Pianist Jason Moran usually plays well within the jazz tradition, but often adopts a sideways slant, open to electronic interference or maybe an askew cover version of a pop or rap tune. Growing up in Houston, he went on to study at the Manhattan School Of Music, becoming firmly entrenched on the New York scene.
He's now becoming increasingly concerned with the world of multimedia presentation, the latest example of which is "In My Mind: Monk At Town Hall, 1959," inspired by the pianist who revealed Moran's route to complete enjoyment on his chosen instrument, back when he was only 13 years old. "I'd been playing piano for six, seven years," says Moran. "The Suzuki piano [method], which is not exactly as interesting as Monk playing "Round Midnight.' My dad has a pretty good record collection, so I listened to Monk over and over again." The "In My Mind" piece's dedication to Monk is quite specific in its intention, concentrating on a particular vinyl album, Monk At Town Hall 1959 (Riverside), which featured a 10-piece orchestra. Moran's piece was a joint commission from Duke University, Chicago Symphony, San Francisco Jazz Festival and Washington DC Performing Arts Society and was performed for those bodies in 2007, timed for the celebrations of what would have been Monk's 90th birthday. The full New York premiere will be at Town Hall in February 2009, but Moran is presenting a smaller-scale quintet preview at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse this month. "In My Mind" examines the background to Monk's life, incorporating video pieces by David Dempewolf and samples of the original 1959 band rehearsals for the Town Hall gig.
The other inspirations behind this show are a pilgrimage that Moran made to Monk's birthplace in North Carolina, where he rifled through the photography collection of W. Eugene Smith, housed in the archives of the Duke University Jazz Loft Project. "At the Center For Documentary Studies," says Moran, "they had audio tape of Monk rehearsing the music for his Town Hall concert, recorded by W. Eugene Smith. It's an extensive archive that they haven't even completed. They're digitizing these analogue tapes: there's even more out there. So I spent a lot of time at Duke University, listening to these tapes of Monk in a room with the arranger Hall Overton, sitting at two pianos. He was showing him every tune, chord by chord, melody by melody and talking at length about how he thinks the compositions should sound, from start to finish. This was the first time for me to hear him being extremely descriptive and detailed about every nuance of what he was doing. A part of me actually thought that what he was playing were often mistakes that he actually enjoyed, but from hearing the tapes, every bit is deliberate. There are no mistakes. This made me regard Monk as further than a genius. It was much more of a sign of his artistry, when I got to hear those tapes. I got clearance to use this audio in the concert, so that audiences could hear him talk, uninterrupted. Strings of sentences, from a person who has many times been regarded as "mute.'"
The concentration on the 1959 album means that Moran will be reshaping tunes that include "Little Rootie Tootie," "Off Minor" and "Crepuscule With Nellie." Moran will be playing all of the pieces from the album, without them undergoing any massive rearrangement. "There's video of his rehearsal loft, around 28th Street," Moran enthuses. "What it looks like now and pictures of what it looked like when Monk was in there rehearsing. There's also footage of the estate, the plantation where Monk's great-grandparents were slaves, in an effort to visualize his history and how it connects to me, as a pianist and as an AfroAmerican. To do different arrangements of the music is only part of it. There's the context: it's 1959 and he's playing at Town Hall. Civil Rights haven't even really started firing up. We're right at the cusp of that. The New York Times panned it: they liked his playing with a quartet, but thought that this was "pipe and slippers' music."