Saturday, February 20, 2010

Getting on the Jason Moran Bandwagon, Part III

So just about the time that I was really diggin' Modernistic, all of the best of the year and decade lists were coming out. Included in NPR's All Songs Considered 50 most influential albums of the decade list was Moran's 2001 effort, Black Stars. As one of the few jazz albums to make that list--and given that I was ready for more--it went on the pick-up list immediately. But not long after that list came out, Walter Ray Watson, producer at NPR, suggested that Moran's 2006 Artist in Residence is a "stronger portrait of the artist as a leading voice of the 'oughts.'"

Result--two albums got ordered.

Now the reviews linked to above are more articulate about these albums than I ever will be, but here are a few thoughts, and more importantly, a taste of each.

I am going to start with Artist in Residence because that is the one I listened to first--randomly. However, it is also because this is by far my favorite of his albums and since I was so engaged by it, I took a long time getting to Black Stars. What is so engaging?

First and mainly, it is the absolute wonderful mixed media aspect of the album. Moran samples Adrian Piper's voice (and ideas) on more than one track in different ways, incorporates the sounds of pen(cil?) writing on paper almost as percussion in a contemplative piece, incorporates operatic vocals, uses eclectic percussion sounds and drives all of this with a wonderful jazz sound underneath and at times out front. The trio is as tight and funky as ever on the upbeat pieces with Waits and Mateen driving the rhythm section, joined here and there by Marvin Sewell on guitar, but also sparse and beautiful on the slower pieces. The album runs the gamut of the genre from stride, to ballad, to funk-infused bop, to western swing, to pure open-form jazz--but as seems to be the case with Moran--all wonderfully arranged. There is no doubt that if I had to put one of his albums up for a "decade list" I would agree with Watson that it would be this one.

So many options to offer up to give you a sense, but here is the opening track with Adrian Piper samples, which grabs you from the first and never let's you go, followed by one of those wonderful left-hand driving open-bop pieces and then the contemplative "Cradle Song" employing writing as an instrument.

So I finally extracted myself from that album and started listening to Black Stars. Perhaps it was that I had high expectations given both it being the album selected as his best in someway and/or my own exuberance, but I confess my first reactions to this one was a bit of disappointment. However, I think most of it had to do with the fact that this seemed to be the least experimental and most straight-forward jazz album of those I had listened to--within the framework of Moran's music.

Now I have listened quite a bit more and have really come to appreciate the album--particularly the way it moves through different moods and forms, but I suspect it will not receive anywhere the air time of the others I have. For starters, most tracks include either sax or flute, played by legendary Sam Rivers who I don't mean to criticize here--his playing is amazing. It is just that I love the sound the trio generates (or Moran generates on his own) and the quartet piece here don't quite have that feel--they aren't as gutsy. In fact, probably my favorite piece on the album is a trio piece. I am also, I confess, not a huge flute in jazz fan--although "Summit" on this album, with its far east sound, is a lovely piece in the middle of the album.

That said, Moran here again demonstrates he has his feet firmly spread across the whole spectrum of jazz. So here are a couple samples--whose titles I think tell you just about as much as you need to know.

And so ends this series of posts--until the next album!

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