‘The Armory Concert’ by Jason Moran Review: Sitting Within Jazz
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Jason Moran performs in the Veterans Room. Photo: Da Ping Luo
July 18, 2016 5:28 p.m. ET [if ! lte IE 8] [endif]
The Veterans Room of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory, which opened in 1881 and reopened as newly restored in March, is a riot of color, visual rhythm and contrasting details. Fine patterns of wood and metal intersect and overlap. Depending on where one’s gaze is set, the style is Moorish, Japanese, Greek, or Celtic. If walls could speak, these would alternately whisper of refinement and roar with audacity. Designed by Louis C. Tiffany & Co., Associated Artists, the room conveys the American Aesthetic Movement’s experimental ideas, now more than a century old, as freshly illuminated under gold-hued LED lighting.
In this jewel within an armory repurposed as a performance center, pianist Jason Moran has curated the series “Artists Studio,” which runs through Nov. 21 and involves a wide range of performers. When he began the series with a March solo-piano performance, the setting made sense. Now 41 years old, Mr. Moran has for half his life made music that argues for the vitality of jazz’s century-old tradition largely by reimagining its contours and isolating its distinctive details. Before his solo performance, he described his series to the audience as “conversations about what this room is.” His music might also be a series of discussions about what it sounds and feels like to sit within jazz.
Mr. Moran has recently released a recording of that inaugural performance, “The Armory Concert,” available as a download on bandcamp.com. It’s his first album for his independent label, Yes Records, marking his departure from the estimable Blue Note label as well as the growing sense of autonomy he’s displayed while casting off conventions of genre and even music as a strict discipline.
“I’m a straight-up jazz musician, no doubt,” Mr. Moran told me in an interview a decade ago. “But I also like to think of myself as an urban performance artist who happens to play piano.”
Mr. Moran’s only previous solo-piano recording, 2002’s “Modernistic,” formed one seeming narrative from compositions by stride-piano master James P. Johnson, avant-garde hero Muhal Richard Abrams, 19th-century classical composer Robert Schumann and hiphop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa. At the Armory, he played only original pieces that perhaps reflected yet broader ambition.
Two pieces—“Big News/More News” and “South Side Digging”—were explicitly about the blues as played in Chicago, the latter based on the tension within a single endemic gesture, its chiming and cascading, before offering the release of 12-bar form. These were drawn from “Looks of a Lot,” a larger commissioned work for Chicago’s “Symphony Center Presents Jazz” series. “Reanimation,” an urgent cycle of pointillistic phrases, was adapted from his collaboration of the same name with visual artist Joan Jonas. Mr. Moran has an installation of his own on exhibit at the Luhring Augustine gallery in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn through July 29. (He will perform there on July 22 and 23.) His work with visual artists, and now as one, implies a connection to the Veterans Room that goes beyond metaphor.
If Mr. Moran locates an essential jazz core, he does so obliquely, by looking in, as influenced by outsider heroes. At the Armory, before one piece, he recalled moving to New York specifically to study with pianist Jaki Byard, and lessons in “subverting the idea of historical piano.” In one of his long series of recent Facebook posts that serve well as liner notes to “The Armory Concert,” he discussed secrets of harmony shared by composer and saxophonist Henry Threadgill, with whom Mr. Moran has worked; Mr. Threadgill was in the audience at the Veterans Room.
There are pieces of startling abstraction within this recording. “All Hammers and Chains” relies largely upon crashing left-hand figures, frantic scalar runs and dances of dual glissandi. “Magnet” is a clamor formed by low-end figures and a cleverly deployed sustain pedal. In the Veterans Room, its sound accumulated like smoke into an enveloping presence. As recorded, it’s a dense aural ball, slowly revealing hidden clangs and ghostly howls.
There are also deeply tender moments here, and one composition that qualifies as catchy: “Alicia,” named for Mr. Moran’s wife, the singer Alicia Hall Moran. Three related tracks that punctuate these 10—“Wind” at the beginning, “Trade Winds” in the middle, and “Winds,” the finale—suggest newfound mysteries about harmonies that slide sneakily by, rhythms felt rather than stated and grand gestures turned intimate. At the Veterans Room, these came across as in-the-moment conclusions. On the album, they sound more like promises of things to come.
Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz for the Journal. He also blogs at blogs.artinfo.com/blunotes.