“I have always enjoyed playing solo piano and I always think that it is important for every instrumentalist, regardless of what they play, they should be able to hold their own just at their instrument without the aid of anyone else. Solo piano is definitely a forum with rich history. You’ve got Errol Garner. You’ve got Art Tatum. You’ve got James P. Johnson. You’ve got Cecil Taylor and Thelonious Monk. The history is very rich and so I definitely want to try my hand and write some songs that would be especially written for solo piano, maybe some classical type music and whatever else.”
— Jason Moran
Once there was a race of giants known as the piano professors who walked the streets of Harlem playing what’s come to be known as “stride piano”, quite distinct from the style of the New Orleans professors. These men were masters of the piano, born and raised in the North of the country. They were influenced by European concert music as well as ragtime and, eventually, jazz, and they played with a more orchestral style than was heard from pianists in other parts of the country. They had a fierce sense of style and wore Homburg hats and beautiful overcoats, carried silk handkerchiefs, and sometimes a gold- or silver-headed cane. They were royalty, plain and simple, and they were treated as such. Two of the most famous were James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith, both remarkable composers as well as first-rate pianists, and entertainers through and through.
This is clearly the lineage that Jason Moran has in mind when he sits down to record Modernistic, his fourth album (not counting his work with Greg Osby and Steve Coleman). A member of New York’s M-Base collective, whose members share some basic philosophies about creating music but whose individual styles are quite diverse, Moran was first attracted to jazz by the music of Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock. He later studied with Jaki Byard and came under the influence of Muhal Richard Abrams and especially Andrew Hill. He has demonstrated an incredible ability to assimilate the traditions of jazz and portray them in a very modern way, without ever sounding derivative or retro. So it is fitting that he should title his solo piano outing after, and lead off with, a James P. Johnson composition, “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic”. Johnson recorded the piece in 1929 with his orchestra, which included trumpet players Joe Oliver and Cootie Williams. Moran plays the main melody much as Johnson did, but there are also flashes of his own abstract improvisational brilliance and a tip of the hat to Willie “the Lion” Smith as well. It’s a jaunty, cocky performance that puts the listener on notice that Moran has arrived in town and is ready to rumble with any pianist around.
Moran follows with a very lush and romantic take on the standard “Body and Soul” that makes thematic use of a rising left hand sequence to create a new perspective on the well-known piece. It’s truly a different approach than most anyone has taken to this number, and it shows why Moran is hailed as jazz music’s future. On his debut album, Soundtrack to Human Motion, Moran dropped in an improvised solo piano piece entitled “Kinesics”. That piece encompassed Monk, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Duke Ellington, while allowing Moran to demonstrate his own harmonic conception and somehow actually expand on the solo jazz piano tradition while tipping his hat to the masters. That piece was, in retrospect, nothing less than an announcement and Modernistic expands on it, taking in early New Orleans jazz and stride, honky tonk, bebop and avant-garde, hip-hop, classical and post-modern European composition. There are traces not only of the jazz piano greats but of the art, cinema, and theatre that inspires him as well.
Probably the most startling piece on the disc is the third track, a rendition of Afrika Bambattaa’s “Planet Rock” that uses prepared piano to create the necessary beat pattern and a series of tape reversed piano loops (there are four layers of overdubs on the track) over which Moran plays the melody and then goes off into Cecil Taylor-esque improvisational runs. “It’s a hip-hop standard so you have to have the beat,” Moran says. “Plus, the lyrics on the original really say something. It’s all about promoting everyone to get up and dance.” That’s pure Moran-he knows hip-hop music well, but he’s not merely throwing an awkward rap on top of his music, he’s embracing the entire African- American musical tradition, of which jazz is merely a part. Indeed, the lyrics of “Planet Rock” are both party-centered and inspirational: “Just start to chase your dreams/ Up out your seats, make your body sway/Socialize, get down, let your soul lead the way . . .” In a commentary on Ken Burns’ Jazz in the New York Times, Moran asked: “The questions I’m asking myself now are these: How many times are we going to have to recite the same script? Why were the early criticisms of ragtime and swing and be-bop the same exact criticisms as those directed at hip-hop today? But then again, why did Stravinsky encounter the same criticisms as Bach?”
Besides being a formidable pianist, Moran is a composer of some weight, as he has already demonstrated on previous recordings. He offers two new “Gangsterism” pieces, a series of compositions he has worked on since his first recording, all based on the theme of Andrew Hill’s composition “Erato”. “Gangsterism on Irons” was inspired watching golfers during The Masters championship shoot a particularly difficult hole, while “Gangsterism on a Lunchtable” offers a beat that again utilizes the prepared piano against a Middle Eastern-sounding melodic line. “Planet Rock Postscript” is a lyrical improvisation based on the rhythm and bass line Moran devised for his version of “Planet Rock”. “Passion” is a piece in the best European Romantic tradition, evoking Schumann, whose “Auf Einer Burg/In a Fortress” he also reworks. “Moran Tonk Circa 1936” utilizes a small upright piano that gives the old-time sound Moran was looking for. “With a grand piano, you hear every note,” he says. “I found this upright in the basement of the piano rental place. It has almost no overtones, so you get a dirty sound, which is exactly what I was looking for.”
The concluding track, “Gentle Shifts South” is very melodic and features an uplifting theme that is somewhat like a march, only much slower and calmer. It seems to represent a determined movement forward, which perfectly describes Moran’s career to date. According to Moran, the piece tells the story of the migration of his family: his father, a native of Louisiana, and his mother, a North Texan, both moved to Houston in search of work, and that is where Moran himself was born. Like some of his influences, Monk, Andrew Hill, and Duke Ellington, Moran has taken the thread of his own life as well as those of jazz music, African-Americans, and America itself and woven a remarkable and majestic tapestry that encompasses nearly every aspect of human emotion and aspiration.
Again referring to the Ken Burns documentary, Moran commented: “Watching Jazz, I felt proud to be a young African-American playing the music. Frequently during the program, I smiled. I smiled, knowing that I live in Harlem, the home of so many innovators. I smiled, recognizing that nobody had it easy.” And no doubt he smiled, too, knowing that the race of giants known as the piano professor was not gone from Harlem so long as their work could be admired, learned from, and expanded upon.