did not play the piano like Thelonious Monk. He was inspired by Monk, but he had way more muscle, so he made the piano roar. For a teenager like me, he was like an equivalent to a heavy metal band: You know, it was rebellious. But I came to understand that it was mostly just passion.

Over the years, I kept my public relationship to McCoy pretty private, because when I was in high school, I was copying him like crazy! I thought, “Wait, McCoy is alive and he’s still doing it and this is his sound. Leave it alone and move on.” Since he passed, I’m feeling a little freer to include a bit of McCoy’s language, or to drop one of his tunes into a set as an homage to a genuine giant.

Q: What else do you remember about being 17 years old and meeting him?

A: I stood on stage next to him and just watched. I can’t think of another pianist who innovated not only the way a pianist comps, but also how a pianist solos. He really found his own language and as a result made a change in history.

Plus, he was Just a beautiful human being. I met him when I was a teenager, but then later in life I would see him on the road, and he was always so gracious. Our paths would cross and he would take the time to say, “How are you?”

One time at the Kennedy Center (where Moran is the Artistic Director for Jazz), he took my arm and said, “I’m glad you got this job.” I just appreciated him, always being there for younger musicians.

Q: Let’s end with Chick Corea. (On Jan. 13, Stanley Clarke led a tribute to him at SFJAZZ.)
Can you summarize Chick’s impact on the music?

A: Where do you start? There’s the way he re-defined keyboards with Miles Davis’s band, and, of course, his facility and his compositions — the way he structured songs differently than anyone else. And it seemed like he was always listening to other musicians. So when we met each other, he was like, “Hey, let’s talk about the piano.” And in the same way as McCoy, Chick always had his relationships with younger musicians — with, let’s say, (drummer) Marcus Gilmore. He was always looking for the new one who’s going to push the music along.

You couldn’t ask for two more generous human beings in terms of talking piano, or just being helpful to younger players — Chick and McCoy.

Jason Moran's week of residency begins on 1/18 with a Listening Party, followed by a night of solo piano (1/19), a duo concert with Meshell Ndegeocello (1/20), James Reese Europe: From the Dancehall to the Battlefield (1/21), and a night with The Bandwagon (1/22). Tickets available here

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.

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