“I’m a straight-up jazz musician, no doubt,” Jason Moran told me in an interview a decade ago. “But I also like to think of myself as an urban performance artist who happens to play piano.”
Then, I was writing a profile for Jazziz magazine of Moran, who was already well into a successful career as a pianist and bandleader and as invigorating a presence as jazz had known at the start of the 21st century. He had yet to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, which arrived in 2010, or to take over for the late Billy Taylor as the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz. He had only recent begun to working in deep and ongoing collaboration with visual artists such as Adrian Piper and Joan Jonas.
I used that quote again in my Wall Street Journal review of Moran’s new solo-piano recording, “The Armory Concert” (available to download through the bandcamp website), which makes for gorgeous and provocative listening. It also marks Moran’s departure from the Blue Note label, on which he has documented his growth and range since 1999, and. As I wrote, the new recording reflects “the growing sense of autonomy he’s displayed while casting off conventions of genre and even music as a strict discipline.”
Moran has developed his own music in fascinating and sometimes unexpected ways, and has worked in bands led by important elders—saxophonists and flutists Charles Lloyd, who is probably the spiritually attuned and emotionally focused musician working in jazz today, and Henry Threadgill who is, to both Moran and I, the greatest composer of our time.
Moran has also, notably, progressed from working with visual artists to working as one: He has an installation of his own, “Staged,” on exhibit at the Luhring Augustine gallery in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn through July 29. The highlights are large-scale re-imaginings that Moran designed based on long-gone New York jazz venues, the Savoy Ballroom and the Three Deuces. These works are interactive in the real, not virtual, sense: Moran will perform with his Bandwagon trio at the gallery, on his simulated Three Deuces stage, July 22 and 23.
The Veterans Room of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory, where Moran recorded his new release, opened in 1881 and reopened as newly restored in March, is a riot of color, visual rhythm and contrasting details. Fine patterns of wood and metal intersect and overlap. Depending on where one’s gaze is set, the style is Moorish, Japanese, Greek, or Celtic. If walls could speak, these would alternately whisper of refinement and roar with audacity. Designed by Louis C. Tiffany & Co., Associated Artists, the room conveys the American Aesthetic Movement’s experimental ideas, now more than a century old, as freshly illuminated under gold-hued LED lighting.
In this jewel within an armory repurposed as a performance center, Moran has curated the series “Artists Studio,” which runs through Nov. 21 and involves a wide range of performers. The second performance in this series was a duo-piano concert by Moran and Louis Andriessen, the Dutch composer who is a central figure in the international music scene. I’ve long thought that Andriessen’s music makes for no obvious comparisons; its textures, colors and juxtapositions are simply that distinctive. Often, his music sounds as if it has taken form and shape by seeping through unseen crevices; we can’t really locate its sources. That said, jazz is clearly one of Andriessen’s passions.
Had you stumbled into the duo-piano performance by Moran and Andriessen in March at the Veteran’s Room with no prior knowledge of either artist, you might well have thought Andriessen was the wide-ranging jazz pianist and Moran the wily new-music composer.
In my Journal review of Moran’s “Armory Concert” I wrote:
Now 41 years old, Mr. Moran has for half his life made music that argues for the vitality of jazz’s century-old tradition largely by reimagining its contours and isolating its distinctive details. Before his solo performance, he described his series to the audience as “conversations about what this room is.” His music might also be a series of discussions about what it sounds and feels like to sit within jazz.
I meant that, and yet I also mean to say that Moran has now reached a point where, at least when playing solo piano, he is clearly thinking more elementally about sound and intent and even visualization of form, which quite naturally frees him (and us) of ideas about genre and style: If he sits within jazz, he also just as comfortably sits without it too.
