Jason Moran / Dave Holland Duo
Barnes Hall, Cornell University
January 28, 2012
Sometimes a performance can change your life. Equally rare is the performance that brings life to change. To those fortunate enough to be in the intimate confines of Barnes Hall last night, the latter is in tall order. The performers need no introduction (for the curious, my pre-concert report is here), and perhaps they prefer it that way, for when they take to the stage they deflect attention from themselves by first paying deference to one another. Yet even before our rapt attention and respectfully placed woops fill the room, the stage itself has told us all we need to know. Between towers of speakers and amplifying equipment, two instruments: a freshly tuned Steinway and a prone bass. Moran’s chair, which he brings wherever he can, sports clean, modern lines, while Holland’s trim yet deep instrument seems to hold countless histories in its burnished surface. Already there is a conversation happening, as if to confess the music before the artists actualize it.
And actualize it they most certainly do. Rather than kick off the concert with bang, however, they start with a touching homage to the great Sam Rivers, with whom both Moran and Holland had the opportunity to work and whose recent passing was felt deeply by all who knew him. To feel his spirit living on like this is a joy to witness. With the gentle cascade of a frozen waterfall in spring thaw—appropriate for this unseasonably warm winter—the gentle strains of “Beatrice” go straight to the heart, from the heart. Between Moran’s crisp pointillism and Holland’s smooth hibernations, one finds hard-won balance. Each note leaves an aftertaste of affection.
Holland and Moran follow up with an offering apiece. Holland’s paints some of the broadest sonic vistas of the set, twisting his virtuosity into a solved Rubik’s cube. Alongside this powerful chunk of expressiveness, Moran’s “Gummy Moon” reads like a bedtime story (and by no coincidence, for the title reflects his children’s mispronunciation of the classic Goodnight Moon). Beneath Holland’s monotone, the piano man unpacks terse chording into a majestic tale of starlit travel. A breath and a pause, and we’re off to a whole new gig as Duke Ellington’s neglected “Wig Wise” ushers us into the center portion of the show. The duo share a smile and a nod, welcoming us into something as timeless as the thematic material at their fingertips. Moran is a whirlwind of ideas, though both musicians’ flair for ecstatic performance is in full evidence here.
After a ballad so smooth one would swear the house lights dimmed out of sympathy, the unmistakable zigzag of Holland’s classic “Four Winds” further strengthens the Rivers connection. Moran explores some of the more turgid recesses of this well-aged tune, even as Holland stomps his way through a storm of brilliance. As with all the music they play, they take this number not only to new heights, but also to new depths.
Next, Holland provides one of the concert’s highlights in his “Hooveling.” Meant to evoke one’s navigation through a New York City crowd, it twists and turns with a deftness so hip it almost hurts. Moran listens right there with us, enjoying the talents of one who commands at the solo bass like no other, before turning an eye to something bygone, a tender farewell that only presages the second tribute of the night in Paul Motian’s “Once Around the Park.” As Holland lovingly explains before they play, Motian frequented the jogging path around the reservoir at Central Park. It was during one such running session that the tune came to him. And indeed, we can feel the chill city winds passing from the piano through the bass’s arboreal footwork. A fitting tribute to a human being of profound melodic insight.
Before the duo close with improvisations on a familiar Thelonious Monk theme, they lay the nostalgia on thick with “Twelve,” a tune once taught to Moran by his teacher Jaki Byard. The result is a veritable train ride through a landscape of nodding heads.
With these two, jazz isn’t just an art form. It’s a warm hearth in the cold. Moran is a hopeful player, always looking ahead to whatever light may be on the horizon. His right hand is a water strider of expression that widens its purview at every turn. Now a chromatic jester, now a paternal force, it engages the left with insistence and verve. Holland, too, strikes a happy medium between wildness and diction. In spite of his ever-wandering fingers, he is nothing if not selective. He chooses his lows carefully, as does Moran his highs, and each of his harmonics feels like a drop of innocence in a conflicted world. He can bring that wincing twang to bear with the best of them, but more often wants to talk with us rather than at us. Both Moran and Holland make every repetition novel and exciting. Like souls lost in the beauty of a memory that threatens to fade in a harsher present, they seek to record everything they see—not for posterity, but for the invaluable ardor of the moment.
If you were unable to get a ticket, or simply found out about this special performance too late, fear not, for you needn’t have been there to feel its effects. Those energies are still out there, running rampant like a Rivers soprano line, if not slinking stealthily like a Motian brushstroke, into the most hidden recesses of our consciousness. Just listen, and you might hear them in the wind.