Jason Moran: Modernistic

Jason Moran
Blue Note

Watching 27-year-old pianist Jason Moran transform his precocious talent into distinctive self-command is one of the more exciting developments to occur in jazz over the past decade. On last year's Black Stars, Moran proved he could thrust and parry in tandem with prickly saxophonist Sam Rivers, an unrepentant renegade from the days when hard bop had squawked its way through to the rigorous harmonies and freer tempos of the avant-garde. Abetted by bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits--hands down the best young rhythm section in jazz--Moran even cajoled Rivers into a pair of beautiful, impressionistic tone poems, "Say Peace" and "Summit." Here was an intergenerational summit meeting that was more like an intrepid quest than some feel-good homage or commercial gimmick.

It took chutzpah for Moran to follow the collective triumph of Black Stars with a solo piano CD; in the press materials accompanying the release, he admits that as he adjusted to the absence of his catalytic ensemble, early sessions for the project were lackluster. But the 11 tracks that were eventually selected for Modernistic are a cohesive display of the pianist's stylistic breadth. He gleefully unearths the roots of jazz with rakish stride phrases (set off by thunderous left-handed comping) on James P. Johnson's "You've Got to Be Modernistic"; with ragtime gusto on "Moran Tonk Circa 1936"; and with a gentle, meditative rendition of the standard "Body and Soul." He hurls himself into early hip hop with a deconstructed version of Afrika Bambaataa's landmark '80s single "Planet Rock" and uses a reversed tape loop to smudge up the funk. His cover of Muhal Richard Abrams's "Time into Space into Time" captures the skewed, restless energy and nimble allusions that made Abrams an often-imitated postmodern composer. Moran tweaks his signature style further by deploying extended rests between phrases, in a manner inspired by another postmodern icon, John Cage.

For Euro-classicists, Moran delivers "Auf einer Burg," a sad love song from 19th-century composer Robert Schumann, and his own "Passion," an ethereally romantic ballad reminiscent of Brahms. There are a half-dozen Moran originals in all, including two updates on his ongoing "Gangsterism" series (all of them variations on Andrew Hill's graceful "Erato"); and "Gentle Shifts South," a tribute to his Texas family history, featuring a pensive melody that concludes the disc on a mood of peace and calm.

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