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Alicia Hall Moran: Feeling Blue


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Alicia Hall Moran has been stealing—if not steeling—hearts and minds since she first opened her mouth to sing. Over a career spanning as many years as genres, Alicia has plugged her vocal cords into an ever-expanding circuitry of creative electricity. Whether in solo recital at the MoMA, reinventing Motown classics with guitarist Thomas Flippin, or nationally touring on stage as Gershwin's Bess, she brings her apparent all to any given project so that she might become aware of what's left over. It's precisely within that proverbial unknown, the mirror into which not every artist is prepared to look, that Alicia has etched a portrait of herself and made it knowable by her willingness to listen and be heard.

So much of this unearthing came to fruition when she put on, as part of her residency at National Sawdust, The Five Fans, a five-part ode to the art of performance that combined her training in anthropology (Barnard College), composition (Columbia University), and classical vocal performance (Manhattan School of Music) to astonishing effect. One might say that stepping out of the shadow of her husband, pianist Jason Moran, would be hard to do. But this would wrongly assume she never emitted her own light source to begin with. That she has, and with boldness of expression kept intact along the way. It's partly due to a difference of timelines that she hasn't been more widely recognized before the present decade. It's also a matter of historical trajectories. On the one hand, she has cut her vocal teeth alongside such legends in the field as Bill Frisell and Charles Lloyd. On the other, she acknowledges the legacy of her great-great uncle, Negro spiritual preservationist Hall Johnson (1888-1970), whose descendants instilled in Alicia the paramount belief of there always being more to explore.

But if anything synthesizes her career to date, it is the debut album, Heavy Blue (see review for All About Jazz here), on which these histories come fully to life by embracing the skeletons to which she owes the gift of flesh. It's an album of exceptional honesty, one that eschews standard expectations for a "jazz vocalist" in favor of a wounding allegiance to extra-musical details. Despite the album's rainbow palette, to call Alicia a musical chameleon is tantamount to deception. For while a chameleon might adapt to the situation at hand on the outside, s/he always remains the same inside. Not so with Alicia, who makes room for the necessity of being true to her evolving self. With this in mind, I ask: Who are you now that you weren't before the record?

"I'm an adult woman," she responds emphatically. "And the complexities of that are something I probably invested quite a lot of time in negating or denying."

And where did that negation come from?

"I think from myself and my confidence that I could follow my destiny. But truth has its phase, and I figured out that some lives don't automatically make you an adult, and that we also live in a time that encourages us to avoid all semblance of adulthood. No amount of money or knowledge is going to make you into the artist you want to be. For me, anyway, the answer was: I had to choose to grow up."

So it's not a case, I say, of this adult woman always having been inside her and Alicia simply needing to catch up to it, but something she had to consciously welcome into the fold of her being. Because some people can remain who they once were if they want to. "And there's nothing wrong with that. But then something might not give you the same satisfaction as it used to."

In speaking with Alicia, one notices a humility as deep as her genius. Such humility doesn't come cheaply, but from a genuine desire to improve and move beyond herself at every stage. So much of that willingness to be critical with herself has imbued every aspect of her album's production, if only because the process from concept to recording was one so fraught with emotional precariousness.

"It's funny, because the part of you that can sit and listen is the part that understands the vessel into which all this information is flowing. You are the salad master and you are going to mix and chop and do what you want with it. All the power is in that. I like to wake up in the morning knowing I had dreams about what I just did. We did the album so fast, and it's based on so many years of hard work and so many public performances that were complete trials by fire. My head was full of nos. No, you haven't rehearsed with Charles Lloyd for 20 years. No, you don't read charts. No, you're not swinging. But then: Do you need to be in this? Yes. You're doing this. This is happening. You have the content that makes available the other things. It's an ecosystem. You're there. It's just going to be you. So, deliver why you were brought here. But you have to bring it."

