Composer and pianist Jason Moran reconciles jazz’s early traditions with the free experiments of the 1960s, tempering them both with his generation’s innate understanding of hip-hop, pop, and new technologies in production. His work also owes a debt to less visible affinities—opera, painting, film, and design—as well as the harmonic influence from such composers as Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schoenberg, and Kurt Weill. Like all significant jazz artists, Moran allows diverse influences to coalesce around his own signature sound. He plays with fluidity and a sense of funk, and wields an arresting, clean attack that fuses instinctively with the graceful playing of his mates in the Bandwagon, Nasheet Waits (drums) and Tarus Mateen (bass).
Born in Houston, Texas, Moran relocated to New York in 1993 to study with piano legends Jaki Byard, Andrew Hill, and Muhal Richard Abrams. In 1997, he began his tenure in the band of alto saxophonist and composer Greg Osby after the pair met and recognized an immediate affinity of shared intellectualism and musicianship, especially related to the advancement of jazz as a progressive medium.
Moran first appeared at the Walker Art Center in the live premiere of his trio’s collaboration with free-jazz sax legend Sam Rivers. Although they’d played together on Moran’s highly regarded recording Black Stars (Blue Note, 2000), the two had no plans for a live rendition. With encouragement from the Walker (particularly to Rivers, who was initially reluctant to perform live with a musician fifty years his junior, no matter how brilliant), the rare collaboration was a historic and serendipitous melding of sensibilities across generational lines. Moran returned the following spring to perform in Osby’s chamber-jazz work Symbols of Light, which united a string group with a jazz quartet.
On these visits, Moran would spend every available moment scouring the Walker galleries, indulging his love of contemporary art. This led to an invitation for Moran to create an evening-length work that would musically and theatrically reinterpret elements of the Walker’s collection. A series of research trips and the attendant two-year curatorial conversation across departments resulted in Milestone, which premiered in 2005 in the Walker’s new William and Nadine McGuire Theater. Though Milestone was informed by artworks ranging from sculptures by Louise Nevelson to a video by David Hammons to paintings by Alice Neel and Ellsworth Kelly, its central inspiration emerged as Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being; I/You (Her) (1974)—a progressive series of photographs with text additions. Moran’s fascination with this piece and his subsequent examination of the artist’s life and writing led to the conception of a parallel creation in which he transferred Piper’s combination of the personal, political, and theatrical into the context of a jazz composition and concert form. Moran, like Piper, interweaves his own journals, personal history, and sociopolitical perspectives into a flow of connected compositions. Also like her, he strives to reframe his art form, designing a conceptual presentation style that upends notions of the standard concert.
- The performers included Greg Osby (alto and soprano sax), Jason Moran (piano), Peter Retzlaff (bass), Steve Kirby (drums), L. Chris Howes (violin), Marlene Rice (violin), Judith Insell (viola), and Catherine Bent (cello).
Philip Bither, “Jason Moran,” from Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2005), 398.