October 15, 2003
The Kennedy Center
Virtually drowning in accolades, Jason Moran needs little introduction. With the support of his band-mates, Tarus Mateen (bass) and Nasheet Waits (drums), Moran has established himself at the forefront of modern jazz, particularly with the breakthrough album released this year, The Bandwagon. One element contributing to Moran’s success has been his dedication to maintaining a working trio, the tight-knit results of which were clear during Wednsday night’s performance at the Washington, D.C. Kennedy Center.
Consummate showmen, Moran, Mateen, and Waits took the stage in slick, stylish clothing, somehow both totally modern in cut and color, yet reminiscent of bygone jazz era styles—perhaps it was the hats. In a way Moran’s attention to these details of style and presentation offers a first glimpse into what makes his music, and his performances, so unique. Every element of Moran’s music has been carefully constructed around several consistent points, and though he cloaks it masterfully in a pervasive sense of fun, a complex profundity underlies much of his work, a phenomenon even more pronounced in a live show than on recordings.
The key to Moran’s modernism is its conviction to privileging no individual moment, perspective, or approach, even the supposed cutting edge of invention which so often loses just this claim in its adoring bondage to the “new”, a new which more and more seems a series of bland recyclings of every avant-garde to have come before. Moran’s techniques of collage serve grander purposes than a simple overturning of traditions, which often relies on the deliberate blindness of the artist to his own interdependent context, and the indulgence or ignorance of the audience. In contrast, Moran develops historical continuity within modernism, juxtaposing pieces like his pointedly inventive composition, “Ringing My Phone (Straight Out of Istanbul)”, which uses a recording of the Turkish language as the basis for humorous, virtuosi group improvisation, with a more traditional reworking of “Body and Soul”, only to change gears again to a funky rendition of “Out Front”, which worked its way straight to a gut-grabbing blues center.
This is history from the inside, depicted as an ever-fluid, interactive cluster that in one moment dominates, in another informs, and in yet another recedes, only to resurface in a transformed, reintegrated fashion. The culmination of this effect, and of the evening’s performance, was the intensely emotional solo performance of Moran’s “Gentle Shifts South”, a lament displaying the flexibility and relentless surprise of Moran’s playing. Again employing a pre-recorded element, this time a taped conversation as his grandparents recite the family’s ancestral history, Moran performed a moving, contemplative improvisation which surpassed the version performed on his album. “Gentle Shifts South” indicates Moran’s strong connection to his individual history, in addition to the experiential history of a culture, and gives evidence to the band’s ability to balance extravagant forays into rhythmic, conceptual, and textural experiments with more gentle expressive capacities.
In a Moran show, the audience is offered layer upon layer of reference, conceptual reconfiguration, and honest, good natured fun. The result is the rarest of all achievements: a conceptually-driven experiment that intrigues the intellect, stirs the emotions, and provides a ridiculously enjoyable experience for serious jazz aficionados as well as less committed listeners.