Getting Jason Moran's Grammar Down, Through Film

Jason Moran (3rd from left) and members of The Kenwood Academy Jazz Band in "Looks of a Lot"

In March, I wrote about pianist Jason Moran signing on as an artist represented by the Manhattan-based Luhring Augustine gallery, which also has an outpost in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.
“The new works I’m creating have started to bear objects for the gallery,” Moran explained. “It’s a natural progression.” The papier-mache Fats Waller mask, above, created by Didier Civil, is owned by the gallery. “I actually sold it in a gala auction for Harlem Stage three years ago, and Roland Augustine purchased it,” said Moran. “He’s a big Fats Waller fan.”
So I was intrigued by an invitation to a screening at the gallery’s Bushwick space of a new film based about Moran’s work, “Jason Moran: Looks of a Lot.” Its title was drawn from the name of a piece commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for which Moran collaborated with various Chicagoans, including sculptor and activist Theaster Gatesreedist and composer Ken Vandermark, and the students in The Kenwood Academy Jazz Band.
The film is on one level a documentary about the making of this cross-disciplinary piece. But it also functions on other levels, delving into Moran’s relationship with Gates and with the students, and into everyone’s motivations for making art. (You can see a video “sample sequence” here.)
“Looks of a Lot” is a window into a longer and more complicated film-in-progress from director and executive producer Radiclani Clytus, in collaboration with co-directors Gregg Conde (who also serves as cinematographer) and Anthony Gannon (editor). Moran’s music fascinates most of all for its distinct and often askew rhythms, as well as for everpresent layers of meaning and representation that sometimes build and sometimes clash; Clytus’s team captured, through intensive focus and deft editing, both these aspects.
The larger work, Clytus told me, is called “Grammar,” a reference to an overarching idea of jazz as “more or less the essence of creativity–its lingua franca as it were,” he said.
Here’s a brief interview, conducted via email, with Clytus about the project:
What drew you to Jason?
I was drawn to Jason’s work because I felt like his collaborations with artists across disciplinary boundaries could best represent how we should perhaps understand what we mean when we speak of jazz today.  Because Jason embodies the legacy of so many profound cultivators of the tradition, but yet he is also a product of the new music and innovation that has occurred within the last 40 years, he offers a chance to recalibrate some of the stale formulations that limit jazz to a particular genre or style of play.
How does he function in the larger work?
In Grammar, Jason functions as the hub of a wheel that has a number of spokes that radiate outward into both music and presumably non-music related realms.  These spokes involve investigations into the work of his various collaborators who attend to other disciplines.  For example, through collaborators such as Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, and Jennie C. Jones, we hope to tackle jazz’s relationship to the visual arts; through Joan Jonas, Theaster Gates, and Adam Pendleton, we are pursuing performance art, and through Terrance Hayes and maybe Yusef Komunyakaa we hope to consider poetry.  We are also considering the relationship between jazz and other forms of music through Meshell Ndegeocello and hopefully some of the more interesting hip hop producers of the 1990s.  Our goal is to make a convincing argument that jazz is more or less the essence of creativity–its lingua franca as it were.  Ultimately, such an argument requires the medium of film if it is going to be at all convincing.  It just makes sense to launch this complicated appeal through actual representations of the music in conjunction with examples of Jason’s creative practice.
How did the Chicago project affect you and the course of this work?
In some respects, we had no choice but to make Jason Moran: Looks of a Lot.  As we approach our fourth year of filming, we needed to remind our supporters that we are still shooting Grammar.  I think the short excerpts that we have produced along the way have been effective gestures but we also realized that we needed to advertise our ability to create a compelling dramatic arc out of what might be considered heady and erudite footage.  In that sense, we produced this feature to showcase what will be a much longer and involved documentary.  While we haven’t been successful in terms of procuring grants from New York  (or national) funding organizations, I think this film might result in someone out there taking notice.  We certainly believe it reflects well on what is to come.

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