A Fireside Chat With Jason Moran (2002)

AAJ Staff By

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I have always liked Jason Moran. If not his killing playing, his uncanny unwillingness to need to be the king of the playground. He is comfortable with his identity and so his approach is clear and ultimately his own. Now, I don't know much, but I have known since Oz's Further Ado, "JaMo" was to be recognized and more than five years later, Moran is watercooler chatter for jazz journalists. They come around in time. As always, unedited and in his own words.

All About Jazz: Since we spoke last, Blue Note has released Modernistic, the first session you produced. Soundtrack to Human Motion, Facing Left, and Black Stars were all produced by Greg Osby.

Jason Moran: Right, this project also lent itself to what I thought I wanted to do, so my vision wasn't, it didn't have anything to do with anybody else. So I could kind of really gage what a piano sounds like and what I'm trying to do with it. The project, since it was a solo piano record controlled that and the other sessions, since they were pretty much my first sessions, Greg was really in charge of making sure the sound was correct, the mix was balanced, and everything was accounted for in the session as far as paperwork and stuff like that, offering advice on the length of certain songs or maybe whether or not we needed to do another take or something. But in this piece, it was very simple for me to just produce by myself because I play piano and that is all I had to record.

AAJ: You hinted on doing a solo record last time around, it was time.

JM: Well, I think I'm looking at it as each recording offering something that I hadn't offered before. In that respect, I thought it was time that I record a solo record and also, it was the evolution of the music as a whole. It was time for a pianist to do a solo record. I really felt that it was my obligation and also like a progress report to test myself and see if I could sustain interest by myself.

AAJ: My name isn't James P. Johnson so I can't interpret the meaning of "modernistic," what does it mean to Jason Moran?

JM: Well, it is a, what it means for me is that it's just of the day. It is of today, breathing. It is of today's beat. It's of today's culture. But it is not groundbreaking like technology or wireless communication or nothing like that. It is just a representation of what is exactly happening today. And I think James Johnson was at the forefront of that movement when he wrote the piece and with his style of piano playing. So that is one thing in that it is not brand new. It is not ancient either. It has this middle ground. A lot of modern art from the Forties and the Thirties and the Twenties, basically the twentieth century is still regarded as new, but they kind of coined it as modern expressionism and the same with modern design furniture like Charles Eames or Isamu Noguchi (practically all the floor lamps at IKEA are Noguchi rip offs), people who produced these pieces in the Thirties and Forties and is still regarded as quintessential pieces of a person's home collection in 2002. So in a lot of respects, a lot of the things that I really admire about that time, which was a long time ago, was that those pieces or these seminal designs lasted for years and years, same as James P. Johnson's style. I'm trying to be modernistic.

AAJ: Composers remark on their compositions as if they were offspring. As a composer do you have such reservations?

JM: There isn't a reservation. It is just a, is the performance up to snuff with what I think is possible at the moment. The composition, I'm not a great composer that I can dictate what a piece will sound like just by writing the notes down on a page, as the person who performs it and kind of breathes the life into it. So I'm not a great composer in that sense because I think a lot of other people are really able to do that very well. So I never think of it in terms of being scared to release something into the world. I think you've got to deal with that everyday you walk out of the house period and wondering if you can express yourself rather freely to your boss or to you co-worker or to your mother. I don't think of it as serious, or the music as deep as that. It is just an expression of that day in the studio.

AAJ: Who are serious composers?

JM: I think near the top of the list for me is Henry Threadgill and Andrew Hill. At the top of the list as far as creative music and improvisational stuff. Threadgill, with the moods that he creates with the sound sources or the combination of not odd instruments, but instruments that you wouldn't see together, really sounding absolutely amazing together. And Andrew, in a lot of ways, with the simplicity of melody which is usually more poignant than many people's symphonies. Those two in respects to being able to compose and really, as they say, "tell a story," with a compositional line that aren't A-A-B-A forms or they aren't just free modal forms. There is a lot of structure and a lot of movement to it, but never movement for movement's sake. It is movement for compositional sake.

AAJ: There is a connotation that complexity equals intelligence, abstract is modern, does that come into play?

JM: Sometimes it does. In rare cases it does. Sometimes I will be thinking rather complex things about what I'm trying to imbed into this composition and other times, it is purely banal, "Oh, that actually sounds fine. I'll write it down." So I don't really have a compositional style. I think my style is not to have a style (laughing). I just kind of still think of my writing as plagiarism to a certain degree, living off of someone else's roots. I don't necessarily think of the compositions as complex. Usually, when I write a piece and I pass it around, a lot of people who aren't in my band, do see it. "Oh, man, this is very difficult or very hard." I'm like, "You have no idea what hard music is (laughing)." "Play some of Osby's stuff or play some of Steve Coleman's stuff and it will challenge what you think rhythm is before you even think about reading a note, what improvisation is." I think of my stuff as very simple. Some people see it as very intellectual, but I really just see it as a banal expression of who I am.

AAJ: I read a quote about Pierre Boulez, "He has no trouble with women because women are not important to him. He has no trouble with cats or dogs either."

JM: (Laughing)

AAJ: But then there is Andrew Hill, who left the public eye to care for his ailing wife. Is there a medium?

