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A Fireside Chat With Jason Moran

AAJ Staff By

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My songs that I even think swing, they don't swing the way all the stuff that I hear on WBGO swings. It is like a totally different connotation. When I say swing, it is not like the Art Blakey style.
Frankly, I am not qualified to offer up an opinion of improvised music. And I am confident that no one outside the artists themselves are truly qualified. So my approach to Firesides has always been to never be presumptuous enough to interpret the artist's words or offer up context to them. Instead, I have always done the only thing I know how and that is get the fuck out of the way. Having said that, allow me to return the stage to the one in the arena. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jason Moran, unedited and in his own words.

All About Jazz: Between the two of us, we have done a dozen lifetimes worth of interviews. What question do you get the most?

Jason Moran: Where do you pull your resources from? Where do you get your influence? I think that's it. I think that's the popular one almost for everybody.

AAJ: Shit, Jason, even I've asked you that one.

JM: Yeah, but everybody asks about it.

AAJ: So what question would you like to answer?

JM: Oh shit, Fred (laughing). Why are you a jazz musician (laughing)?

AAJ: Why are you a jazz musician?

JM: I don't know, Fred. I don't know (laughing). As many people say about being an artist, "you don't choose it, it chooses you," when I started playing piano, that's not what I was close to envisioning myself doing at well over thirteen years old. I never thought that I would do this for a living. I even quit at a certain point. But when I started playing again, I still wasn't really convinced that I wanted to become a musician, even though I went to a performing arts high school and started studying music pretty seriously and then went to college at the Manhattan School of Music. And I have friends who, I remember being in college and still wasn't sure whether I wanted to be a musician or not because the lifestyle is so sporadic, at least for me it is. For some other people, it's not, but for me, it's up and down and it's not as, well, you plan things six or seven months in advance. It's not really direct. What you hear today may not affect your music until a year and a half from now. So you don't see the direct effects on your musical and your art form as you do if I made a sale today and I was a stockbroker, then I could get my check. At the end of the day, I could get my commission for it. But with art and with other shit, it takes a long time. So I thought that it chose me at a certain point. I think I am one of the luckiest people in the world. I do what I like for a living. I stay at home when I want to stay at home. I go on the road when I want to go on the road. I'm able to pay my bills. I am able to think that when I go to see movies by Alfred Hitchcock or whoever else, that that is just not entertainment, that it is actual research. That is probably my main reason for becoming it because I enjoy doing it. It is not like I said, "I want to become a musician and tour the world." It was just, "Well, can I make a living doing this?" And I did it. So now I'm doing it and I enjoy it.

AAJ: If you are a sporting man, you validity is an easy gauge. If Michael Jordan scores forty plus in a game, his prowess on the court is defined. It must be trying to be involved in an art form where your legacy and your authority may not be determined for generations to come. That was the case with Albert Ayler. With that in mind, how do you gauge your own development?

JM: I can listen to it from record to record. I am able to assess myself objectively as to what portion of the record that I thought I was bullshitting on and points on the record where I thought I had excelled or had gotten a lot better at certain things. I can listen to my solo pieces from each record even though they are all kind of different. I've been playing that Jaki Byard song that is on Black Star for, since I was in college and each year it's kind of progressed as a piece. So I am not comfortable enough to record it. If you are able to listen to it, just like you are able to go see a Jackson Pollack retrospective and look at his early work, but when he got into his drip thing, he went into a totally different direction. And then, at the very end of his career, he almost went back to the form a little bit. You're able to look at it, but you have to look at it with a wider vision. You have to kind of stand a little further back, rather than look right at just the numbers. If you want to gauge your artist relevance on how many record sales, I have none (laughing). You are able to do it. You are able to listen to your compositions to see in what areas they've grown, your improvisations and how you interact with the musicians. I think that's almost the main point of how your band functions. I think that from record to record, especially with the rhythm section that I have chosen now to play for the past couple of years, that it has moved in a certain direction that I couldn't have predicted. It went that way because when we first started experimenting with a lot of that stuff, people shunned it. "You all can't even play time," or, "you can't even keep a groove for a little while." You want to move away from this so fast, but now it has developed into something that I regard as being our style. It is the trio's style.

