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Jason Moran: Joyful Proclamations

Franz A. Matzner By

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There’s never been a demarcation between the music and the culture. Never! —Jason Moran
Jason Moran requires no introduction, either as an artistic alchemist or a spokesperson and educator. Moran has left an indelible mark on modern jazz and is now seated at one of the nation's most preeminent performing spaces—the Kennedy Center—as its artistic director for jazz. Already, his capacity for insight, humor, and innovation have launched a new era for the Center's jazz programming, defined in equal measures by careful regard for the music's history, a broad artistic view, and pointed political statements aimed at the center of American cultural assumptions. At the same time, Moran continues to transcend musical boundaries—and in ever increasing measures, the divisions between music, theater, dance, and visual arts.

All these elements are present in his latest recording All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller (Blue Note,2014) and Moran's commentary on the endeavor reveals the complexity of thought lurking behind even his most casual comments.

Fats Waller

All About Jazz: You've referenced Fats Waller as an inspiration in that past. What motivated you to do this album at this point?

Jason Moran: This was all a commission from Harlem Stage. They were having pianists investigate other pianists that were from Harlem. Randy Weston did one. Andrew Hill did one before he passed. So they asked me if I would think about Fats Waller. I said 'sure' because Fats Waller has always been under the umbrella of pianists who are important and have been important not only to me but to the development [of jazz].

Especially when I started studying with Jaki Byard up here in New York during the mid-nineties and he started to pound home... the importance of pianists from Harlem. When Harlem Stage asked me to think about [Waller] I thought it would be great to think about Fats Waller in another way than how I approached the piece about Thelonious Monk.

It wasn't just about the music. It's about where the music sat in the social strata of that time.

Fats Waller is popular. He is also down home. He is also in your house, playing on your piano for your friends—that kind of rent-party pianist. So his function is totally different than say—any cats from right now who are on the scene and popular. None of them are gonna play your house party and drink up all your liquor!

Fats Waller was perfect for this type of investigation. Especially to look at him as dance music. To start from there and see what starts to fall out after that.

AAJ: Our culture—especially pop culture—tends to focus on tragic figures and emphasize suffering and angst. As if joy and happiness are inherently boring. But you took this album and did something different. You emphasized joy right in the title. Can you speak a little about that and how it shaped the album?

JM: One major thing I knew early on was I needed a worthy collaborator and that collaborator came in the form of MeShell NdegeOcello. A lot of our early conversations were about lyrics. They weren't even about songs, just the lyrics. I was thinking about that a lot. What he said. How he says it. We've heard a lot over the years about what comedy means to society—the kinds of figures who share joy. We started talking about what it signifies for a person like Fats Waller to give such joy during the great depression.

America is going through it in the '30s. And here he is bringing these songs that make people want to get together and that serve to highlight issues people are having within their own lives. And in a way that marks a change in the African-American performer. He is given a lot of leeway to say what he wants to say as far as subject matter is concerned and still be playing a whole lot of piano at the same time. He is marking a change, a shift in what African-Americans do. How they talk, what they talk about. That was important. Bringing [out] the joyful aspect of him was a major portion of this recording, but also to highlight—he dies 39 years old and that is really young—the things that insinuate what he felt inside.

AAJ: For people who do not know how big an influence Meshell has had perhaps you could elucidate who she is, how your partnership developed, where her style comes from.

JM: She's from Washington, D.C. Grew up in the Go-Go scene, Rock, and Punk. Playing extremely gifted bass. She is an extremely gifted composer. A gifted singer and lyrist. In the '90's she came out with these songs that I started hearing when I was still in high school that really set the tone different than any other group. A different version of the band Living Color, expanding that conversation.

Over the past 15 years, she's always been keen to work with improvising jazz musicians as well. You'll see Oliver Lake in her band. Or she did a recording with Herbie Hancock for a record about H.I.V awareness. She had Robert Glasper in her band. She has always been very aware as an improviser because she is an improviser too.

I thought she would be perfect because she understands lyrics, she understands improvisation, she understands flow...She functions as this really rare figure who can faithfully and truthfully go between—I don't want to say genres—go between different types of terrain. She can walk on ice. She can walk through the tundra. She can be in the Amazon and still know how to maneuver in all of that. A very sensitive person with great awareness of her surroundings.

AAJ: Even by your standard it feels like you've taken Waller's music in very different directions. You've fused a lot of different styles and genres. You've already talked about the history and lyrics as a lens, but when it came down to it, how did you put the music together?