JM: No, there isn't a balance. Herbie Nichols said, "I take music serious, but I don't take it seriously." My girlfriend lives in the apartment with me and we talk about what is on TV or I talk to my brothers on the phone. My family is way more important to me than my music is and it always will be. I'm in New York right now, but I am always, every other day, thinking about when am I going to be able to move back to Houston, just because I want to watch my brother's kids grow up and if I want to have kids, I want my kids to be able to hang out with their cousins. I don't want them to be miles and miles apart and never see each other except for like one summer. I grew up in a family and we were all very close. We all lived in Houston. I have basically like twenty cousins on each side. That part is always deeply rooted within me and they've always been supportive of my endeavors as a musician. I don't think of myself as a musician's musician. I know a few people who are. I'd say Muhal is like that. I'd say Steve Coleman is like that. Andrew is still like that. Sam Rivers is like that. These musicians, especially Steve, devote the most amount of time to learning his music and it is amazing to watch. I admire that he can do it because I know I can't (laughing).

AAJ: "Gangsterism," you have recorded five parts thus far.

JM: Well, the "Gangsterisms" are, as I was saying before, my compositions are chameleon like in a lot of ways. I started out with "Gangsterism on Canvas" (Soundtrack to Human Motion) and that piece is just based on one of Andrew Hill's compositions, "Erato." It started from that and it started from me just hearing part of the melody in my head and not knowing what the rest of the melody did and then create that composition. Then on subsequent records, I started to just add onto the theme. So for each one, it is kind of like a compositional exercise to see how many ways I can recreate this one theme. With "Gangsterism on a Lunchtable," I was trying to do my John Cage interpretation of hip-hop. And the one before, "Gangsterism on Irons," is basically about people on the seventeenth hole in a golf tournament, hitting over the water and being scared. Do you believe that they will reach the green without going into the water and suffering a one stroke penalty, so that is what that is all about. I think everyone has a gangster side of them, so I am trying to touch on all the different gangsters in the world.

AAJ: What is your Godfather side?

JM: The ability to hurt someone's feelings really fast and sometimes without ever thinking that I am. Sometimes people tend respect me because they think that I'm cold blooded, not in a cold blooded bad way, but like as a very blunt person who usually gives you the truth whether you ask for it or not. People have different reactions to that. I think that's part of what my gangster side is and also I'm really keen on the movement and the styles that a snake has and an alligator has. I feel like myself as a reptile, one who is able to move between water and land freely so you can't really catch me.

AAJ: Snakes and gators are not touchy feely. They are stunts in Fear Factor.

JM: (Laughing) Yeah, but those are my favorite animals and I used to have some snakes when I was a kid and was even studying to be, I don't want to say studying to be, but I was really into it and really wanted to work in a zoo and really wanted to be a herpetologist and study reptiles, but at a certain point, that was just one of my many hobbies as I was growing up. I was definitely into snakes and owned snakes and studied snakes all the time and would interview zoologists at the zoo. I was into it.

AAJ: Things could have gone a different way and Jason Moran might have been Brian Fellow.

JM: (Laughing) Oh right, Brian Fellow (laughing). That shit is funny.

AAJ: And the future?

JM: We are actually, we are heading off on tour to Europe tomorrow for a couple of weeks and then we do some hits on the East Coast and then at the end of November, we will do a live recording at the Vanguard with the bandwagon, the trio. That is what is next. We will be using some new pieces that haven't been really heard by the public, so they are in for a shock because I have these new pieces that are based on people talking. They are not based on it. They are actual transcriptions of people talking, whether it is Chinese back and forth, whether it is a woman speaking in Turkish on the phone, or whether it's an Italian woman telling a story or my grandparents talking about the family. So I have these four pieces that will also be on the recording that are, I am trying to step up this group sound and we're adding another voice which is an actual voice from someone else.

AAJ: And the trio is still Tarus and Nasheet?

JM: It is the same with Tarus and Nasheet. Tarus and Nasheet are my boys that I don't go anywhere without because just the way that they move together. We've been together a while and that has actually been very positive and we actually have more work coming up and so this will good. This will be our first European tour starting tomorrow, the first real European tour and we're looking forward to actually performing for a long time. So it will be fun.

AAJ: Finally some recognition.

JM: Yeah, well, people have supported me all the way. So whether they stop coming or they keep coming, my back is, I have a good army behind me.

AAJ: Oddest fan reaction?

JM: Let's see, well, one dude said, "Why did you play 'You Don't Know What Love Is' that way? You played it more avant-garde and I would have chosen to play it straight." I preceded to tell this guy, "That's why you're sitting in the audience." His girlfriend started laughing and that's what really made him feel bad and he said, "Well, I'm an architect." I said, "You telling me that is like me telling you that you can only use 90 degree angles in your buildings. You can have no round curves. You can have no circles. You can't use anything but concrete, no marble, no glass. That is the same shit you're telling me." Then he preceded to walk off.

AAJ: There you go being all gangster again.

JM: (Laughing) Yeah, but I'm like don't open your mouth and come and tell me how you would have played some piece when I thought that it was cool. So anyway, that was the oddest thing that someone has said that I really can definitely remember. That was from like three or four years ago.

AAJ: What movie star or famous person do you think you resemble?

JM: Famous person.

AAJ: Because I get a lot of Brad Pitt.

JM: (Laughing) Let me think, Fred. That I most resemble. He's not really famous though, Jack Johnson. Jack Johnson, the old boxer in the early 1900s.

AAJ: No one is going to know who that is.

JM: (Laughing) I think he's famous. Alright, let me chose another one. OK, you know who it is, Delroy Lindo. Some people might know who he is, but he is an actor and the characters that he plays in films, I like how he moves and also, he actually checks out jazz. I actually saw him in London at a show. He came backstage and said that he had a good time. He was out with his wife and they were out on a vacation in Europe. So I thought that was really cool, just him on a personal level and I really respect his work and he's always working. He's always playing characters that are never awful people, but he can be a cold motherfucker too. So I like him.

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