Since his formidable emergence on the music scene in the late 90s, jazz pianist Jason Moran has proven more than his brilliance as a performer. The Blue Note Records recording artist has established himself as a risk-taker and innovator of new directions for jazz as a whole.
In almost every category that matters--improvisation, composition, group concept, repertoire, technique and experimentation--Moran, and his group The Bandwagon--with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits--have challenged the status quo, and earned the reputation as “the future of jazz.”
In 2002, Moran released his universally acclaimed solo piano disc Modernistic, prompting the Cork (Ireland) Jazz Festival to award him the 2002 Guinness Rising Star Award. Preeminent jazz critic Gary Giddins proclaimed it “a benchmark achievement and a profound illustration of his capacity to combine classicism and maverick innovation.”
2003's release The Bandwagon, culled from the trio's six-day stint at New York's Village Vanguard, earned the team of Moran-Mateen-Waits a title as “the best new rhythm section in jazz! --NY Times.” The Jazz Journalists Association awarded Moran with the “Up-n-Coming Jazz Musician” of 2003. Moran topped The Downbeat Critics Poll in three categories in 2003 and 2004--Rising Star Jazz Artist, Rising Star Pianist, Rising Star Composer.
In 2005, his blues homage, Same Mother was released. This same year he received the first ever Playboy Jazz Artist of the Year award. Artist in Residence debuted in 2006 and showcased Moran's signature brilliance with ambitious undertakings. In the span of one year, Moran accepted and recorded three separate commissions from three pre-eminent and very diverse American arts institutions: The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Dia Art Foundation, and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
In 2007, Moran was commissioned to create IN MY MIND: Monk at Town Hall, 1959, the critically-acclaimed multi-media performance investigating Thelonious Monk's famous recording, Monk at Town Hall. IN MY MIND examines Monk's process of creating this seminal concert using audio of conversations with Monk and the arranger Hal Overton.
Moran has performed and/or recorded with artists Cassandra Wilson, Wayne Shorter, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, Marian McPartland, Don Byron, Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Von Freeman, Andrew Hill (duo), Uri Caine (duo), Bunky Green, Sam Rivers, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian, Chris Potter, Jenny Scheinman, Christian McBride, and Stefon Harris.
His ongoing visionary collaborations in the art world have brought him additional fans and respect. Moran's music is in the collections of both the MOMA and Whitney Museum of American Art. He scored a ballet for renowned Alonzo King's LINES Ballet, as well as scoring video works for contemporary American artists Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker. Moran also has worked with pivotal visual/performance artists Joan Jonas and Adrian Piper. A future collaboration with Grammy-nominated neo-soul artist Meshell Ndegeocello--a dance party centered on the music of Fats Waller--will premiere in 2011.
Moran lives in New York City with his wife, mezzo soprano Alicia Hall Moran, and their twin toddlers.
Interview With Jason Moran
Tell us about your new album Ten and what we can look forward to from hearing from it.
The new record is pure Bandwagon, meaning the material is from various sources that we have gotten from touring and commissions. There is a piece from a ballet and another piece that takes samples from Hendrix’s feedback effect that he got from his guitar. Some of the pieces are written by some of my favorite piano players such as Andrew Hill and Thelonious Monk. It is a mark in our life as a band and it was time for us to do another trio record.
What are you striving to do differently with Ten than your last album Artist in Residence?
On the album Ten, I wanted to really make sure that I documented what we really sound like on our own. We chose material that kind of really shows our diversity as players. To show the many sides of how the Bandwagon sounds.
Your music seems to include the blues at times. What were the factors that led you to explore blues music?
Being African American was a major part of this. Blues is the root of jazz, gospel and r&b. It is full of expression and emotion.
What other genres of music shape your compositions the most and how?
The genre of jazz helps to shape the overall structure of the song. Folk music, hip hop and contemporary classical music also affect my compositions. The drum beats from hip hop affect my jazz compositions. Our bass player has played with Common, The Roots, Mos Def and Outkast. We grew up listening to hip hop.
How much of an influence has your wife’s music back ground had on your music?
Since my wife is a classical singer, she has opened up a lot of my repertoire. Alicia has inspired me to open myself up to other classical composers. In terms of why I play certain songs and material, she forces me to think about this. She can give me real good constructive criticism.
In your eyes, how has modern society influenced jazz?
It is not seen as popular music like it once was. The music has to continually get rediscovered and is not put in the face of the public and media. Those who actually play and listen to jazz are really enthusiastic about what is happening to jazz. We get to travel the world and meet audiences who are hungry to listen to music that is unscripted.
You began music as a classical pianist. Is it important to study some elements of classical music before learning jazz? Lots of jazz musicians started off as classical musicians.
For me it was helpful in terms of developing my technique but it is not always necessary to studying jazz. It enables you to have a wider ear about what is possible in sound. The history of classical music is centuries longer than jazz music.
How do you feel about the preparation HSPVA gave you in regards to playing jazz piano and the role it played in you choosing to study jazz in New York City?
HSPVA has got to be the greatest thing that a young jazz musician can ask for. It is a breeding ground to getting the students to learn the music. There have been great students who have gone there and who currently study at the school. It is an amazing place. When I moved to New York, many HSPVA graduates went to Boston and Washington DC. There are good Houston jazz musicians working in New York City. My parents started a scholarship and through this fund, I give scholarships for juniors and seniors to help them with music supplies and getting into jazz camps.
Since you listen to hip hop, tell us what relationship exists between hip hop and jazz?
There have been some relationships. In the early 90s, there was a great movement like Digable Planets and Digital Underground. Lots of hip hop groups have sampled great jazz records. This sampling movement allowed people to learn more about black music in America. People were sampling Art Blakey as well. This relationship has been pretty strong for a while. Jazz musicians also love to listen to The Roots.
Do you feel that meeting Greg Osby and playing with his group was a defining point in getting your name out? How?
I was still in college at that point. I joined his band and went to Europe for 3 years. Through Greg’s band, he gave me a lot of room to play a lot and I was free to do what I wanted. People saw me as a crazy, free kid and people started to take notice of me that led me to sign with Blue Note Records.
Thelonious Monk’s music led you to the path of jazz. What effect did he have on your music and what was his impact on jazz?
He still kind of changes the way I touch the piano in general. I first listened to thelonious when I was 13. I wanted to sound like him and do what he did. I still think about it now. His impact on jazz is that he was one of the defining members of the bebop movement. He is a timeless figure in American music. He is an extremely important pianist and composer and musicians find him captivating due to the way he talked and dressed.