Saturday, September 23, 2006

Jason Moran - Artist In Residence, or groove and the abstract truth

The playlist, like the cover art, mashes together different points of view: various commissions, settings and ways of dealing with similar material. The title itself suggests a non-linear approach closer to an art gallery than to a traditional album. Adrian Piper's "Artists Ought To Be Writing" manifesto suggests in part that artists should expose their creative process as well as the finished product. The concept of residency allows Jason Moran to do just that.

Piper's speech is used in raw form on "Artists Ought To Be Writing". Her flat voice provides far less melodic information than "Ringing My Phone"'s Turkish speaker, but Moran manages to derive an interesting phrasing from it. On "Breakdown," he chops up Piper's voice in a way that blends DJ Premier's use of horn samples (stabbing punctuation over a groove) and the RZA/Kanye West school of embedded vocal samples. Thus, the main points are hammered down: barriers, audiences and other impediments to communication need to be removed.

"RAIN" is the longest, most energetic track and, as general consensus rightly has it, AIR's centrepiece. Like the rest of the tracks involving the Bandwagon, it is squarely within the style the group has created for itself. As Ben Ratliff puts it, its "sound swims along, waxing and waning through elisions of its repertory, growing abstruse and stretching to the limit of coherence, then coming together into full coordination."

"RAIN" also shows why Moran's use of recorded materials is not a gimmick. Ralph Alessi's cylical melody initially has a slow, sad beauty. As it accelerates, it keeps the somber tone, but the tempo invites dancing. A complex question on the malleability of historical experience is posed here: can we dance now, while reminiscing on slavery? The transition to a bright, funky section provides a clear answer. After this questioning, "Lift Ev'ry Voice"'s rolls, swells and hints of stride are clearly intended as cathartic. "He Puts on His coat and leaves...," the album-closing solo piece, brings a final calm, as it lurches hypnotically between two chords upon which cycling rhythmic patterns and melodic motifs are patiently built.

A general point: Moran's use of pre-recorded material seems novel, but could very well stem from something like John Coltrane's "Psalm," where spoken cadences drive the melody. This reinforces the point that Moran is a very free thinker strongly rooted in the tradition (or, at least, a tradition). Indeed, he describes "Arizona Landscape" as "The West meets Willie 'The Lion' Smith meets Jason Moran." Listen to, for example, Smith's Music On My Mind after AIR; the commonalities between the two pianists are patent.

A series of solos and quasi-solos are nestled in the album's centre. The introduction to "Refraction 1" is wonderfully suspended and floating, while hinting at the chords to come. Unlike the quartet version of the same composition, it never leans into the groove. Instead, Moran lightly anchors his scrambled lines with a couple of bass notes. Joan Jonas's percussion is ambient, distanced from the piano's flow. It functions almost like Moran's mini-disc recordings on other tracks, but occasionally influences the pianist's playing, for example in the way Moran dissolves into the ether on the coda.

Only once does concept overrun music. If you don't know that the scratching sound on "Cradle Song" is an evocation of Moran's late mother taking notes during his childhood piano lessons, when the sound stops before the end of the song, it's a relief, rather than poignant.

AIR doesn't have the unity or driving force of Moran's other albums, but its more episodic nature provides an excellent account of several of Moran's modes and moods. Also, he could easily churn out excellent variations of his trio or solo music, but this album and recent performances (live, or on Don Byron's Ivey-Divey) show that he truly is an avid searcher.

Jason Moran's website.

My partiality towards Jason Moran.

Darcy's review.