Heir to a Secret History

Jason Moran Helps Blue Note Be Blue Note

Blue Note Records is turning out to be, of all things, the Blue Note Records of our time—in a way I never anticipated. Hard bop is not on the agenda. And the label has not yet found a guaranteed jukebox favorite like Jimmy Smith, Horace Silver, and, briefly-but-big-time, Lee Morgan, though it has come close with Cassandra Wilson, Charlie Hunter, and, briefly-but-medium-time, US3. Instead, it is flourishing, musically if not commercially, by extending what I've come to think of as jazz's Secret History, that school of resolute, autonomous wizards who swim right of the avant-garde and left of the mainstream, and usually have to wait, as Monk warned, for the public to "pick up on what you are doing—even if it does take them 15, 20 years." Alfred Lion's devotion to Monk established Blue Note's alternative vision; later signings, beginning with Herbie Nichols in 1955, suggested an ongoing new wave that never quite rolled into shore though it endures as incredibly clairvoyant.

When was the last time you listened to Sam Rivers's brilliant 1964 Fuchsia Swing Song, which should be heard as presented by Mosaic (The Complete Blue Note Sam Rivers Sessions), including three utterly different alternate takes of "Downstairs Blues Upstairs"? In 2001 terms, the only element that betrays the recording date is the rhythm section, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, cutting edge then and in every way exemplary, but clearly of its time. The playing of Rivers and Jaki Byard, however, is 30 years ahead of its time. Fuchsia Swing Songwas one of several 1960s Blue Notes that defined the struggle to remake jazz structure, employing the free spirits unleashed by the avant-garde without embracing the potential chaos of unstructured improvisation. Consider also Jackie McLean's Destination Out, Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, Tony Williams's Lifetime, Wayne Shorter's The All-Seeing Eye, Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, Bobby Hutcherson's Components.

Bruce Lundvall's gamble on a new generation of well-schooled musicians, apprenticed for the most part to the electrifying if unpredictable Greg Osby and then promptly given their head as bandleaders, is now paying off. The release last year of New Directions, organized by Osby, seems like a quiet manifesto, and more rewarding than the label's other attempts to refurbish its catalog of '60s classics and, mostly, semi-classics. This isn't your father's "Song for My Father" or "The Sidewinder," and it isn't as good, but the revision is fanciful enough to suggest a polite coup. I'm assuming I'm not the only listener who needed help to figure out the 4/4 of the former, since the beats in the three-measure ostinato are fixed irregularly (four, five, three, I'm told). Mark Shim, whose performance is outstanding, has yet to make a fully representative album of his own, but Stefon Harris already had and Jason Moran soon would, with his second CD, Facing Left. Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits are the most dynamic rhythm section since William Parker and whoever.

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

How significant a development is this? The new Moran album, Black Stars, is an encouraging punch line—possibly a Blue Note benchmark, definitely one of the year's outstanding discs. Its genius stroke is the presence of Sam Rivers. Conversin' with the elders, as James Carter termed his Atlantic sessions with Buddy Tate and Harry Edison, is no longer unusual; at Blue Note, Osby has recruited Andrew Hill and Jim Hall, and Joe Lovano has commissioned new work from Gunther Schuller and Manny Albam. Still, Rivers, who may close a circle for Moran, a four-year student of Byard's, stimulates the trio as perhaps no one else could. He earns respect as a 78-year-old (as of last week) monument while thinking on their wavelengths, so the deference is never undue, forced, or coddled. Rivers forges and Moran, Mateen, and Waits follow, each understanding that the goal is not to stay abreast but to share in the risks. This is an album filled with wonder, urgency, and here's-mud-in-your-eye elation. All three players sound as if they're working at something so cool they can scarcely believe their good luck. Moran is like no other pianist at work. Though his models—Byard, Nichols, Hill, Muhal Richard Abrams—and his attack place him squarely among a new school of percussive pianists, including D.D. Jackson, Marc Cary, and Vijay Iyer, his resonant attack has no soft edges and expresses little interest in harmonic variation. In this he recalls Ahmad Jamal and Ellington, several of whose rhythmic sketches are integral parts of his repertoire. His improvisations are dynamic, abrupt, eruptive, keyed to the composition at hand, and, even when hewing to the changes, more drumlike than melodic. If Art Tatum could suggest the saturated hues of technicolor in an arpeggiated sweep, Moran operates in the world of black and white. Yet his technique is no less mesmerizing. The moment I knew I would be spending a lot of time with this CD occurred on a train, when I tightened my headphones to blot out the cacophony of cellphoners and found myself replaying a splintering arpeggio four and a half minutes into "Foot Under Foot"—an apparently impulsive gesture of the sort that occurs throughout the album and never fails to startle; note the ringing double-barreled glissando that triggers the theme on the next track, "Kinda Dukish." Like Ellington, he articulates with the brash certainty of someone who never expects to miss hitting the right keys, and he doesn't miss many (none on the disc, one during a set at Iridium).

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.

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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