Best Jazz of 2016

First, my contrarian uncool confession: I don’t love lists. I just don’t think music is a competition. Nor is writing about it, for me, a ratings game. (I prefer telling stories and reviewing each recording in its own context.) Still, I see the point, know the drill and have my choices, which honor worthy recordings and form a guide to satisfying listening. And this time of year is about giving: What readers want is lists, so critics need give accordingly.
Truth is, I’ve found that the making of these lists—the consciousness, conversations, even arguments they generate in the context of the many other lists made by critics, bloggers and even musicians—does in fact add up to meaningful context. That point was best driven home or me by actual public conversation at a “Year in Jazz” panel hosted by my colleague Nate Chinen and presented by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem a few years ago.
Most of colleagues love lists—especially year-end ones. Few have gone about compiling lists with the rigor and passion of Francis Davis, who, a decade ago, corralled 30 writers to create a list of the finest jazz albums of 2006 for the Village Voice. Now, Davis’s poll lives on as the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, and he has more than quadrupled his forces — 137 voters.
Im honored each year to answer Davis’s call.
You can find this year’s results here. Continue reading “Best Jazz of 2016”

Jason Moran, in Real and Imagined Rooms of His Own

20160307 PAA Jason Moran Veterans Room 091_CP“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.” Continue reading “Jason Moran, in Real and Imagined Rooms of His Own”

At Home With The Morans

Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran, as photographd by Dawoud Bey
Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran, as photographd by Dawoud Bey

I got a chance to sit around the kitchen table at the Harlem home of pianist Jason Moran and singer Alicia Hall Moran, for this interview piece in The Wall Street Journal. The piece was ostensubly pegged to the release of Hall Moran’s debut CD, released on a new imprint the couple established together—a worthy release that celebrates the pure essence of Hall Moran’s voice as it blurs lines between genres and toys with aural textures
But the Journal piece really was a chance to check in on a remarkable couple who absorb and radiate cultural details with remarkable energy and insight, and whose presence in New York recalls a moment when Harlem was full of families that made art out of community and community out of art. I’ve known them both for more than a decade and it’s been inspiring and educational—about music and marriage–to see how husband and wife affect each other’s experience and expression.
When I asked Did you open musical doors for each other? Alicia said this:

Jason took me to hear Cecil Taylor and Henry Threadgill. Those doors needed opening for me. But on a deeper level, he helped me grasp how important each individual instrument and personality is in music.

And Jason told me:

Dating a girl who knew Western classical music inside and out—who felt it—was a new kind of education. She taught me that Alban Berg was as soulful as Duke Ellington. She helped me focus on narrative. As a jazz musician, living life with someone who always demands a story makes you check everything you’re going to play.

And Jason pointed out that Alicia helped him think more deeply about the idea of narrative in his own music. He said:

Jazz instrumentalists once played with a sense of narrative but now that’s mostly not true. And in school they weren’t teaching you how to play a story. Singers always have to tell a story—in English or German or whatever. We instrumentalists don’t, and though there was a generation that said you really have to learn the lyrics, it ain’t really a rule out here for success. So living life with someone who’s always trying to tell a story or who regularly asks ‘What do you mean by that,’ makes you rethink certain things.

That last part didn’t make it into the article, but here’s the complete text: Continue reading “At Home With The Morans”

Harlem and DC: Back and Forth, Then and Now

The Apollo Theatre Marquee in the early 1950s. Courtesy of Apollo Theatre

Jazz has always drawn from and expressed a sense of place. I’ve been thinking about what that means—how those places relate to the shapes and forms of music, and what it means for jazz when those places experience drastic change.
This weekend, pianists Jason Moran and Marc Cary will present what should be an illuminating project along those lines, and focused on the contributions and connections between African American communities in Harlem and Washington D.C. “Harlem Night/U Street Lights” will be presented on Saturday May 9 at at the Apollo Theater, as part of the Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival, and Sunday May 10 at the Kennedy Center. (The title’s reference to “U Street” honors what has long been a center for DC music and culture.)
Moran and Cary are both Harlem residents, and their lives and careers have also drawn them into Washington DC’s music scene. (Moran is the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center, and Cary, who was born in New York City, was raised and schooled in D.C.)
Among the other musicians involved are trumpeter Roy Hargrove, drummer Jimmy Cobb, pianists Bertha Hope and Gerald Clayton, and singers including Queen Esther, Brianna Thomas and, in DC, Howard University’s vocal jazz ensemble, Afro Blue. As befits these or any other black neighborhoods, the aesthetic will naturally spill beyond any strict definition of “jazz”—in DC, the program will explore connections between Miles Davis’ electric bands and DC’s influential “go-go” scene.
Moran and Cary will aim to capture the particular vibe that, historically, was born in each of these places and that still can be felt. And they’ll hope to make a larger point: As Moran put it to me, “Harlem for jazz and hip-hop is like Salzburg for European classical music.”
I posed a few related questions to each of them, and here’s how they replied: Continue reading “Harlem and DC: Back and Forth, Then and Now”

