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Jason Moran: Finding Sound, Then Making It His Own

Jason Moran is happily married, with twin sons. Yet he's obsessed with another woman: the piano.

"I mean, I really consider them all women," Moran says. "Not every woman likes the same kind of conversation -- you have to know your subjects that fit for each person. Pianos: If they don't like what you're saying, then they won't talk back to you. And you want it to talk back to you."

Creating conversations with pianos is only one of Moran's obsessions. He also hunts for sounds outside music.

Take "Breakdown," a track from Moran's 2006 album Artist in Residence. Moran was commissioned by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to explore its collection of work by conceptual artist Adrian Piper. So Moran sampled Piper's voice. He also transcribed her speech, noting its pitch and cadence to create something resembling a melody line.

Commissions are a regular working part of his creative process, and that separates him from most jazz artists. Moran says the projects allow him a financial cushion -- and the time -- to do research: on people, places, even history. They also inspire music he pursues on his own.

"We've done a Lithuanian basketball game that I taped from television," Moran says. "So you hear the feet on the ground, you hear the ball, you hear the announcer and then you hear the crowd, so there's lots of orchestration already built into the sound. Then, you add bass ... so there's very little for us to do in this situation, except continue as a crowd, as a fan of the game. And every once in a while, I'll play something that the announcer will say."

At 35, Moran is a mainstream jazz artist with ideas wickedly outside the mainstream. His compositions often involve visual or dance artists. His concerts can open like an old-school hip-hop stage show, with collages of sampled sound.

In this way, Moran consciously sets the stage for some of his most daring work with his trio of the past decade, the Bandwagon. His new trio album is called Ten.

Finding Sounds

Ten features some of Moran's sound collages. A tape loop of Jimi Hendrix's guitar feedback at the Monterey Pop Festival provides the structure for "Feedback Pt. 2."

Sampled sounds are far from the only music Moran cares about, though. His wide range of interests draw visual artists into collaborations. Of course, musicians come knocking, too, like violinist Jenny Scheinman.

"He once said to me, 'People always hire me to play 'out,' and it's so nice to be able to play lyrically, [for] somebody to ask me to play beautifully," Scheinman says.

Scheinman, a critically acclaimed arranger, composer and violinist, saw Moran perform a few years ago, and says she was floored by his musicianship. His playing led her to write music with Moran specifically in mind. For example, her most recent album features a tune called "Hard Sole Shoe."

"['Hard Sole Shoe'] has an orchestral sound behind and around Jason," Scheinman says. "It has a bass and drum groove, and then these sort of backgrounds that come in. And everything else is supplied by Jason. I think of that as a double orchestra: It's Jason's orchestra at the piano and the orchestra that comes in and out of his solo."


Playing lyrically or with an edge, Moran has been known to add strains of Ravel, Debussy and Schumann into his jazz shows. But he also hears and follows inspiration lurking in darker places, as well.

The song "Nobody" was made famous by the minstrel-show comedian Bert Williams. That is, popular and controversial -- Williams was an African-American blackface vaudeville performer. "Nobody" was his signature song, something of a hit in 1906.

"Recently, I spoke about Bert Williams ... in public and said something, and it made me tear up, you know?" Moran says. "To think about the condition for him as a performer. But I'll say, 'Wait a minute. This guy was really famous.' I mean, this guy wasn't really poor -- he was really famous. And he's a great singer. He's like [boxer] Jack Johnson: As an African-American at the turn of the 20th century ... he's kind of free a little bit. Kind of."

Moran recorded "Nobody" as a hidden track on Ten.

"The way we play it is, we try to ... consider the song a punching bag, in a lot of ways," he says. "And we really kind of throw it around. And sometimes what I will say to an audience, after they hear it, they think, 'Oh, it's such a nice ditty.' Like, this is an old minstrel song. It kind of changes the vibe about how they hear it again, or how they can remember hearing it."

A Decade Together

Bassist Tarus Mateen has played with Moran and drummer Nasheet Waits for 10 years. He says the group enjoys an intense level of active listening when it plays together.

"It's really out of this world, another planet sometimes, and it's a high level of telepathy going on," Mateen says, adding that he rarely observes the Bandwagon's intensity level in other bands. Mateen says the freedom and trust in Moran's group keep him coming back.

"Because of being able to play whatever was coming to me and knowing that I would have the support from the musicians," Mateen says. "And that they would be listening from the beginning of Note 1 to the end of the gig."

In Moran's spare time, he lives with his wife and twins in Harlem -- and thinks about what he wants to be as a composer. Using jazz pianist Thelonious Monk as his example, he separates his mission in two.

"The way Thelonious Monk does it, it's about two things: It's about being really simple and really complicated. Monk has those songs which are very simple phrases. And then he'll have something like 'Trinkle Tinkle.' It's bizarre."

Moran says he wants to keep writing music using those models: music that's challenging, as well as music that's simply about a vibe.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Walter Ray Watson is a senior producer for NPR News.

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