Playing it like it is: Jason Moran and Dave Holland take to the Barnes stage at Cornell

Comedian Hannibal Buress tells it straight: “People say, ‘I’m just taking it one day at a time.’ You know who else is? Everybody. That’s how time works.” And maybe that’s how jazz works, too. It’s a daily process, an ever-expanding diary of life experience that everybody’s being written into. Its pages ruffle and shuffle, rhyme in real time, bend and tear, yet through it all retain a cover as distinct and as battered as our Real Books. Every once in a while, a musician comes along who tapes up the binding, slaps on a new nameplate, and calls it fresh. Pianist Jason Moran is one such musician, one who knows there’s no past without a future. Bassist Dave Holland is another, one who knows there’s no future without a past. Though far from strangers, having been involved together in latter’s Overtone Quartet since 2009, as a duet they offer a rare chance to see two consummate artists in dialogue.

“My first opportunity to work with Dave,” says Moran in an e-mail interview, “was as a sub for Steve Nelson in his Quintet. This was the first time Dave’s quintet music was played with a piano, so it was quite a big space to fit in. Dave is an extremely supportive player. Meaning he is both a fantastic captain and a deck hand.” Yet the Houston native, who celebrates his 37th birthday this month, has spent much of his career rocking the boat. With influences ranging widely, from Thelonious Monk to Sol LeWitt, the avenue of his playing is lined with all manner of architectural styles. In addition to being one of the most important jazz pianists of his generation, he’s a thinker and, above all, a father. When I ask him about how he’d like to be remembered, he says, humbly, “That my children loved me, and that I taught them how to love.”

The title of his major debut, I think, says it all: Soundtrack to Human Emotion. It’s a philosophy to live by for someone who uses emotions as a writer might lay verbs on the page. From his jump outside the box with the immortal Sam Rivers on Black Stars (Holland also worked with Rivers on the seminal 1972 joint Conference Of The Birds) and on through to a trio session for the ages with Chris Potter and the late Paul Motian on Lost In A Dream, he has painted a veritable gallery of life-driven moods and impressions. Moran is also an educator. He teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he places no small value in passing on ideas and conversations: “Young players should follow their heart. And if the music takes over their life, let the music lead the way, as there is so much to discover.” A harbinger of things to come, to be sure. Then again, why wait when you can experience it for yourself?

Most thumbnail sketches of Dave Holland, now 65, will include the requisite cameo by Miles Davis, in whose band the young bassist’s voice came to prominence. As a bandleader in his own right, the voice is so inimitable that those same sketches have since become a blur of dazzling color. To hear him in any group setting, one would never suspect—and rightly so—that he felt anything less than admiration for the talents he has enlisted over the years. His larger ensembles, beginning with the Quintet on 1984’s Jumpin’ In for ECM and expanding more recently to the Octet and beyond on his own Dare2 Records, have proven to be hotbeds for progressive thinking in the genre. Holland also redrew the upright landscape with 1978’s Emerald Tears, joining a growing roster of unaccompanied albums for an instrument all too often relegated to the rhythm section. There’s an enormous difference between playing solo and playing a solo. And while the lone piano is a relative mainstay in jazz recordings, Moran’s 2002 contribution, Modernistic, managed to make a comparably original statement: here is one who listens.

Indeed, listening is what these men do best. Whether it’s to themselves or to one another, their craft welcomes us to share in a compassion so hip that your head is already nodding before note one. Theirs are open, melodious hearts, and we are honored in their presence to step into an intimate circle where sound and peace walk hand in hand, taking it—you guessed it—one day at a time.

Jason Moran and Dave Holland will be performing at Cornell University’s Barnes Hall in Ithaca, New York this Saturday, January 28, at 8:00 pm. Tickets are sold out, but be sure to check back with me here at “between sound and space” for the post-concert report. The full Moran interview is below.

How do you define the power of a standard?

The power of a standard lies within how good it sounds when out of the hands of it’s original composer.

Can you tell us a little more about your classical background and how that fits into what you do at the keyboard?

My technique is where most of my classical background reveals itself. My first Suzuki method teacher was Yelena Kurinets. She had a very strict vision about what piano technique is, and that has helped keep my hands in good form, knock on wood.

When you’re on point, really feeling it, what is your state of awareness? Do you disconnect or plug in? Do you leave us behind or take us with you?

Well, I think it’s a combination of both disconnecting and connecting. I like to think of it as simultaneously talking and listening to someone. It’s the balance of those things. The audience is always on the ride. And as with all riders, some like to wear no seatbelt, some ride in the bed of a truck, some water-ski, and some simply look out of the window.

Tell us about working with Dave Holland for the first time. Will you be approaching the duo set any differently than your work with the Overtone Quartet?

My first opportunity to work with Dave was as a sub for Steve Nelson in his Quintet. This was the first time Dave’s quintet music was played with a piano, so it was quite a big space to fit in. Dave is an extremely supportive player. Meaning he is both a fantastic captain and a deck hand. So if I want to make a sharp left turn with the boat, he’s pulling the line quickly to help change the course. Given his extensive history, there won’t be much that will throw him off. So, we love having our musical dialogue shift languages.

You are clearly dedicated to passing along your passion and energy to the next generation. How has teaching informed your playing? What do you think is most important for younger players to understand as they grow into jazz, and vice versa?

Teaching allows me to hear the concerns of the next generation of musicians. Their concerns allow me to tailor my teaching methods to them. I continue to be a student myself, so I feel like we are all in the same boat, and we are all on the front line. As for my playing, I think having to discuss my methods so frequently, I realize I need to practice what I preach. Young players should follow their heart. And if the music takes over their life, let the music lead the way, as there is so much to discover. Most of all, young players need to study themselves, and secondly study the history.

Which artists, musical or otherwise, make you shake your head in wonder and think, “I’ll never get there”?


What do you get from working with other musicians? What do you think they get from you?

This music is built around community. It works best when you work well with others. It’s more a life lesson than a musical one. Have respect for people and their ideas, and work with them. I’m not sure what they get from me, but “energy” is the term I keep telling myself.

How did you react to Paul Motian’s recent passing?

Paul was a fixture in NY, so it’s very different without him occupying the city. He let everyone in. Wonderful man.

Being an ECM nut, I adore your presence on the Athens Concert with Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri. How did you become involved in this fantastic project, and what was it like working with two such distinct legends at the same time?

I’ve been with Charles for almost 5 years, and it is an ongoing process. He shares so much knowledge with his band, and he shares his community as well. In one breath Maria gives us the history of vocal music. It’s all circular, as we like to say.  

When the day comes that you lay down your last note, how would you like your contributions to be remembered?

That my children loved me, and that I taught them how to love.

Who are you listening to these days?

Sam Rivers and Henry Threadgill. Sam also passed recently. For many years, he and Dave were very close. A wonderful catalog of music has been left behind. I’m working on a Henry Threadgill celebration. And lastly, I’ve been listening to a lot of comedy, and am loving Hannibal Buress.

Describe what jazz means to you in one word.

I can’t, so I won’t.

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