Every shade of her trepidation-turned-fuel can be felt throughout the album, to which she attached a veritable network of (auto)biographical threads in the interest of yielding an essential picture. The uncertainty that comes with such a project is the soil of its territory, and in Alicia's case breeds the most fragrant flora in response to the challenge.

"The great thing about it is that no one else can understand the pressure you're under the moment you're under it. This is Jason Moran's wife. So, is she just 'the wife' [makes sad trombone noise]? And if she's not, then where is she going to get put on the shelf? You're going to get put somewhere."

And sometimes, room for failure can elicit the most spontaneous decision. By way of example, Alicia tells me of a particularly memorable Christmas concert, during which she felt the need for a paradigm shift of sorts.

"I had to rewrite it. I had to give something that people would remember. Otherwise, people wouldn't carry it with them. I decided that I'd rather just fall off the edge of a wagon going around a corner too fast than go up there with my boring set of standards. I decided I was going to apply what I knew in my heart about what was happening. I got angry at people for wanting me to give them these real live things without any help. They come because they want to see what they know in front of their faces; it gives them a lot of ideas about energy. That's valuable, too, but I'm a changer."

In accordance with her lucid concept of self, Alicia did a brilliant thing. She wrote out cards to her audience members, signed with inspirational messages, and gave one to each, as much a gift for herself as for those who'd come to hear her. This breaking of the fourth wall between a performer and her listeners is something I daresay occurs not only her live performances but also on the album, throughout which is woven fibrous histories.

"If you have the perimeter of servitude, slavery, or denial of intellectual pursuit...complete zero...then every next thing you do is leading you into an unknown space, around which there is no prescription because it's not even for you. You're out there, but there's not much you there. So when I'm making my music, something I'm very interested in doing is avoiding resistance to the idea that I can be interesting in unique ways, or at least in a way you didn't prescribe for me when you saw my face, or the idea that I have to entertain you along certain lines in order for you to even understand me."

The poignant, if contradictory, result of all this, however, is that Alicia is robustly understandable for one reason above all: In listening so intently to herself, she makes you want to do the same.

"Each challenge sets you on a path that's very diversifying. It can send you spinning in place. It's potent. It's so excellent that I know all about that stuff—the backside, the inside, the underside. I have something to say. I know where it comes from. I know how to put it back. I know what to do with feedback. I can play my record live. That piano part [in the album's opener, "Believe Me"] is built for me to play. It's my feeling: attached, detached, and reattached. It's a non-piece in some way. Some of those repeats are like me incanting, one is experiencing it, seeing it..."

The other is remembering it, I add.

"Yeah. If you want to cook a biscuit, then you've got to get the oven going, so that whatever envy you have transforms into its own recipe of adulation. My survival—other people could tell me differently—depends on what those closest to me think. I know that to be the truth. I have to move them. I'm not even worried about the rest. If you're coming into your own among legends and you're lucky enough to figure it out, you're going to have a major inheritance. It's a social experience. I'm learning the tectonics of the organism."

Like an organism, Heavy Blue is no mere resume. It's its own entity, an album self-released in more ways than one. First in being produced in house, as it were, with her husband and a select few other musicians. Second in being a release of self, a mining of psychological ore for want of mineral color and texture. And third in being a release from self toward the possibility of fresh transformations. In less uncertain terms, Alicia is someone who understands that the here and now is nothing without the there and then.

"As high up as you go, go as low down. Everything needs to be anchored. Also, part of being a woman is that you have secrets. Only now am I starting to reveal where some of these energies come from. I want to see how much of this feeling can grow."

But it's clear to me, as it should be to anyone who knows her, that she is well aware of where the pieces fit.

"I am aware now, but before I was just in this terror dome. It helps when you have an assignment. And if I can figure that out, certainly I can be productive in my profession. I like to have the feeling that someone is always expecting something from me. That means they want stuff, and that's good."

And so, expect to hear more of Alicia Hall Moran. And be sure to open your ears when you do, because she's just getting started.

Photography credit: 1B1/Peter Adamik

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