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Jason Moran on 'The Bandwagon'

By Published: October 9, 2003
Jason Moran is busy. Busy touring to promote his upcoming release The Bandwagon , a live album featuring his outstanding trio; he’s busy winning critics and readers poles; he’s busy talking to reporters; and he’s busy carving out time for younger musicians like those gathered at the recent clinic Moran held at the University of Maryland during the 25th Kappel International Piano Competition and Festival.

When I caught up with him, Moran had just finished a full day’s speaking engagement, but was still shaking hands and talking enthusiastically with the patrons, especially the younger students, who had come to hear his presentation. Luckily, I was able to speak with Moran for a few moments between his last clinic and the start of the evenings performances.

Asked about the clinic, Moran made it clear he enjoys participating, mostly because he remembers being just like the kids in the audience, hoping to meet someone they admire who can direct them a little farther along the path to jazz. “I was that kid” Moran stated, as we began talking, still searching for the way back to the green room. “These small interactions can be so important.”

Locating the room, we were finally able to sit down. We turned our attention to Moran’s many other activities, including The Bandwagon.

All About Jazz: I’d like to ask a couple things about the album you’ll have out in August. The two tracks on there which use spoken language, Chinese and...?

Jason Moran: Turkish.

AAJ: Right, Turkish. How’d that come about? As far as I know, that’s not been done.

[Note: Jason Moran uses live loops of spoken language as improvisational material on two of the tracks on The Bandwagon ]

JM: Well, It’s been done. The guy I heard do it was Pascoal from Brazil. He was doing it with political leaders, children’s classes, pigs, and chickens. He was transcribing that stuff. Now, I’d heard what he’d done, but he only did it with keyboard and whatever the voice or sound was. But I wanted to translate that to a band, which was taking it another step as far as I was concerned, especially in the “jazz” realm. I thought it would be a shocker, as well as something that would inform the audience and give us more information as far as rhythm and melody are concerned. Transcribing a language is not like transcribing Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington. It’s a different process. So that’s where I got the idea from. As I’ve been performing it recently... people come up to me and say, ‘Have you heard Steve Reich do this, or Frank Zappa?’ And there’s this guy in New York—I can’t remember his name—there’s another composer who has done it. But my thing was, ‘Did the McCoy Tyner Trio do this?’ A classic group like that. Not an anthropological thing, or an experiment where it’s like, “What the fuck is this? Why is he doing this?’ I did it more as an exploration of the idiom, of the sound, and of what we think melody is. That’s what those pieces are about.

AAJ: Focusing on the voice like that reminds me of what we were just talking about in the classical repertoire. The last impressionists also started doing things like that, experimenting with birdsong etc.

JM: It’s a fun exercise. I thought of it more as an exercise. The first thing I did with it was maybe four years ago—I did it with Japanese. And we played the song that came out of that on Facing Left ...But we never performed anything with the sounds.

AAJ: Performed it live.

JM: Yeah, playing it live, in front of people. Not as a studio trick, but to actually do it on the bandstand. How do you teach musicians rhythms like that? I gave them the cd to listen to and said, ‘Listen to it’. [Laughter] And each time they still tell me, ‘I never heard her say that before!’

AAJ: It seemed to...fuel a lot of rhythmic ideas that would be hard to extract from your typical jazz chart.

JM: Right, right. That’s the point of any composition. You give it to a musician and with that little bit of guidance, they launch off from there. That’s the great part of having Nasheet[Waits] and Taurus[Mateen] in the band because they are true rocket ships.

AAJ: How did that happen? Was that through the Osby connection again?

JM: No, it really came about because of New Directions. We did twenty cities throughout the U.S. By the time we got to the fifteenth city we realized we had a lot going on as a trio. We like to play in time, but then we like to get loose. So it can be kind of swimming and then get really solid five seconds later. When we did Facing Left three, four years ago, it was at that point. I really wanted to do another trio record now to show how we’ve developed as a group and have it be live. No fixes, just straight up.

