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)
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