Painting Outside the Lines

Hattitude: Jason Moran premieres his suite 'Milestone' at the McGuire Theater this weekend
Courtesy of Walker Art Center

Pianist Jason Moran grew up in Houston, where he attended one of Texas's outstanding arts high schools. His parents--a teacher and an investment banker--turned him on to jazz and visual art, while his older brother brought home the best hip-hop records. After studying in New York with piano great Jaki Byard, Moran joined Greg Osby's band and quickly drew notice for his percussive, unpredictable playing. The now-30-year-old pianist-composer's string of adventurous yet accessible albums as a leader--Black Stars with Sam Rivers and the solo Modernistic are probably the best places to start--make him a pretty strong front-runner for the Jazz Pianist of the '00s title. This year's Same Mother (Blue Note) features Moran's working group the Bandwagon, once a trio, now a quartet (guitarist Marvin Sewell has been added to the fold), and is highlighted by an odd reworking of Albert King's "I'll Play the Blues for You." At the McGuire Theater this weekend, Moran's group, with guest vocalist Alicia Hall (Moran's wife), will premiere Milestone, a piece commissioned by the Walker and inspired by works by Adrian Piper, Louise Nevelson, Ellsworth Kelly, and others. We talked to Moran at the Walker's offices a few months back during one of his rehearsal trips.


City Pages: So basically for this piece the Walker said, Check out our collection, see what inspires you, and go from there?

Jason Moran: Yeah. I made a list of about 150 pieces from their collection that we wanted to see. We came out and they had like 80 of them on view in the basement. It was intimidating because there was so much greatness [laughs]. We made about five different versions of this show. A lot of the changes occurred when we started thinking about the audience, because with jazz concerts, it's one of those arty things, where you kind of just get up and play and the audience should enjoy it, so we really put a lot of thought into breaking down those kinds of walls between artist and audience. That's why we kind of hooked onto Adrian Piper, because her work was about that.

Jazz is a very abstract art form, so as a listener you make your own conclusions about what somebody's doing. So we wanted to expose some of that because it shouldn't be a mystery, and some of those mysteries are myths.


CP: Like what?

Moran: The myth that jazz is a music where you're supposed to be expressing your innermost thoughts. For the finest musicians it is that, but for the legions it isn't, it's based on chords and scales and has little to do with emotions or actual content. So I wanted to really try to change some of that in my work, challenge myself.


CP: Did you worry about getting too programmatic, where you're telling people what to think?

Moran: Yes. There's still a lot of playing that's happening where people will still be, What's going on? But there are points in the show where we really get behind the thought processes and you're given access to this other portion of the musicians' lifestyle.


CP: There's text in this piece, too, right?

Moran: There's a lot of audio. Since 2000 we've really started implementing the tape as kind of a fourth member, when we were a trio, that is.


CP: I love those three tunes from the The Bandwagon with the tapes, especially the one with your family ["Gentle Shifts South," a pensive tune featuring recordings of Moran's elders talking about the Moran family tree]. How'd they react to that piece?

Moran: I played it for my grandmother, the one who speaks last. She was just listening to it and then after it was over, she just continued to talk. "Oh yeah, and then there was such and such." In this piece, there's audio of Adrian Piper reading the text from her piece. I really don't want to give too much away. I want you to hear it and experience it. But I was really trying to dice up the form of jazz performance.

I've had a lot of people come up to me and say, "My sister brought me to this show, and if this is what jazz is supposed to be, I'm in." That's great to hear. So once you get past the enjoyment factor you want to get to the point where you can challenge the listener emotionally. Of course it's still entertainment, but it can also charge you and challenge your belief systems. I'm trying to challenge a lot of people's belief systems about the format of the jazz concert. It should be able to move just as the music does. It's supposed to be an improvisational music, it's flying by the seat of the pants, off the cuff, so why does the form--song, banter, song, banter, or song, song, song, song--continue?

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