80 Years On, Still in the Vanguard: Reflections on a Celebration, and Comments from Jason Moran

The Village Vanguard celebrated its 80th anniversary last week.
The occasion made me recall what Lorraine Gordon told me a decade ago, when the Vanguard was turning 70. She’s been running the jazz club since 1989, after Max Gordon, the Vanguard’s founder, died.
“I like the coziness of the room when it’s full, when the people seem happy and they’re at one with the artist,” she said. “There’s just a certain feeling you get because it’s small enough to reach out and back and forth between the audience and the artists. So, that’s a palpable feeling. I feel it myself when I sit in the corner and I see everybody’s face is absolutely glued to the stage. It’s like a painting but it’s real life, every night.”
The real life of jazz, as it plays out—set after set, night after night—and the picture it paints for those who care to listen would be unimaginable in New York (and based on the many iconic recordings made at the club, anywhere) without the Vanguard as incubator and home.
Lorraine was sitting there, in her customary spot in the corner, on the way to the kitchen (which stopped being a kitchen long ago, and serves as both green room and office). Beside her most of time was her daughter, Deborah, who runs the club with her and, hovering nearby, Jed Eisenman, the club’s longtime manager.
To celebrate turning 80, the Vanguard turned to Jason Moran, a pianist and bandleader half the club’s age. Moran is a musician who has demonstrated, both on and off the bandstand and in various ways, that he has a singular and secure grasp of the connection between what has preceded him and where he (and we) are headed—and on the intellectual and artistic streams that have always informed and been fed by the scene at the Vanguard and the jazz scene in general. Continue reading “80 Years On, Still in the Vanguard: Reflections on a Celebration, and Comments from Jason Moran”

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:
Continue reading “Getting Jason Moran's Grammar Down, Through Film”

Harlem Stage Gets Very Very Threadgill

Photo: Nhumi Threadgill

I can’t imagine a better way to experience the promise of creative music rooted in jazz than to spend much of this coming weekend at Harlem Stage, which opens its season with “Very Very Threadgill,” a two-day festival featuring more than 30 musicians performing the music of composer, saxophonist and flutist Henry Threadgill, as curated by pianist Jason Moran.
The series is named for Very Very Circus, a 1990s band of Threadgill’s that, like nearly all of his ensembles, featured unusual instrumentation (that one blended tuba, electric guitar and, at times, French horn). This two-day festival spans Threadgill’s career. Saturday night’s lineup features music from his landmark 1970s-80s trio Air (as revisited by Moran and is trio, The Bandwagon), his 1980s Sextett (featuring an original member, drummer Pheeroan akLaff), and the powerhouse trio, Harriet Tubman, which includes longtime Threadgill associate, guitarist Brandon Ross, and singer Cassandra Wilson. Sunday night’s offerings move from solo, duo and chamber group to a culminating set by Threadgill’s star-studded Society Situation Dance Band.
I consider Threadgill the most fascinating and original composer of my lifetime. His singular musical language challenges listeners through layered rhythmic tensions and surprising sonic textures and yet soothes, too: Like sunrises and snowflakes, each Threadgill piece brings the sorts of glorious shifts of color and form that help make life rewarding and embody its flow—never the same yet part of some grander design, some continuum, we can live within but never fully grasp.
Threadgill was among the earliest members of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the 1960s and remains among New York City’s creative lodestars, which has been his home since the 1970s.
I interviewed him in January for a Wall Street Journal piece, just before he mounted “Old Locks and Irregular Verbs,” in tribute to the late composer and conductor Butch Morris, with a group that included two pianists, one of which was Moran. Threadgill and I met at DeRobertis Pasticceria and Caffe, not far from where Threadgill and Morris made their homes and established their artistic presences in Manhattan’s East Village decades ago. DeRobertis is the sort of place that exudes the humble dignity that results from clarity of focus—to sip espresso and eat sfogliatella there is to grasp what that means—and that for a century maintained its place on a street and within a neighborhood where gentrification has wiped away most of what once was. Unfortunately, it appears that the café, whose property is listed for sale, may soon be gone. And, sadly, Morris is no longer with us (“Old Locks” was Threadgill’s tip of the hat to his dear departed friend.)
Threadgill is still going strong, pouring and new music even as his past work assumes new relevance and influence. During our conversation, he told me he’d been admiring Moran’s music—“and the way he approaches his music”—for some time.
Soon after, I called up Moran, who was then looking forward to his first direct experience his Threadgill. Moran, whose acclaim includes a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, expresses himself in many way these days: through his Bandwagon band; as pianist in saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s quartet; via ambitious projects like “All Rise,” his new CD (an elegy for Fats Waller in collaboration with, among others, singer and bassist MeShell Ndegeocello); and through his programming for the Kennedy Center, SFJazz and Harlem Stage.
Here’s what he told me about Threadgill: Continue reading “Harlem Stage Gets Very Very Threadgill”

Luhring Augustine Gallery Now Represents Jason Moran, Urban Performance Artist

Jason Moran, wearing a papier mache mask created by Didier Civil during the Fats Waller Dance Party at Harlem Stage, New York City, 2011 Photo: © John Rogers

Nearly a decade ago, I ended a feature story about Jason Moran with this comment from him:
“I’m a straight-up jazz musician, no doubt. But I also like to think of myself as an urban performance artist who happens to play piano.”
Much of my work since then and all of Moran’s—which has earned him, among other honors, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and artistic directorships at The Kennedy Center and SFJazz—has been in some way an attempt to understand and celebrate the tensions within such duality.
So it made perfect sense when I learned on Friday that the Manhattan-based Luhring Augustine gallery had signed Moran among the artists it represents.
“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.”
According to gallery representative Lauren Wittels, Continue reading “Luhring Augustine Gallery Now Represents Jason Moran, Urban Performance Artist”