Witness pianist Jason Moran’s body of work, most recently his 2001 Blue Note release, Black Stars. Here is a young man, 26 years old, whose probing mind and active intellect find their way into his music in surprising and fascinating ways, free of artifice or pretension, and without upstaging what really matters on an album - the music. Always pushing and probing, Moran is an exhilarating gasp of fresh air, a window shattered open, a daring adventurer plunging, crashing and roaring ahead in the best traditions of avant-garde players such as Pharoah Sanders, Tony Williams or Charles Lloyd.
Born in Houston, Texas, Moran moved to New York City in 1993 to study with the late pianist Jaki Byard (Charles Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk), Muhal Richard Abrams (Eddie Harris, Roscoe Mitchell, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music) and Andrew Hill (Kirk, Joe Henderson, Eric Dolphy), all modernists whose unique methods of composing and improvising are apparent in Moran’s playing.
"They all looked at using different ways to compose," Moran said on his Web site, www.jasonmoran.com. "That really helped to open up my brain. Even though it’s one valid means of expression, I don’t feel restricted by waiting for God to possess my body to write a piece. There are tons of different ways of coming up with fresh music."
Moran soon found work in New York with musicians such as vocalist Cassandra Wilson, saxophonist Steve Coleman and vibist Stefon Harris. Drummer Eric Harland, a fellow Houstonian who also migrated to NYC, had landed a steady gig with alto saxophonist Greg Osby, and when Osby needed a pianist for a European tour, Harland recommended Moran, whom Osby hired without even having heard play.
Osby was obviously impressed - and for obvious reasons. Since 1997, Moran has played piano on five of Osby’s CDs - including his 2001 Blue Note project, Symbols of Light (A Solution), definitely worth checking out. Osby has also produced or appeared on all three of Moran’s discs - 1999’s Soundtrack to Human Motion, 2000’s Facing Left and now Black Stars - each of which has been picked as Top 10 Jazz Recordings for their year by the New York Times and Jazz Times.
Black Stars features bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits - both of whom also played on Moran’s Facing Left and Osby’s New Directions supergroup, which released a self-entitled disc in February 2000 - and veteran multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers, more than 50 years Moran’s senior. Rivers is a great addition to this project, playing lyrically or fiery but always with a hard-edged, Dolphyesque bite. His years of out-there playing, pushing the envelope of structure and melody, are in lock-step in with Moran’s ambitious ideas. He fits in with the young trio like he’s putting on a new suit by the son of his favorite tailor.
You can tell what you’re in for from the first measures of the opening track, "Foot Under Foot." Rivers charges in furiously on the tenor sax, establishing a precedence for wild modern music that borders on free jazz but that is also relatively easy to follow. Waits’ drumming is thunderous, bringing to mind Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette and Elvin Jones. Mateen manages to keep pace on bass, making his presence known and vital amid the maelstrom. As for Moran, he aims for the grandstand and clears it, mixing sharp clusters of notes with gusty lines, evoking his mentors but also playing with originality and even wit. I especially love how everyone keeps up with one another on this track: Moran changes the pattern every few bars and everyone is right there with him, no questions asked.
"Kinda Dukish," a lesser known Ellington tune, is another in Moran’s on-going tribute to great band leader, and while he plays the head pretty straight, he also introduces another influence, that of pianist Herbie Nichols, with rhythmic clustering and loose, roaring crescendos. Again, the group shifts from vamps to free, complex jams on a dime. Moran plays a straight lick then goes off with Mateen and Waits right there at his elbow, juxtaposing all sorts of interesting ideas and rhythms and sounds.
"Gangsterism on a River" is a third installment of Moran’s "Gangsterism" series begun on his first disc, this one written for Rivers. It starts out gently, like a breeze up a city street, but grows more and more intense over its 3:42. "Earth Song," contributed by Rivers, features an excellent solo by the unstoppable Waits - abstract but full of feelings and ideas and motion and logic. Rivers is everywhere at once, right up until the end, which slows down like a wind-up toy losing momentum.
Rivers picks up his flute on "Summit," playing a beautiful, Japanese shakuhachi introduction, before switching to soprano sax to march with Moran in a wide, high, windy landscape that offers plenty of room for everyone wander and roam. Moran and Rivers’ rapport continues on "Say Peace," with Moran, Waits and Mateen embellishing inventively beneath Rivers’ playing of the stark theme. "Draw the Light Out" especially shows off Moran’s technical mastery, with a very cool left hand pattern that induces cramps in the hands just listening to it and that brings to mind Ahmad Jamal. "Out Front" is a piece by Byard, and Moran plays it pretty much as Byard would have, in a clean, unerring modern stride style that builds like a locomotive steaming down a steep hill.
"The Sun at Midnight" again features Rivers on flute, and the CD ends with a fun, free improv between Moran and Rivers, "Sound it Out," that impresses upon the listener just how enjoyable the summit must have been for both stars.
Anyone into forward-looking, adventurous improvisational music will immediately pick up on what a special disc this is. No doubt many others will figure it out in years to come.