AAJ: I wish more groups would do that. Alternate between recorded and live work. It seems such an important element of jazz.

JM: It is. It is.

AAJ: You mentioned this at the tail end of your talk, that even classical musicians are now editing takes in the studio, as are a lot of jazz musicians. That can be a creative outlet, but on the other hand, how important is it in your opinion to keep the ethic of live performance alive?

JM: You can’t hide behind it. For all of us—for us on our perspective instruments—you can’t hide when you’re left alone on stage. About a month and a half ago, my band missed their flights to the San Francisco Jazz Festival so I did my concert solo. O.k. I have no tools to rely on tonight, for this show. Just myself and the piano. I did some mini-disc work, but really it’s just me and the piano. You can’t do that stuff all night. At one point you have to say, ‘O.K. piano—I’m gonna deal with you.’...

AAJ: I did want to ask you a little about how you got into this. You’ve taken a rather unusual path into jazz. Did your family have a jazz background?

JM: Not really. I started piano at six with a Russian teacher. She was fresh from the Soviet Union. She’d only been a year in the United States.

AAJ: And that happened in the normal parents-want-their-kids-to-learn-an-instrument way?

JM: No, my older brother was playing violin in school and during the summer they wanted to put him in lessons so they put him in a music camp. They wanted my younger brother and I to have an activity as well, so we started piano. That’s how that came about. Nobody was a musician in our family. I have two cousins on my father’s side who are blues musicians in Chicago who used to play in Albert King’s band. That’s just so amazing. The only other musicians in the family are dealing with this guy on such a high level of the blues.

AAJ: Well, obviously your family’s got it when they do it.


JM: So those are the only other musicians in the family. I was playing classical and then by the time I was thirteen I took a short hiatus and then switched to jazz. My father had a lot of jazz records and he played Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” one day and I was like, ‘That’s very cool. I want to do that. I want to look like that.’ I really went into a whole—going through his albums, buying every one of his recordings I could find.

AAJ: That happens to so many people with his seems like an entry point for many people.

JM: Well, that’s because it’s so personal. When you hear it, it’s like, ‘wow he’s playing the piano like nothing I’ve ever heard before.’ That attack, the sound, the compositions, and the mood.

AAJ: It’s so personal, yet so many people can have access to it. A lot of musicians have used his compositions as springboards. That’s just fascinating to me.

JM: It is. And it...gets rid of that notion that you have to be simple to achieve stardom as a musician. It took...a long time for the public to understand who he was, but that wasn’t the point of his music. He was just honest from day one. That’s nothing to take lightly.

AAJ: So, you’re touring with the trio, you’ve been doing clinics like this. You’re a busy guy.

JM: Yeah, fairly busy. I got home 8:30 last night from Europe and woke up at 4:30 this morning to take a six o’clock plane to get here.

AAJ: It seems like one of the underlying ethics of jazz is a physical endurance test.


JM: You know, the entire time we were in Europe man, it was only a week—but it felt like 14 days—we would stay up all night. We were in places like Norway where it never got dark, and in Spain they had parties in the hotel all night long and these massive hang sessions every night. So yes, that is part of the grunt work, but the reward is so large.

AAJ: That’s a great description of the scene. I’m always intrigued by the European jazz scene because in some ways Europe and Japan are greater consumers of jazz than the States.

JM: There’s much more of an appreciation over there for it than in America.

AAJ: Is that just a cultural fascination with something different, something American?

JM: Partially it’s that. Some cultures are just fascinated by what black people do. There was an article about Japanese kids moving to Harlem and converting from Buddhism to the Baptist faith so they can learn how to sing gospel music, getting braids in their hair! So some people get involved with it because of that. Because it came predominantly out of black experience... [But]in Japan, in many other cultures, their focus on art—the arts in general—is much greater than in America. In America it’s totally taken for granted. So in Berlin you have two and three Opera houses.

AAJ: That’s a great city.

JM: I love that city too, man.