JJM: The first thing that we would do is Meshell and I would sit down and talk about songs together. She would come over to my house and we sat and talked about lyrics, about songs. We'd go out, eat some lunch. It was really, really casual. Then we started to try and find the band. She had been working with a drummer Charles Haynes—and he's a drummer I'd known since I moved to New York. Charles has been the drummer not only for jazz stuff, but also some of the biggest pop stars [like] Lady Gaga, Kayne West... Queen Latifah. He really knows that big drum sound that is meant to fill an arena. Make people get up.

We'd get together and just work with the songs. Slowly. One by one. I already had some firm ideas about some, like "Ain't Misbehavin,'" but everything else we just had to figure out. Meshell would come up with ideas. I would come up with ideas. We'd see what would fall together. I'd bring in another song. Or we'd stop working on a song and pick it up a year later. It was a really slow process. I'd never really worked that slowly before. I mean, I work slow—just not that slow. (laughs)

AAJ: That sounds different from many of the recent projects you've been putting on, especially at the Kennedy Center, where there seems to be a really central, structural conceit. This sounds much more organic.

JM: Yeah. Yeah. Still, still the two main components were: this is Fats Waller. That's big enough! Then also the making some of [the music] really make people dance. Can you do that? Can I do that as a musician?

All these years playing "jazz" and I've never played for an audience who showed up to actually dance. People sit in their seats and watch. This was my challenge. That was my private challenge that I had within me. There was a lot I had to figure out about the relationship with an audience that isn't a seated audience, that is standing.

So [that meant] finding the band members who had the energy. Most jazz folks are pretty reserved on stage, considering what is happening on stage. We could be lumped into the classical musician category. We pretty much sit still. Play our music, walk to the side. Very few of us are out there actually jumping around and dancing during the music. Whereas if you watch pop acts?!

The sense of spectacle became another aspect of the performance [because] this was always geared toward the live performance setting. Making people dance, or making people feel they came and saw something special. Whether or not I had my Fats Waller mask on, whether its how my body changes when I put the mask on, what I do and don't do, that became a transformation for the stage element. That is what we were really focused on: people who came to the show at eleven o'clock at night were expecting something. We had to supply it. That was the demand.

AAJ: You've done these pieces that incorporate the theatrical. Those are pieces that are very powerful because of their multiple layers including the visual element. When you translate those into the studio it feels like a major challenge.

JM: It is. It is. I remember when we first started this Meshell and I said we should make a live recording that will be the only way to get the energy. But the great thing about going into the studio is then you have to make something different... Just in the same way as we had to figure out the right people for the live performance, we had to figure out the right people to record it. Getting with the engineer Bob Power really helped... He knows things about sound that most jazz engineers don't. They know other things, but not this type. The kind of bounce that the record should have, the juice it has on it. Some of the songs should trip or feel more euphoric or have hallucinations within the music.

AAJ: That seemed a new element for you, playing with sonic texture to get at emotional response.

JM: That is part of listening to Fats Waller in 2014. In our minds we are already doing some kind of strange time trip even to try and go back to 1930 or 1940. To feel like that. Some things are hazy in how we see that history. And it's ok to display that haze. Its ok to show that time refracts. That we aren't really sure what the facts are, you know what I mean? That is your power as an artist, to blur those elements, to make more of a mythology about it.

Fats Waller already has that within his character. Just he alone, you don't know is he speaking truthfully or is he bullshittin' me? That feels good.

Art History-Historic Art

AAJ: You often merge historical reference into your work both personal history and big, cultural themes. Many have commented about this as a distinct element of your work. How do you see cultural history playing into this music?

JM: There is an artist—a really good friend of mine—Fred Wilson who as a conceptual artist often uses objects that are already here. Many times those are historical objects...He took a Klan hood and put it inside a baby carriage. He took a wooden-cased skeleton and instead of labeling it 'pre-Columbian blah, blah, blah' he just wrote 'your grandmother.'

So that changes everything about our relationship to those things.

The very beginning of the record is my opening statement about that...It's called "Put Your Hands On It" and that is only about putting your hands on history. That's all that's about. Because you have to really touch history in that way. It can't sit off on the side. The only way for me to interact with it—whether its Thelonious Monk's history or Fats Waller—is to get in there and feel it. That is what a pianist does. That is the way I have always felt about it.

Any history book is still filled with the gaze of whoever the writer is. How they put those words together. When I look at Thelonious Monk or Fats Waller or my parents, its still about how I am thinking about it. It can never be objective. I should never try to make an objective jazz record. Nobody ever really has.

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