Music

Alicia Hall Moran’s Unbound Musical Modernism

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At January’s Prototype Festival, singer and composer Alicia Hall Moran laced up ice skates and took to the Bryant Park rink to perform. Her original piece, Breaking Ice: The Battle of the Carmens, premiered during public skating sessions and included taiko drummer Kaoru Watanabe and jazz saxophonist Maria Grand in hockey penalty boxes. Its title referred to the 1988 Winter Olympics, where American figure skater Debi Thomas and a German, Katarina Witt, each skated programs to music from Bizet’s classic opera Carmen.

At those ’88 Olympics, Witt won the gold and Thomas took bronze, becoming the first African American to win a Winter Games medal. For Moran, then a teenage member of a precision figure skating team in Connecticut, Thomas was a role model. “Breaking Ice” was a page from Moran’s life, but it worked fine as metaphor, too. A classically trained mezzo-soprano, Moran has a voice that shapes melodies like figure skaters trace arcs — with a grace and precision that turns diligence into ease. She thinks beyond librettos. Her ideas generally ride a well-honed edge. Her performances usually involve what Olympic judges call a “high degree of difficulty.”

Take the way she opens her recent Here Today. She interlaces the “Habanera,” the aria that signals the arrival of Carmen in Bizet’s 1875 opera, with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” which topped the r&b chart for six weeks nearly a century later. Harmonically, the descending figures that underscore Bizet’s famous melody (played here by a string trio) align neatly with the intro of Wonder’s hit. Lyrically, the tension between these considerations of love is delicious: Wonder pleads, Carmen warns; he makes a declaration of certainty, while she outlines the changing arcs of a love that “has never, ever known a law.”

Moran’s music is guided by the stuff embedded in that track: consonant sounds, dissonant truths, deep ironies, and linked legacies that span styles and eras. Here Today combines concert hall refinement with r&b feel, singer-songwriter intimacy with jazz and chamber-music sophistication. Violin, viola, and cello give way to electric guitar and bass, bound together through an understanding of black music that, from James P. Johnson to Nina Simone to Kendrick Lamar, has always straddled genres and played with meanings. Moran’s voice provides a clear throughline. It can sound transparent, like clean water, or muddy with inflection, like more brackish straits, or both in the space of a song.

Most of the sixteen tracks on Here Today are originals. “Oklahoma Girl,” Moran’s stateliest composition, traces her ancestry, from a “Nigerian girl” through Oklahoma, Georgia, and on up to New York City, where she lives with her husband, the celebrated pianist Jason Moran, and twin sons. Her renditions of “Two Wings” and “Roun’ About de Mountain” nod to her great-great-uncle Hall Johnson, whose arrangements helped codify African American spirituals, as well as to tenor Roland Hayes, whose arrangements she credits. Yet they’re hardly reverent. “Two Wings” gently percolates across bar lines while “Roun’ About de Mountain” boils into a steaming swirl of crunched chords and tangled polyrhythms. Both tracks benefit from guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer JT Lewis, who make up the trio Harriet Tubman, perhaps the least constrained, most raucous band on New York’s creative-music scene. They align precisely with her approach to black music as philosophically unbound.

Throughout, Moran considers freedom and bondage. On “Metal,” a track lasting little more than thirty seconds, cultural historian Gene Alexander Peters manipulates slave chains from his collection of African American artifacts to provide something like percussion. For a reworking of “Feeling Good,” which Nina Simone branded as a liberation anthem, Moran overdubs herself into a chorus, to achieve a soaring sound and, maybe, to imply that just feeling good is a complicated thing. The melody of the original song “We All Just Live in the World” fits a lullaby, but Moran offers complexity and challenge rather than reassurance: “Sometimes she sounds crazy/She makes sense from time to time if you can get free.” Elsewhere, her lyrics address what’s bought and sold, making reference to her father’s career as a banker, the “black gold” of both oil futures and slave markets, and the 1921 destruction of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street at the hands of white rioters.

Moran’s songs are accessible, and rendered with the nuance of good jazz. Jason Moran plays on two tracks, with the riveting concision that has become a hallmark of his work. But the primary pianist here is Alicia. Once in an interview, Jason recalled hearing Alicia play piano at the Manhattan School of Music, where the two first met. “This girl can improvise in ways that are shocking,” he told me. Her unexpected ideas come across subtly here, within each song’s form.

Jason once told me, “I’m a straight-up jazz musician, no doubt, but I also like to think of myself as an urban performance artist who happens to play piano.” Alicia Hall Moran is a straight-up mezzo-soprano, but let’s think of her as an Oklahoma girl turned New York City modernist who happens to sing.

 

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