Evaluating Jason Moran’s latest release, Bandwagon,
feels as inconsequential as describing the relative worth of oceanic conditions or the comparative pleasures of desert vistas, mountainous landscapes, and tundra planes. For Moran’s music is as much a display of nature, and incorporating as varied a range of phenomena, as the above physical environments.
Moran has so fully absorbed the range of jazz piano technique, and he delves so deeply into himself when playing that little remains for the listener, let alone the so-called critic, to do but open themselves to what is occurring. Moreover, little precedent exists for his explorative compositions, stylistic choices, and performance style. Certainly, one could break down his playing into a series of component parts, locating elements of his early inspiration, Monk, or the avant-garde tendencies of Cecil Taylor, even the impressionistic color of Bill Evans. A musical theorist could probably identify the precise combinations happening at any given moment of any of Moran’s pieces, a propensity of current jazz criticism that stems from both the moribund biases of the audience, the writers, and to some degree, the players themselves; the kind of critical judgment that develops when art forms reach a level of stasis that leaves everyone looking backwards, bound in a referential circle of established techniques, historical periods, and canonized statements.
But none of this applies to Moran and his trio in the same way that none of it ever applies to the true artistic mind, the searching innovator. The fact that apparently few examples of such musicians exist is again most likely a fable perpetuated by the antiquarian’s prejudice. There are just as many in existence now as ever before, we just might not be looking in the right places. Which is another reason Moran is so singular: he is receiving the attention his work deserves.
Recorded live at the Village Vanguard, The Bandwagon
consists of ten tracks culled from the six night engagement. Every piece exhibits an equally invigorating, individualistic vision, and as a whole the album stands as a prime example of syncretic thinking. That does not mean the album is a pastiche or survey of styles. Quite the opposite, the album is consistent in its approach, overall mood, and in the virtuosi displays of each member. Moran’s edgy attack clearly emphasizes rhythmic variance, and with the aid of Nasheet Waits’ cacophonous drumming and Tarus Mateen’s frenetic bass, the trio explores the expressive nature of rhythmic textures and tempi variation as much as melodic and harmonic improvisation. The music never remains static, even the perpetual motion abating at judicious intervals to allow the subtly of the trio’s combined sound to emerge out of the often frenzied interactions.
Moreover, Moran leaves few resources unmined, taking on the challenge of jazz reorganization and repertoire expansion to explore such varied items as Brahms on “Intermezzo, Op. 118, No.2”; standards such as “Body and Soul”; and the genre-pushing “Ring My Phone(Right out of Istanbul)” and “Infospace,” both of which use a looped vocal sound sample as the basis for the trio’s free group improvisation. Not to mention Moran’s continued interest in rap and hip-hop as contemporary sources.
In a way, Moran isn’t even breaking the rules. He’s just extending the “rules” of jazz to their logical application. Jazz has often relied on pop and classical compositions; it has always redefined itself by reworking its own historic pylons, while establishing new benchmarks. Moran has done all this and more. Moran has neither isolated himself within one musical style nor constrained his creativity by privileging one jazz period over another. His compositions and work include stride, boogie-woogie, Monk’s angularity and use of space, bop, Third Stream, and most precious to this reviewer, Moran has not ignored the challenges that evolved out of the oft-avoided free-jazz era. The only element absent is more. It would be interesting to hear Moran simplify his approach and apply his expressive qualities to a subtler ballad or slow-blues piece, something which will surely happen in time.
This is a striking album which left me with the same inspired feelings as when first encountering Coltrane’s Ascension and Ole, Coleman’s Change of the Century, Evans’ Waltz for Debby, and the more recent Planet Home by Charnett Moffett. This is the kind of music that resists analysis, should not be broken down, only experienced. But forgive me for trying.