AAJ: I lived there for awhile. I lived in Berlin, and outside Tokyo for a little while. That’s one reason I wanted to bring that up, since you tour there. I think my eyes were opened up just by living there because they pay so much attention to it[the arts]. A jazz musician can go over to Japan and just pack a stadium.

JM: It’s crazy.

AAJ: It’s a different experience.

JM: It is, it is. They just pay attention to arts in general all across the boarder. Americans don’t. They have little bitty towns outside of Bologna, outside another little town, then there’s this festival that attracts hundreds of thousands of people, ‘What?! How? That makes no sense.’ but then you go to Kentucky’s smallest town. It’s not going to have a jazz festival that will then attract people from all around.

AAJ: Are you now dedicated to the trio setting, or...

JM: I enjoy other settings, but for right now it’s either solo or The Bandwagon, or Greg[Osby] and I did a duet tour this year and we might do some more duo work. Those are my main focuses, especially the work with The Bandwagon since the cd is about to go out.

AAJ: I don’t know how I got into it, but I’ve become absolutely fascinated by the trio format. I had a period with the Bill Evans trio.

JM: Right, right.

AAJ: He sort of changed the expectation level regarding group interaction. It seems some of shied away from that, but you definitely haven’t.

JM: Right. No, I haven’t.

AAJ: So I was wondering if that idea of having a standing group that you work with a lot is important to you?

JM: It’s so important. One thing that used to annoy me about Greg’s band was that the bassist and drummer situation never got solidified. There was always this point where he’d got tired of them and we’d have to hire new people and we’d have teach the new guys the music again. We’d have to through this whole process of them learning the music. When I’d been playing this music, and I’d already be deep inside it and I’d have to revert to being like an elementary student again because these guys don’t know it yet.

AAJ: There is that side of jazz, though, when great players can get up together on the bandstand and play together, but not quite the same way those three dudes who’ve been playing every night together.

JM: I mean, I’ve played with great bass players, great drummers. But I don’t feel I have to play as much when I’m playing with Nasheet and Tarus. They bring so much to it, so much for me to respond to, and so much for them to respond to from me and I know that I can just stop playing and they’ll keep going, hard.

AAJ: I think it gives the audience more to listen to because it’s not just focused on one player.

JM: Those trios—when done correctly—you can’t beat it. It’s just excellent. There’s no way around it. But then sometimes when it’s being done by other musicians and it’s a little less than excellent, it’s just a little boring. Because you know it’s just standardized. There are no surprises. There is no mystery to their playing. So when you’re listening to it you’re—at least I’m—able to predict what’s going to happen and I shouldn’t be able to.

AAJ: Now you’ve touched on something I ask a lot of people. I guess it’s a personal obsession or something. As a trained musician, you’re hearing something very different than most listeners, but at the same time that’s your audience. I imagine that a large percentage of jazz fans don’t know what they are hearing, in a theoretical sense. How do you think music appreciation works for that segment?

JM: Now, there are two different things. First, when people buy a cd and listen to it at home and they’re visually stimulated by what they’re watching, whatever they’re seeing in front of their eyes while they’re listening to the music. Or they’re in the car. That’s one way that the person who doesn’t know music encounters my music. The other way is they come to a show and they visually see how we make the music. Once they see the enjoyment and the vigor with which we play the music, that effects them equally as much as what they’ve heard. I’ll tell guys it’s like going to a baseball game instead of watching it on T.V. There’s just a different element when you can see something right there in front of you.

AAJ: Absolutely. I think you learn a lot that way. I think it’s something missing in our culture now to a great degree. Sure, you can go see U2, but you don’t really see the process.

JM: That’s what it is...People come up to me after a show and say, ‘I’ve never heard anything like that. I don’t know anything about jazz, but what I heard tonight was just amazing. If jazz is like that, than I’m a hard core fan right now’.

AAJ: That must be gratifying.

JM: That’s the best compliment I could ever get. That they’ve never heard anything like that, that they don’t know about me, they’ve never heard my music, and they enjoyed it. Because that’s the true response. Unstudied. Unstained. I wish I had normal ears! I wish I couldn’t analyze every frickin’ note I hear in my life. It’s just an annoying thing that you can’t hear things otherwise.