Two pieces on the new recording—“Big News/More News” and “South Side Digging”—are explicitly about the blues as played in Chicago, the latter based on the tension within a single endemic gesture, its chiming and cascading, before offering the release of 12-bar form. These were drawn from “Looks of a Lot,” a larger commissioned work for Chicago’s “Symphony Center Presents Jazz” series. The legacy of Jaki Byard, the pianist that Moran moved to New York City as a teenager to study with—at the Veterans Room, Moran recalled Byard’s instructions in “subverting the idea of historical piano”—were evident in particular sonic mannerisms through that concert.
Yet some of this music is simply startling abstraction. “All Hammers and Chains” relies largely upon crashing left-hand figures, frantic scalar runs and dances of dual glissandi. “Magnet” is a clamor formed by low-end figures and a cleverly deployed sustain pedal. In the Veterans Room, its sound accumulated like smoke into an enveloping presence. As recorded, it’s a dense aural ball, slowly revealing hidden clangs and ghostly howls.
There’s stuff on the Armory recording that relates directly to Moran’s work with visual artists: Reanimation,” an urgent cycle of pointillistic phrases, was adapted from his collaboration of the same name with Joan Jonas. His work with these artists, and now as one, implies a connection to the Veterans Room—with the integrity and wild spirit of its design and construction—that goes beyond metaphor.
A decade ago, Moran talked to me about his then-recent collaboration with Adrian Piper, whose work has spanned photography, video, performance art, and written discourses on the philosophy of art. Much of her art wrestles with issues concerning race and gender, often in both playful and hard-hitting ways. Moran was struck most of all by a statement that Piper made in one of her videos.
“Artists ought to be writing about what they do, and what types of procedures they go through to realize a work. If artists’ intentions and ideas were more accessible to the general public, I think it might break down some of the barriers between the artists, the art world, and the general public.”
That quote—Piper’s voice, saying it—inspired his own “Milestone,” which premiered at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis in 2005. (You can hear the track, “Artists Ought to Be Writing,” on Moran’s 2006 CD, “artist in Residence.”
Moran has taken that idea to heart. (Perhaps he’s also read “The Art of Stealing Time,” which gather Andriessen’s idiosyncratic writings about music.)
Though the “The Armory Concert” download through bandcamp comes with no descriptive liner notes, you can find a still-evolving set of loose annotations in the posts on Moran’s Facebook page (he’s promised 30 of them). In one, he explains what it meant to make a solo-piano recording in 2002 (“Modernistic,” on which he formed one seeming narrative from compositions by stride-piano master James P. Johnson, avant-garde hero Muhal Richard Abrams, 19th-century classical composer Robert Schumann and hiphop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa), and what it meant in March, at the Armory (where he played only original pieces that perhaps reflected yet broader ambition). In another, he offered a list of his solo-piano heroes.
And here’s #12 in his series:
The Armory Concert is also about the ability to see. Right now I’m reading the book The Poetics of Space. In it i’m reminded of the intimate spaces I learned the piano in. The living room I practiced in was really nice in a firm African-American middle class neighborhood in Houston. The piano sat in the corner, next to a window. On the wall nearby was a painting by the great artist John Biggers called Shotguns. I often spent hours either staring out of the window or at the painting as I practiced. Fast forward 25 years and I still spend a great amount of time staring at images as I perform. The relationship to sound and image is a very special one, and I always imagine how the piano can accompany the setting. So, to perform in the Park Avenue Armory within their Veterans Room was also as much about seeing as it was about performing. Every wood crevice, every audience member, every softly glowing light fixture, every tile in the fireplace, and every note that responds to it. Rooms have a lot to say, so performers are constantly working with the possibilities of the room. Back in Houston, i worked with the possibilities of transcribing my favorite pianists in my living room. The hours spent transcribing a McCoy Tyner solo, while my mother baked apple turnovers. Or trying to learn the opening phrase of Monk’s Round Midnight. Or the fingering of Phineas Newborn’s solo on Oleo. I spent countless hours with my ears and hands trying to unlock the codes. In this concert, I propose new codes. They are not new in the “new” sense, but romantic and sonic codes. Thinking about the complexity of romance and the serenity of turmoil.