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Alicia Hall Moran: Feeling Blue

Tyran Grillo By

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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."


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