A Little Bit Wiser: Jason and Alicia Hall Moran

Jason Moran piano
Alicia Hall Moran voice
Barnes Hall, Cornell University
April 11, 2013
8:00 pm

JAHM

In January of 2012, pianist Jason Moran and his wife, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, were slated to perform on Cornell University’s intimate Barnes Hall stage. A Broadway gig prevented Alicia from being able to appear and bassist Dave Holland was kind enough to substitute. The result was an unforgettable evening of music. Yet I always wondered what spells the original billing might have cast. At last, some 15 months later, that magic was realized. There was something about the way that Jason opened with his solo rendition of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” that assured us we were in for something special. His flourishes were straight from the heart, not the least bit rhetorical. He took those classic threads and re-spun them: same colors, different weave. It was the first of a handful of solo pieces, which also included John Scofield’s “Fat Lip” (a jauntier affair, coated in silver and wine) and some original music written for Alonzo King. The latter revealed the gentler side of an artist whose panache lays it all on the table: diamonds, clubs, hearts, and spades. Or maybe it was the way in which Lucille Clifton’s “blessing the boats” tumbled from Alicia’s lips. A poetess in her own right, she took to the platform fully prepared for the power of love in a world riddled with hindrances. Her resonance filled the room, sharing the rafters with spiders’ webs and history. Like Clifton’s timeless words, she manifested a fully embodied style, her pulse audible during sustained notes.

may the tide that is entering even now the lip of our understanding carry you out beyond the face of fear

Alicia used these interludes as doorways to personal reflection. Not only because she wrote the melodies, but also because in her was a storyteller whose loom was strung with moonbeams. By the end of the night we knew how she and Jason had met and fallen into oneness, how music had called to them as equals and set their phasers to shine. Their autobiographical transparency cut the fourth wall like butter.

may you kiss the wind then turn from it certain that it will love your back

A soulful rendition of a Stevie Wonder classic, endearingly altered as “I Was Made to Love Him,” set off a string of standards. Of these, “My Funny Valentine” stood out for its rasp, traversing a bridge of good fortune into a swinging “Summertime.” Leonard Bernstein’s “Big Stuff” was the icing on an already optimistic cake, boxed and tied with a bow.

may you open your eyes to water water waving forever

Two pieces by Jason from a commissioned suite based on hymns of the quilters at Gee’s Bend, Alabama were the reigning portion of the set. “Here Am I” was downright transcendent, melding supplications into sustained, train-like chords from the keys. “People are more important than things,” Alicia sang, and we could feel that theory made real in practice. This was followed by “You Ain’t Got but One Life to Live, You Better take Your Time,” the notes of which rubbed up against one another as Alicia looked us all in the eye and straight into our hearts. She walked offstage, her voice still carrying before boomeranging back to encore with Duke Ellington’s “I Like the Sunrise.” A glint of light at the end of this long winter, it glowed until we were warmed.

and may you in your innocence sail through this to that

By this point, we had experienced something more than a show. It was a life lesson. Thus spoken and sung for, we carried snatches of post-concert conversation in our pockets out into a maze of streetlights, strung to the gills with joy. Carry on, butterflies, carry on.

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Charles Lloyd & Jason Moran: Hagar’s Song (ECM 2311)

Hagar's Song

Hagar’s Song

Charles Lloyd alto and tenor saxophone, alto and bass flute
Jason Moran piano, tambourine
Produced by Charles Lloyd and Dorothy Darr
Recorded April 2012 at Santa Barbara Sound Design
Engineer: Dominic Camardella
Mastering: Bernie Grundman
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Speaking of an ECM production in terms of engineering is like speaking of a Van Gogh painting in terms of brushstrokes: the two are so intimately connected as to make their parsing arbitrary. Still, it bears mentioning that with Hagar’s Song the label has taken a fresh direction due to the insistence of its artists on a naked sound. We hear it from breath one in Billy Strayhorn’s “Pretty Girl,” which under the fingers of the album’s protagonists—saxophonist Charles Lloyd and pianist Jason Moran—awakens to a new dawn. We hear it in the close miking of that unmistakable tenor, in Moran’s pillow of chords filling the recording space with the close-knit statements befitting of the duo dynamic. Let this be a cue, then, to witness the growth of these kindred hearts, whose cause is just getting warmed up. So begins a helping of Lloyd’s personal favorites, which include many familiar tunes re-spun by the patina of his lyrical edge. His bold evocation of every theme reveals an artist funneling his attentions into hard-won integrity.

