Heir to a Secret History

Jason Moran Helps Blue Note Be Blue Note

What he achieves is inseparable from the intensity of the trio. Tarus Mateen's solos are so well integrated into the performances that sometimes you don't know he is soloing until the trio dynamics bring him to the fore, and even then his variations have a compositional integrity (for example, "Draw the Night Out") that avoids showboating. Nasheet Waits is the son of Freddie Waits, a versatile and forceful drummer who worked with everyone from Johnny Hodges to Al Green to Cecil Taylor. He has his father's rugged aggression and clarity, combined with Tony Williams's finesse on the snares ("Earth Song," for example) and reflexes that allow him to close the sale on any conceit Moran comes up with. With Rivers added to the mix, each man is at once responsive and audacious, so that your attention is always pulled but not really diverted. That tremendous sense of unity and drive animates "Skitter In" with a controlled abandon and transforms "Summit," on which Rivers plays flute and soprano, from Asian reflection into a venture in supple lockstep empathy. Their playing is instinctive—they follow each other instead of chorus-and-chord graphs—and the pieces are too tight to permit the occasional waywardness that occurs in concert, where thinking aloud is part of the fun.

Moran's first CD, Soundtrack to Human Motion, suffers from melodies like "Gangsterism on Canvas" and "Still Moving" that suggest the forced lyricism of middle-period Keith Jarrett. If there is nothing simpering about Facing Left, neither does it extend the romantic generosity glimpsed in the Ravel selection on the first album or his own "Commentary on Electrical Switches," a telling dedication to Byard, on New Directions. On Black Stars, however, Rivers cuts the sweetness like lemon peel in a Coke, serving up lyricism without sentiment on "Gangsterism on a River" or the duet "Say Peace," or especially "The Sun at Midnight," an excursion into found melody where Moran sustains the mood established by Rivers's flute with a staunch and spiky solo. Note the piano crescendo that signals Rivers's return or, for that matter, the waltz-time passage that indicates the returning theme on "Foot Under Foot." A trio piece, "Draw the Night Out," is built on a swirling ostinato that suggests Monk's "Misterioso" at supersonic speed. Three surprises: Moran attaches the funeral march from Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy" to "Kinda Dukish"; he goes solo on "Out Front," the quirky blues Byard wrote in memory of Herbie Nichols, dressing it up with Jaki's distinct approach to stride; and on the closing duet, "Sound It Out," he turns the piano over to Rivers, whose own keyboard attack has proved prescient, then subtly takes over as Sam turns to flute.

Like no other pianist at work
photo: Jay Muhlin
Like no other pianist at work

Iridium has moved to a large basement at Broadway and 51st Street, doing away with uptown chichi and gaining better sound and sightlines. With Rivers at home in Orlando, Moran opened last week with the trio, and the first set was a sparkling display of stream-of-consciousness empathy, as one piece turned into another and then another and the spotlight shifted from one player to the next in the course of a very fast hour. Unexpected was Ellington's "A Single Petal of a Rose," more melodic than Moran's usual choices, though the bass-clef figure seemed to appeal to his mathematical rectitude; taking his time, he shape-shifted that piece into Ellington's "Wig Wise" (Facing Left) and Monk's "Monk's Dream," before closing with his restructured "The Sidewinder." When Moran looks backward he ends up facing front anyway. At 26, he is good news for jazz's future.

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