Piano players have a not entirely undeserved reputation for being nerdy even by jazz musician standards. Evidence is not hard to come by -- Brad Meldhau pens epic liner notes in the form of Socratic dialogues, Vijay Iyer has an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in music and cognitive science from Berkeley (that's Berkeley, not Berklee), and, of course, Ethan Iverson is a notorious Smarty McSmarterson. (And he blogs.) Jason Moran fits nicely into the pianist-as-intellectual paradigm. His music is often inspired by the works of Basquiat, Rauschenberg, and Kurosawa, and he has a wide-open conceptual approach to writing that embraces pitch-rhythm transcriptions, set theory, and Schillinger. Moran's latest CD, Artist in Residence, is (as you might expect) his most self-consciously artsy to date.
The strongest track is "RAIN," a twelve-minute, ring shout-inpired work originally comissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center. Here, Moran's Bandwagon rhythm section, Tarus Mateen (bass) and Nasheet Waits (drums), are joined by Ralph Alessi (trumpet), Marvin Sewell (guitar), and Abdou Mboup (kora, djembe, talking drum), as well as a recorded sample of Moran's own shuffling footsteps. The almost-pentatonic trumpet melody keeps looping back on itself like a Mobius strip, with supporting (and, sometimes, undermining) harmonizations and commentary from the rest of the group. Moran eventually joins Alessi on the theme while the sound of the footsteps becomes more rhythmic and insistent. An additive groove builds underneath, slowly picking up steam. Moran's fleet lines and inistently rising left-hand figures take over, eventually transitioning into a release section with a driving backbeat and a soulful variation on the trumpet theme. Two-thirds into the track Alessi finally gets to break away and blow, over an increasingly refracted pedal section that culminates in full-group improv. The piece closes as the players give way to the sound of mutliple sets of footsteps looping against each other in circular syncopation, not fading out as expected, but abruptly stopping. With its relentless momentum and monomanical pentatonic cycles, "RAIN" reminds me a bit of Rzewski's "Coming Together." It's followed by an earthy romp through "Lift Every Voice," in deliberate contrast to the preceeding track.
Four additional tracks are excerpted from Jason's multimedia collaboration with video and performance artist Joan Jonas, called The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things. Two of these are character pieces for solo piano -- "Arizona Landscape" -- which prominently features the "Happy Trails" bassline (played straight-faced) -- and "He puts on his coat and leaves," an effective bit of exit music based primarily around a two-chord vamp. "Refraction 1" is actually a duet with Jonas herself, who gamely accompanies Moran with an asynchronous rustle of assorted noisemakers. "Refraction 2" is the Bandwagon version of the same piece -- less abstracted and more groove-oriented, with playful and conversational timekeeping from Nasheet Waits.
The remaining four selections give a taste of a theatrical piece, Milestone, premiered at Minneapolis's Walker Art Center in April 2005, and is based on Adrian Piper's The Mythic Being: I/You (Her). "Break Down," the album's opening track, uses a cut-up recording of Piper's voice as a source for pitches and rhythms -- a technique that will be familiar to longtime Moran fans, although on this cut, the use of spoken-word samples is more hip-hop, less "The Dangerous Kitchen."
"Artists Ought to Be Writing" features a much longer sample of Piper lecturing on the responsibility of artists to communicate their processes and intentions to the general public. The first time through the loop, Moran introduces a harmonization of Piper's spoken "melody." When the loop comes around again, his right hand lines reinforce Piper's voice, and on the third cycle, the voice is subtracted and we hear the melody and harmonization without the words, which Moran uses as a jumping-off point for improvisation. The effect is actually quite beautiful and, in the spirit of Piper's words, communicative.
[You can listen to "Artists Ought to Be Writing" via NPR's Song of the Day.]
The version of Weber's "Cradle Song" included here is a dedication to Moran's recently departed mother, who used to audit her young son's piano lessons, scribbling notes throughout. For most of the track, we hear the close-mic'd sound of a pencil scratching insistently against paper -- when it abruptly stops, Moran is left to finish unaccompanied.
"Milestone" was written by Jason's wife, Alicia Hall Moran, and opens with her classically-trained voice and a straightforward piano accompaniement, but when the Bandwagon jump in on Alicia's last note, the track abruptly shifts direction, eventually heading towards a rhapsodic coda.
Artist in Residence is an ambitious and diverse project, a reflection of Moran's restless intelligence and wide-ranging aesthetic interests. Because of this, it necessarily lacks the cohesion of earlier outings like Facing Left, The Bandwagon, or his amazing solo piano record, Modernistic. Listeners who are not already familiar with Moran's work may prefer to start with those more focused albums. On the other hand, for those of us who have followed Moran's career with interest -- and for those who share his passion for interdisciplinary collaboration -- Artist in Residence is a gallery full of provocative, thoughtful, and rewarding works.
Artist in Residence is in stores Sept. 12. Jason Moran's Bandwagon is at the Blue Note Sept. 12-17. An advance copy of this recording was provided by Blue Note Records for review purposes.