Jason Moran [is] shaping up to be the most provocative thinker in current jazz." —Rolling Stone
Since his formidable emergence on the music scene in the late 90s, pianist Jason Moran has become a leading light and a man to watch in modern jazz. In almost every category that matters—improvisation, composition, group concept, repertoire, technique and technological experimentation—Moran and his group, the Bandwagon, with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, have challenged the status quo each time out. With his latest Blue Note release, Same Mother, he ups the ante.
On his auspicious debut, Soundtrack To Human Motion, Moran defined his own course with a set consisting almost entirely of original compositions. On his sophomore joint, Facing Left, his first recording that found him in the company of Mateen and Waits, he began expanding his song-palette by making seemingly exotic yet astute choices in material that mark a bolder, generational bent. These include Bjork's "Joga" (brought into jazz consideration on Facing Left) and hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" which Moran has now twice recorded—first on his solo piano studio album Modernistic and then on The Bandwagon, his group's live album from The Village Vanguard).
Though Moran sees himself as a 'traditionalist' where acoustic jazz is concerned he has also made room for electronics, sampling and hip-hop quotations in his recordings and performances. Facing Left found him occasionally trading off Fender Rhodes and acoustic piano; on Bandwagon you can hear the trio construct a composition out of the ready-made speech rhythms and inflections of a Turkish woman's voice heard on a telephone conversation. Moran's adventurousness also extends to collaborations with still-vital, still-vanguard 60s figures such as Andrew Hill, and notably, Sam Rivers, who meshed magnificently with Moran's brinksmanship group on their third Blue Note release Black Stars.
Same Mother is Moran's sixth album as a leader for Blue Note. Well known for throwing more than a few left curves and even a few left jabs at "the same old thing" in jazz, The Bandwagon continues to fire away at complacency and orthodoxy, flummoxing contemporary audiences' notions about the classic piano trio.
Same Mother comes about through invocations of gutbucket and roadhouse blues as an organizing principle. Moran cites work he did on a soundtrack as an initial inspiration. "I based the score I did for a short film, Five Short Breaths [by director Seith Mann], on the sound of 1940s Mississippi prison songs. Humming and stomping for the score reminded my soul of a specific time and sound long gone. I wanted to do something improvisationally that was coming from a raw blues expression—to improvise with focus rather than thinking about chords. The charts for the compositions were really loose and really sparse."
The album's title comes from a comment Moran's wife Alicia had made in a discussion about Savion Glover. "She said that jazz movement and blues movement in dance both came from the same mother, and I thought, that's exactly it—because blues and jazz are both music where you can directly express yourself." Blues and jazz were the first recorded music styles where black people could play and say what they wanted.
Consequently, for Moran, Same Mother stands somewhat in contrast to his previous discs as being "more consciously about Texas, about home, which for me means a really slow, deliberate, emotionally direct approach to things."
At the heart of the recording is a rendition of the great Albert King's 70s ballad "I'll Play The Blues For You." The Houston-born Moran recalls how his inspiration to become a musician came from two relatives who worked with King's orchestra in the 70s and 80s. "Two of my father's cousins played organ and drums with Albert. They used to breeze through town and drink all the vodka. They were my primary reasons for wanting to be a musician. Of course, Albert was a great singer and guitarist, but the affinity I have for his music more comes from the fact that my relatives were a part of his music."
The new album also marks the introduction to the Moran camp of guitarist Marvin Sewell, best known for his live and recorded work with Cassandra Wilson. "I realized Marvin was a phenomenon while in Cassandra's band. Every time he played a solo or an intro I'd think, 'My god, this guy knows a lot of life.' He was the perfect imperfect match for our group and this project."
A versatile and gutsy player in many styles, the Chicago-born Sewell contributes avant but greasy licks to "Jump Up" and "I'll Play The Blues For You", some rawdog and fittingly ethereal slide-work to "Field of the Dead" and "Restin'" and, then contrarily delicate, harmonically plush arpeggios to "Aubade", a number Moran and Andrew Hill penned together.
Continuing to augment their growing canon of compositions by pianists all-too-infrequently mentioned today—Hill and Moran's former teacher Jaki Byard come to mind—Moran and company resurrect Mal Waldron's "Fire Waltz." "I learned that piece when I arrived in New York. Waldron would still play it in the clubs. Later I found what I call a 'window' in the piece. A space where you can jump through it and really go ballistic on it. You can create a different vibe on the song that it hasn't previously been associated with. In the title alone I found something that suggested blues, Blacks in Texas and terrible beauty."
Moran's ardor for world cinema-first unveiled on Facing Left's use of themes—from Kurosawa's Yojimbo and the "Murder of Don Fanucci