For pianist Jason Moran, playing music is all relative

By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | February 18, 2005

Jason Moran has got a right to play the blues.

Two of his father's first cousins, brothers Tony and Michael Llorens, used to stop by the Moran house in Houston when they were touring with blues great Albert King in the early 1980s and performing on King's Grammy-nominated albums, "San Francisco '83" and "I'm in a Phone Booth, Baby." Moran was a young kid studying classical piano then, but Tony Llorens would show him boogie-woogie licks and other, hipper piano fare, whetting Moran's interest in blues and jazz.

Moran, 30, has since shot well past his cousins in musical renown. For two years running, he has been voted No. 1 artist, pianist, and composer in the Down Beat Critics Poll's "talent deserving wider recognition" categories. He has won admiration for refusing to be straitjacketed by his study of jazz tradition. More than most players of his generation, Moran has insisted on developing a sound of his own, doing so partly by dragging outside influences into his music -- from pop (a cover of Bjork's "Joga") to hip-hop (Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock") to film scores ("Murder of Don Fanucci" from "The Godfather, Part II"). Moran and his band play Scullers on Wednesday.

Now, on "Same Mother," his sixth CD for Blue Note, Moran has turned his attention to the blues. His reasons for doing so are largely contained in the album's title. Watching Savion Glover dance hip-hop style to some old jazz, Moran's wife, Alicia, observed that dance movement in jazz, blues, and hip-hop all come "from the same mother."

Moran had recently spent some time studying field hollers and writing a score for the film "Five Short Breaths," and he was looking for a way to make his new disc a tribute to his mother, who was fighting what proved to be a losing battle with leukemia.

"Making this record," says Moran, "was a return to a more direct approach to playing music" — one that was more deliberate, emotional, and consciously about family and home.

Blues and guitar being inseparable, Moran added guitarist Marvin Sewell to his trio mates of the past several years, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. Like them, Sewell is adept at playing a wide range of styles. But adding him to the group risked upsetting the trio's equilibrium.

"First I had to ask Tarus and Nasheet, 'Do you even like Marvin, as a person?' " Moran recalls. "They went, 'Oh man, he's great.' They had both played with him, so they understood where he was coming from as a musician. I was already a great friend of his since we were in Cassandra Wilson's band together. That's how I knew of his great ability to do a lot of this blues stuff as well as jazz stuff, but never really be so conventional with his sound or with what he decided to play."

"Same Mother" is not your father's blues album -- or, in Moran's case, not his father's cousins' blues album. Though there's one Albert King cover on it ("I'll Play the Blues for You"), Moran was loose when it came to choosing what qualified as blues.

"Certain things on the piano I would make fun of as if they weren't serious," he explains. "Like if you hear a certain musician do something that is 'very, very bluesy,' I would question it sometimes. I mean, sometimes you can tell when it's coming from a person where it's a very real place, and then sometimes you know that it's just a cliché. So I was very scared to flirt with what cliché was in association with jazz and with blues. And with hip-hop. I wanted to make sure that I was coming from the sincere place where music comes from rather than the cliché place."

Those tunes making the cut, says Moran, "fit not only the mode of what I thought the sound of blues was but also the attitude, the emotional content of what blues is or could be."

They include two new additions to Moran's "Gangterism" series of compositions, which blend stride and dissonance together with hip-hop attitude and are inspired, says Moran, by the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Sergei Prokofiev's "The Field of the Dead," from his score to Sergei Eisenstein's film "Alexander Nevsky," is "an amazingly moving piece," says Moran, and especially relevant with the nation at war. Mal Waldron's "Fire Waltz" is the closest thing to a jazz standard on the disc. The two prettiest tunes are "Aubade," which Moran co-wrote with another piano mentor, Andrew Hill, and performs as a piano-acoustic guitar duet with Sewell, and "The Field," a piece by Moran's wife that Moran performs solo.

Of course, there's also that nod in King's direction with "I'll Play the Blues for You," on which Sewell plays some rollicking electric blues guitar. Some of the lessons from Moran's boyhood are evident from his piano solo on the tune.

"When he took his solo he played all these tremolos on it," says Tony Llorens, who now teaches music to high school students in Los Angeles and plays occasional blues gigs on the side. "He told me I taught him how to play that. Ain't that something? You never know what a child picks up."

Berklee Benefit: The Berklee College of Music is hosting "Tsunami Relief: An Evening of Hope" tonight at the Berklee Performance Center, proceeds from which will be donated to Mercy Corps to aid survivors of the Dec. 26 disaster in South Asia. The concert kicks off at 8:15 p.m., and will include Berklee students and faculty performing pop, folk, funk, and jazz. Among the performers will be indie-rocker and Berklee alum Bleu, gospel singer Dennis Montgomery, and smooth-jazz saxophonist/​vocalist Walter Beasley. Tickets cost $10. Call 617-747-2261 for more information.

Jason Moran and the Bandwagon perform Wednesday night at Scullers at 8 and 10. Tickets $15. Call 617-562-4111.

© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
© Bill Beuttler

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