22 June 2010

Review: Ten

Jason Moran Bandwagon

Last week's salvo in the ongoing Jazz Wars debates brought up an interesting dilemma: How can musicians contend with the deep historical record of the art while making music that speaks to the present? Jason Marsalis complained to Chris Barton earlier this month that "Almost NO music before 1990 is referenced in the majority of music played today." This is a specious straw-man argument, though, since Marsalis apparently can't name any of the music that he is referencing (Marsalis may defend himself by saying he does not want to hurt anyone's feelings, which is a weak cop out). Most importantly, though, one only needs to hear the music of the leading young musicians in jazz to realize that the past is not being ignored. For Exhibit A, I present Jason Moran, whose Bandwagon trio celebrates ten years of making music with their latest album, TEN.

Like another pianist whose praises I've sung before, Vijay Iyer, Moran has a way of making complex (dare I say nerdy?) music sound intuitive and natural. Also like Iyer, Moran has an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history as well as the chops to incorporate that history into his playing. Listen to his take on Thelonious below, which is emblematic of his approach to jazz history.

You can certainly hear traces of Monk in his playing. Like Monk, he infuses the tune with stride phrasing, but he takes the same ingredients and makes a totally different meal. Moran and his bandmates, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, take on another Monk tune on TEN, Crepescule With Nellie. As with Moran's rendition of Thelonious above, the Bandwagon uses phrases and motifs familiar to anyone who has listened to Monk before, but places them in different parts of the tune, collapsing the familiar construction of the standard. The band also has a bit of fun with rhythm, utilizing at different points swing, shuffle, rubato, and straight-eighths. Monk would have never tried to play the tune this way, but that's part of the reason why it sounds so fresh now, of course.

But this album is more than the Monk cover suggests. Indeed, it is a celebration of the ten years this trio has been together, including another take on the Gangsterism theme which has graced so many of their albums. This band at some point could reach the lofty status afforded such trios as Bill Evans' with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian or the Brad Mehldau Trio: bands that set the precedent for years to come. Moran, though, is a once-in-a-generation talent, a pianistic infovore whose command of such a huge swath of jazz history is simply formidable. The fact that he can bring this knowledge to bear in such a captivating way is both the icing and the cake.

Track Listing: Blue Blocks; RFK in the Land of Apartheid; Feedback Pt. 2; Crepescule with Nellie; Study No. 6; Pas de Deux--Lines Ballet; Gangsterism Over Ten Years; Big Stuff; Play to Live; The Subtle One; To Bob Vatel of Paris; Old Babies
Personnel: Jason Moran, piano; Tarus Mateen, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums

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