AAJ: It’s hard to get out of the world.

JM: It’s impossible. Impossible.

AAJ: That’s something a lot of artists I talk to say. Everyone has that wish to go back to the state of so-called naiveté, just every once in awhile.

JM: Right, right.

AAJ: I find myself seeking out other forms, things I don’t know about and deliberately not learning about them. So I can have my things where I can just lean back and, you know, ahhhh. Relax. Otherwise, you go crazy.


JM: Right. That’s so true.

AAJ: That sort of brings up something else I was curious about. I’ve heard you’re a movie buff. You’ve got a few things on your webpage about that.

JM: Yeah, I need to do some updating. What I was going to start was ‘Films I’ve Seen Recently” you know, that kind of page. A ‘Music I’m Listening to Now’ page. But film is like the combination of all the arts in one. Recently I started doing some short film scores with some young directors which has really been an amazing experience.

AAJ: At least for me, there’s such a deep connection between visual stimulus and sound.

JM: Oh yeah. And it should be. For myself as well. Most people who I know who play music very interestingly have an appreciate for [and here Moran pointed over my shoulder, drawing my attention to back of the room]... for things like that corner. How that clock is slightly tilted in that corner over there.

AAJ: Spatial relations.

JM: Exactly.

AAJ: I just spoke with Jane Ira Bloom on this topic a bit.

JM: Right, the Pollock project. Great artists influence other artists regardless of the field. Now, I’m not a buff but I check out a fair amount of films and I always ask directors, ‘Tell me your favorites. Give me five of your favorite scores, which films are those?” And they send me to the wildest sources.

AAJ: I think that’s a misnomer as well. The stigma of going to L.A. to be a studio musician, as if that’s selling out.

JM: It’s not selling out. Everybody has different goals. Playing on a soundtrack is definitely major money. Or it can be. So I don’t knock that. Most musicians have to survive any way possible, no matter what the means are. Sometimes that can mean playing for a Colgate commercial to earn your twenty thousand dollars, what’s wrong with that?

AAJ: I agree, I think it’s dangerous for the arts if you limit the way people can survive. I mean, you need to make money to fund your art.

JM: That’s right.

AAJ: Are the directors you’re working with N.Y. or L.A. based?

JM: These are young guys, one girl—they were coming out of NYU Grad. School. So you know everyone has to do a thesis. So the one girl, when we did Black Stars she shot a short documentary about it. [It was] about nine minutes...I in turn did the music for her film, and she introduced me to the other directors.

AAJ: That’s great. I’m sort of an old school film fan. I really want that New York scene to come back....I’m curious about the title Facing Left. Does that reflect a political statement?

JM: Partially. But not really. It came from Egon Schiele the painter. He had a portrait called “Self Portrait: Facing Left” And, oh man, it’s crazy. So I decided that’s what we were trying to develop as a trio. This right way of looking left. Not to confine ourselves. That’s been the great thing about this group. We don’t imprison ourselves and throw away the key. So Facing Left has to do with looking in a different direction but still maintaining everything that has come before us in order to inform the future but not necessarily in the way that you may think. A leftists version.

AAJ: That’s always something very important. There’s been such a tendency to enshrine jazz, especially in the eighties, but now younger musicians are...

JM: Trying to bust that open.

AAJ: I can think of people like Scott Colley, Geoff Keezer. Do you think that movement is taking form?

JM: Yeah, it is taking form to a certain extent. They’ve been doing it for a while. I think the good thing is that somewhere out there someone is checking me out somebody’s checking Steve Coleman out, or Ralph Alessi, and they’re checking out the music. ...And when I was fifteen and I listened to Geoff Keezer and I listened to Greg Osby’s music it had an effect on me. So that forms a seed out there in the land that will become fertile, and who knows what’s going to come then. That’s what I think is the great thing about being on Blue Note. They constantly support what I’m doing and they’re putting it out there, because I know those seeds will help inform somebody else so that something can come after.

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