Bath International Music Festival 2008
Jason Moran is arguably the most exciting pianist to emerge on the American jazz scene over the past fifteen years and an idiosyncratic new voice on his instrument, which makes him an ideal candidate to probe the music and mind of Thelonious Monk in this special presentation.
Featuring videos shot on the plantation where Monk’s grandparents were slaves and transcripts of Monk in conversation as well as a vital Anglo-US octet playing Monk’s music as visualized by Moran, the concert re-examines and celebrates, rather than simply recreating, Monk’s legendary At Town Hall concert from 1959.
Now based in New York, Moran was born in Houston, Texas and grew up with his father’s record collection, where the funk of James Brown sat next to the free experimentation of Henry Threadgill and country blues alongside the classical masterpieces of Vladimir Horowitz. This “it’s all music” approach rubbed off on Moran, who began taking classical piano lessons as a boy with thoughts of becoming a concert pianist but who appreciated equally the music and culture popular on the streets, and much more besides.
Thus, on every birthday his mother, who ran a bakery at the time, would present him with a cake decorated with his latest enthusiasm. One year it was snakes, another bass-fishing, then it was skateboarding, then hip-hop until finally came the year that the cake arrived with Thelonious Monk’s name written in icing.
At eighteen, Moran left home for New York to study at Manhattan School of Music. Here he met and fell under the influence of his tutor, Jaki Byard, a pianist who had played in big bands with Earl Bostic and Maynard Ferguson, recorded piano duet albums with both Earl Hines and Ran Blake, worked with Charles Mingus and Roland Kirk, and was also devoted to Thelonious Monk. A veritable repository of musical knowledge, Byard encouraged Moran to compose music in styles from Bach fugues through to Earl Hines’s pre-bop innovations and beyond.
Byard’s philosophy was that a composer should use everything available and as Moran’s music has matured he has taken that on board wholeheartedly. He has listened as carefully to Duke Ellington as he has rap star J Dilla, absorbed the rural primitivism of Son House and the sophistication of Prokofiev, revered the choral majesty of Handel’s Messiah and the joyous clamour of Afrika Bambaataa, and used tapes of voices speaking in Italian, Japanese and Turkish to find interesting rhythms.
He has also served a solid apprenticeship in jazz, working with saxophonists Von Freeman, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, Steve Coleman and Ravi Coltrane and making his recording debut with saxophone firebrand Greg Osby for Blue Note Records in 1997. Osby was also aboard for Soundtrack to Human Motion, Moran’s Blue Note debut as a leader, alongside vibraphonist Stefon Harris, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Eric Harland, the following year.
Immediately, the lively imagination that Moran has applied to this Monk tribute was apparent in his own compositions. He is as open to inspiration from visual art and as likely to take a tour round an architectural exhibition as he is passionate about music, and as his trio, which sits at the heart of the octet tonight has developed over a series of albums since 1999’s Facing Left, so has his reputation as an individual, enquiring musician with a seemingly endless supply of fresh ideas.
The idea for the At Town Hall project came from San Francisco Jazz Festival in the approach to Monk’s ninetieth anniversary in 2007. Typically, although he was enthusiastic about the idea, Moran wanted to make it even better and felt that looking at the music from today’s perspective would be more fruitful. His plan was, rather than just to play the charts as they were, to dig deeper into what the music was and where it came from.
He was able to access the vast Monk archive of W. Eugene Smith, choose from a huge selection of rare photos and hear audiotapes of Monk rehearsing for the Town Hall performance with his arranger, Hall Overton. So, having already used spoken word to considerable acclaim on his 2003 album, Gentle Shifts South, Moran can present a work that’s part history, part performance, part theatre.
Joining Moran’s regular rhythm team of Tarus Mateen (bass) and Nasheet Waits (drums) are alto saxophonist Jason Yarde, tenor saxophonist Denys Baptiste, trumpeter Byron Wallen, trombonist Fayaz Virji and tuba player Andy Grappy. This UK contingent worked with Nasheet Waits on the much lauded last British tour by the late pianist Andrew Hill, who like Thelonious Monk created music that was simultaneously rooted in jazz tradition and timeless.