Jason Moran’s Soundtrack: Tech Stocks, Bartok and Monk

Pianist Jason Moran suggested we meet for coffee at the Angelika movie theater’s cafe. The 24-year-old Houstonian has just begun

Pianist Jason Moran suggested we meet for coffee at the Angelika movie theater’s cafe. The 24-year-old Houstonian has just begun drumming up interest in his excellent debut album, Soundtrack to Human Motion (Blue Note), and already he’s got a journalist’s feel for staging thematic occasions on deadline. “The album title is about my love of movie soundtracks and movies,” he said, surrounded by posters of the same. The album is supposed to be the musical accompaniment to a day in his life, so I asked him what’s going on when the first track begins. Considering our studiedly bohemian milieu and the inclusion of a Ravel piece on the album, I figured something like, “Midnight, watching my Godard video.” But Mr. Moran, in person and on record, has a nice way of confounding the cliché.

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“The album begins 9 A.M.,” he said. “That’s my time to wake up. The first thing I do is check in on Bloomberg, check the market. Jazz musicians don’t make any money so I might as well make some on the market. I pick my own stocks–Microsoft, Dell–the tech stocks, the breadwinners.” Mr. Moran figures on a steady accumulation of assets until such time as he can say goodbye to his Harlem apartment and get a piece of the suburban pie. “I’ll buy a house and stay sane,” he said.

While you won’t find any stock tips embedded in it, Soundtrack has its own crisp logic that fairly reflects its maker. Yes, Mr. Moran praised Ravel with real post-adolescent enthusiasm–”I was vibing off of it, that French shit, the epitome of cool”– but he’s steered clear of the rubato noodling that sensitive young pianists have fallen prey to ever since the canonization of Bill Evans. It’s not Mr. Evans’ fault, but you can still hear the esthetic fallout in a pianist as good as Brad Mehldau, who during last year’s solo concerts at Lincoln Center seemed to lose his way in a classical fever dream.

By contrast, Soundtrack unfolds in a series of well-thought-out original compositions that sound less like jazz heads biting off the Impressionists than Bartok fused with a swinging rhythm section.

He’s all sharp angles and percussive dissonances, yet he still manages to accommodate vibraphonist Stefon Harris’ bluesy virtuosity and Greg Osby’s elegant work on alto. On albums like last year’s Band in New York and Zero , and the forthcoming Friendly Fire with saxophonist Joe Lovano, Mr. Osby plays boss to Mr. Moran’s sideman. But on Soundtrack , his role as an elder foil for Mr. Moran’s go-for-broke pianism brings out a riper quality to an alto sound that can sometimes resemble a buzzing bee.

“He’s a godsend,” said Mr. Osby. “Most of the younger generation of pianists are like mynah birds, making perfect copies of what they hear. With Jason, I knew I wanted him in my band just after talking with him on the phone, listening to his rap. He’s referencing the exact same things I’m interested in.”

It is Mr. Moran’s good fortune to arrive on the scene after the whole Young Lion gambit has been thoroughly played out. Twenty-year-old jazz phenoms no longer win any party favors for respectfully intoning “the tradition.” “We’re like the anti-Young Lions,” Mr. Moran said of himself, vibist Harris and tenorist Mark Shim, all on the Blue Note roster. That might be pushing it, but in listening to Mr. Moran, you do get the sense that the corporate tail is no longer wagging the musical dog. Like altoist mentors Greg Osby and Steve Coleman, who attracted major attention in the late 80’s by calling themselves M-BASE (Were they computer programmers? Higher mathematicians?), the pianist has come up with his own omnivorous and generationally-pitch-perfect esthetic. He’s got the rap, just like Mr. Osby said, a would-be Phil Spector for our digital age.

“Björk’s album, Homogenic , it’s got beats, strings, traditional Icelandic stuff,” Mr. Moran said. “That’s my benchmark for what an album should sound like, right up there with Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On . My killer crossover project would be to combine Björk and Grace Jones with the West Coast rappers and create this massive music. That’s like one of my dreams.”

Actually, Mr. Moran’s playing is noteworthy not for any obvious stab at Beckian collage but rather for a fairly single-minded burrowing into an angular, intellectual jazz tradition represented by pianists like Muhal Richard Abrams and Andrew Hill. (Let the record show that the tune “Retrograde” off Soundtrack is actually the harmonic inversion of Mr. Hill’s “Smoke Stack,” discovered thanks to a computer program that lets Mr. Moran analyze tunes backward.) You could visualize these players as a middle orbit running between the standard chord changes and legato swing of mainstream jazz piano and the atonal outer reaches of Cecil Taylor. Mr. Moran’s piano lines have some of the living, breathing quality of Jaki Byard, his late, great teacher at the Manhattan School of Music. But he’s steeped in the dramatic abstraction of his mentors Mr. Abrams and Mr. Hill, and the classical composers like Bartok and Janacek that they’ve all absorbed. (As the Central Europeans added the vernacular grit of folk melody to their work, so did Mr. Moran and the elder duo make use of the blues.)

For Mr. Moran, the music lessons never stop. He’s moved beyond early 20th-century modernism into a current obsession with the contemporary Hungarian composer György Ligeti, the way Mr. Ligeti uses precisely notated accents to create the illusion of different metrical patterns simultaneously at work. (Roll over, Ravel.) “It’s got this herky-jerky quality,” Mr. Moran said, “and all the piano players I like have it. Muhal, Herbie [Hancock], Andrew–the edge and how to temper it.”

Said Mr. Osby admiringly, “Jason’s an old soul.” In a very young package. “It seems like when a lot of peers get a record contract, they stop studying,” Mr. Moran said. “That’s just retarded.”

With such a vast amount of classical and jazz piano literature to process, whole-cloth originality is almost out of the question. Enough to say that Mr. Moran has arrived at his current synthesis in a personal and, shall we say, generationally specific way. As a kid, he listened to hip-hop, which he loved, and took classical piano lessons, which he despised. “I used to watch those rock videos where they would chainsaw the piano,” he said. “And I thought, That’s what I want to do. I thought classical music was corny.” Later, he discovered his father’s Thelonious Monk records and started making the connections. “Monk’s left hand was going poom, poom, poom. He kept a very strong beat, almost like hip-hop.”

When Mr. Moran plays those spiky bass lines, he thinks he’s accessing hip-hop. I hear the Monk or maybe even Ligeti. And that’s O.K. Said Mr. Osby, “We’re not blatant people.”

(Mr. Moran is playing behind a formidable sax duo of Mr. Osby and Joe Lovano at the Village Vanguard June 8 to June 13, and with Mr. Osby’s regular quartet at Symphony Space on June 25.)

Now Hear This …

The spring jazz festival season is well upon us. The Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival continues through June 13 and a totally subjective list of highlights might include: Charles Lloyd on June 9; Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos on June 10; Abbey Lincoln on June 10; Ray Nathanson, Anthony Coleman and Marc Ribot on June 12; Dave Douglas on June 13.

George Wein’s JVC Jazz Festival, June 14 to June 27, seems positively rejuvenated this year. Regard Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter on June 18; Cassandra Wilson and Shirley Horn on June 19; Geri Allen, Ravi Coltrane and others on June 22; and a Kenny Kirkland tribute featuring Branford Marsalis, Sting and others on June 25.

Jason Moran’s Soundtrack: Tech Stocks, Bartok and Monk