Pianist Jason Moran usually plays well within the jazz tradition, but often adopts a sideways slant, open to electronic interference or maybe an askew cover version of a pop or rap tune. Growing up in Houston, he went on to study at the Manhattan School Of Music, becoming firmly entrenched on the New York scene.
He's now becoming increasingly concerned with the world of multimedia presentation, the latest example of which is "In My Mind: Monk At Town Hall, 1959," inspired by the pianist who revealed Moran's route to complete enjoyment on his chosen instrument, back when he was only 13 years old. "I'd been playing piano for six, seven years," says Moran. "The Suzuki piano [method], which is not exactly as interesting as Monk playing "Round Midnight.' My dad has a pretty good record collection, so I listened to Monk over and over again." The "In My Mind" piece's dedication to Monk is quite specific in its intention, concentrating on a particular vinyl album, Monk At Town Hall 1959 (Riverside), which featured a 10-piece orchestra. Moran's piece was a joint commission from Duke University, Chicago Symphony, San Francisco Jazz Festival and Washington DC Performing Arts Society and was performed for those bodies in 2007, timed for the celebrations of what would have been Monk's 90th birthday. The full New York premiere will be at Town Hall in February 2009, but Moran is presenting a smaller-scale quintet preview at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse this month. "In My Mind" examines the background to Monk's life, incorporating video pieces by David Dempewolf and samples of the original 1959 band rehearsals for the Town Hall gig.
The other inspirations behind this show are a pilgrimage that Moran made to Monk's birthplace in North Carolina, where he rifled through the photography collection of W. Eugene Smith, housed in the archives of the Duke University Jazz Loft Project. "At the Center For Documentary Studies," says Moran, "they had audio tape of Monk rehearsing the music for his Town Hall concert, recorded by W. Eugene Smith. It's an extensive archive that they haven't even completed. They're digitizing these analogue tapes: there's even more out there. So I spent a lot of time at Duke University, listening to these tapes of Monk in a room with the arranger Hall Overton, sitting at two pianos. He was showing him every tune, chord by chord, melody by melody and talking at length about how he thinks the compositions should sound, from start to finish. This was the first time for me to hear him being extremely descriptive and detailed about every nuance of what he was doing. A part of me actually thought that what he was playing were often mistakes that he actually enjoyed, but from hearing the tapes, every bit is deliberate. There are no mistakes. This made me regard Monk as further than a genius. It was much more of a sign of his artistry, when I got to hear those tapes. I got clearance to use this audio in the concert, so that audiences could hear him talk, uninterrupted. Strings of sentences, from a person who has many times been regarded as "mute.'"
The concentration on the 1959 album means that Moran will be reshaping tunes that include "Little Rootie Tootie," "Off Minor" and "Crepuscule With Nellie." Moran will be playing all of the pieces from the album, without them undergoing any massive rearrangement. "There's video of his rehearsal loft, around 28th Street," Moran enthuses. "What it looks like now and pictures of what it looked like when Monk was in there rehearsing. There's also footage of the estate, the plantation where Monk's great-grandparents were slaves, in an effort to visualize his history and how it connects to me, as a pianist and as an AfroAmerican. To do different arrangements of the music is only part of it. There's the context: it's 1959 and he's playing at Town Hall. Civil Rights haven't even really started firing up. We're right at the cusp of that. The New York Times panned it: they liked his playing with a quartet, but thought that this was "pipe and slippers' music."
Why did he choose the Town Hall album? "That was a suggestion from the San Francisco Jazz Festival and I responded. I wanted to try something large and they said "what do you have in mind?' That's where it started. That was the first time that I'd played Monk's music for an entire evening and it's a very different sound that comes from playing Monk tune after Monk tune. Living in that world, at the piano, was tempting and scary. You've heard that music so much that you might be tempted to actually try to play like him," he laughs. The evening will open with Moran in conversation with trombonist/scholar George Lewis and conceptual artist Glenn Ligon. Moran recalls his first meeting with Ligon. "We exchanged a lot of ideas. He's a huge Monk fan. I was in London and he had a show there. The name of the exhibition was "Brilliant Corners' and I knew of only one place where those two words sit side by side!" Back in New York, the two arranged to talk Monk in a restaurant. "Glenn's knowledge of Monk is intimidating. We talked a lot about what he represents, how he has interacted with his band members. There aren't many composers around who wrote this way. I started to think about Monk from multiple angles and tried to expose these onstage. At many points during the show, we play the song "Thelonious' and each time it's different. One time, we're playing with headphones on, listening to the original recording, the second, the band comes out and they play it normally, the third time, we play it very slow, almost as a dirge, walking through the slave plantation, the fourth time with drummers from Rwanda and the fifth time, everybody in the band puts on headphones, but the audience can't hear the sound." All of this guarantees a truly devotional evening of Monkishness, guided by a jazzman who is well qualified to invoke the tilted spirit of this towering genius in both performance and composition.
Jason Moran, Soundtrack to Human Emotion (Blue Note, 1998)
Jason Moran, Facing Left (Blue Note, 2000)
Jason Moran, Black Stars (Blue Note, 2001)
Jason Moran, Modernistic (Blue Note, 2002)
Don Byron, Ivey-Divey (Blue Note, 2004)
Charles Lloyd, Rabo de Nube (ECM, 2007)