AAJ: The music industry is all about record sales and if it wasn't Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill would have contracts with Interscope and Arista. So it behooves an artist in today's climate to lull the masses and to appease the rank and file with one release mirroring the last as popular musicians do. One U2 album sounds like the last. An example of this is a peer of yours, Brad Mehldau. How many volumes of that Art of the Trio has he done?

JM: I don't know, about six, seven, five.

AAJ: He has worn the treads off that fucking tire. No one else has the patent to Art of anything after this guy. But the guy's got record sales. In my opinion and I am merely one man, you are a better pianist. Why aren't your sales numbers where his are?

JM: Well, that is a really difficult question. I can only speculate as to why some artists are more popular than others. I am still relatively new to the game. I've only been doing this for four years. I haven't played sideman on a billion records. I have been associated with Greg Osby, people who are off the treaded path. I'm not as mainstream as an Eric Reed or Brad Mehldau. I am not comparing the styles between each of us, but I think that is part of it. The people that I regard and that I pattern myself after, they weren't selling records, Andrew Hill, Muhal, Jaki Byard. If that is the clique of people that I often hang with and the people that I hold in high regard, then I'm probably going to travel that path for a while. When I do a performance, whether I go back to back with any trio or whoever the group is, the people feel that energy whether they want to admit it or not. I've had people who never listen to music be like, "I've never heard anything like that before in my life." I've had people who listen to music all the time say that. I am not going to gauge at this early point in my career, state what the rest of my career is going to do. Who knows? Maybe the next record will sell seven hundred thousand copies. Who knows? I think it's more of a mainstream factor. My songs that I even think swing, they don't swing the way all the stuff that I hear on WBGO swings. It is like a totally different connotation. When I say swing, it is not like the Art Blakey style. I come from a totally different crew of musicians that I value as an art form very high.

AAJ: Why haven't you whored yourself out and played more as a sideman and guest on records more frequently?

JM: Nobody ever asked me to, Fred. That's the point. Nobody's ever asked. I'm not going to go out and say, "Hey, can I play on your record?" I think that is crazy almost. "Hey, can I be in your band?" There are some bands that I would love to be in. Play once with Dave Holland or Jack DeJohnette or Roy Haynes for that matter. There are bands that I want to be in, but I don't know how to approach a person like that and say, "Can I be a part of your clique for one tour or one gig?" But it's more of just that people have never asked. That's the main thing. Maybe they think that with the crew I'm associated with, that I don't want to do anything else. If it's not of a certain style then I don't want to play it, which is far from the truth. I will judge stuff accordingly and I won't play on just anybody's record.

AAJ: Both Andrew Hill and Muhal Richard Abrams have made seminal albums that have expanded the vocabulary, but both have languished in relative mainstream obscurity. If that should be your fate, would you be comfortable in the underground?

JM: Yeah, Fred. I'm very comfortable with it. My point overall is that if I'm looking for financial security in my life, then I probably won't do it through music. I would probably have some side hustle that nobody would know about that will allow me to live the way I want to live comfortably in a big house, if I want a big house in Texas somewhere and have a couple of cars. There's a way to have that. It depends on what you want out of life. Part of the thing is that I want a family and the comfortableness is that when I have my children and I go on tour during the summer that I will be able to bring all my children with me to travel throughout wherever I go. So that's what I want and then at the same time be making music that I think is really hip. But I'm very comfortable with it. I'm young and I'm dumb as I always say. Twenty-six, so I can make stupid decisions for the rest of my life, but as long as I live by them, I have no regrets right now, none, for anything that I've done in my life. I'm just going to keep on going. If Muhal can be happy with it, as he obviously is, I regard him as an artist in his highest form. The artist doesn't have to be famous. The artist doesn't have to be rich. The artist has to create art and that's what he does. And usually that always turns around in some strange fashion. I mean, Muhal has supported himself and his family for many, many, many years and the thing is that he does it in a way that not everybody knows how he does it, which is illusive and his music has that element in it. He's always applying for grants and he always has his ensemble, the AACM, performing and doing concerts all the time. There's a lot to learn just on that level, how he created an organization that is able to be up and running forty, forty-five years later.
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