Charles and Jason
(Photograph by Dorothy Darr)

Lloyd’s notecraft is a spectrum of infatuation and rests comfortably in Moran’s edgy blend of styles. To characterize the latter as a blend of the old and the new, however, gets us off on the wrong foot. His nostalgia is of a different order. The feeling of entrenchment intensifies the more he works with Lloyd, who gives him both a context and the freedom to run around it. Moran’s balance is one of seeking and restraint, of plangent cry and heartfelt whisper. Whether in the old-time swing of Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” or the haunting manifestations of the Gershwin classic “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” his roots remain strong and attract all sorts of wonders from the horn that inspires him. This would seem to inspire Lloyd in return. From the way he frames an octave before dropping into it all sorts of knots to be untangled to the skirting poetics of his angular original, “Pictogram,” his artistry gazes, bare and unblinking. For a concise summary of that very evolution, listen no further than “All About Ronnie.” Here: a prism with its own light.

We do a disservice in calling these renditions “soulful,” as if the tunes were not already so. Their timeless inherency is already set, leaving the patient duo to build whatever spontaneity is needed to bring their messages home. We hear this especially in “You’ve Changed,” which from the lips of Lady Day to George Michael has over the years settled in our bones, and for which Lloyd carries a unwavering torch of freedom through the forest of Moran’s discipleship. You’ll find no stone in this “Rosetta” (Earl Hines), because no translation is needed when caught up in the swing of things.

The session’s centerpiece, the five-part “Hagar Suite,” is dedicated to Lloyd’s great-great-grandmother. Taken from her parents and thrown into slavery at age 10, she was one of countless nameless faces in a river that has yet to dry. In Lloyd’s flute resides the quivering of her undying heart. It is the seed of protest, quiet, known only to those in whom it grows. The winds of change fan it like a flame, jumping from one ribcage to another until it sings. Like Moses in his basket, its melodies come from a land of fragments, of bodies broken and rejoined by the power of will. Moran matches Lloyd’s power of incantation with a ceremonial tambourine, which he plays in the hands or, in the painful lyricism of Part III, “Alone,” lays on the piano’s lower strings. It is the tinkling of a faraway dream, a cicada calling to the sands as if every granule were an eye. Through a veil of patience, the duo molds soil into something upright, that it might wander of its own volition from sea to shining sea in search of the wisdom of age…if not the age of wisdom.

If “Hagar Suite” is the album’s multi-chambered heart, then “I Shall Be Released” is its blood. The genius of this Bob Dylan tune has never run so thick as it does here. The same holds true for “God Only Knows.” This insightful look into the mind of Brian Wilson pays homage to Lloyd’s session work with the Beach Boys in a spatial epilogue that carries us far over the horizon to a place where children are forever safe and their parents shed tears only by way of joy, knowing they have everything they need in each other.

Because of the nature of this project, talking about the musicianship in terms of “solos” is moot. Lloyd and Moran are two pans of the same scale, the chain of which hangs from a tall, tall hand of justice. Hagar’s Song not only shows great technical intuition, but also a multifarious instinct for programming. In assembling this set, they have handpicked from the best and added to it, living in the shadows of the originals as much as in their light, and through it all with a love clear as sky.

This is jazz at its most embryonic, the fulfillment of wishes standing the test of time. Like Lloyd’s offshoots, it never strays from the core of what needs to be said. No room for poker faces; only the genuine rake it in.

(To hear samples of Hagar’s Song, click here.)

Listening to the Wind: Moran/Holland Duo Live Report

Jason Moran / Dave Holland Duo
Barnes Hall, Cornell University
January 28, 2012
8:00 pm

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.

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”?

Bach.

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.