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Face to Face with JASON MORAN

Highlights from Issue 30: Hip-Hop Nuggets

Photograph by Clay Patrick McBride

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

By Alex Abramovich


The 32-year-old jazz pianist Jason Moran first caught the public eye a decade ago, when he joined saxophonist Greg Osby’s band, and subsequently performed with Cassandra Wilson, Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano and Lee Konitz. But Moran is known best for the series of albums recorded with his own trio, the Bandwagon, and for his virtuosic solo album, Modernistic, featuring a radical interpretation of Afrika Bambaataa’s landmark hip-hop single, “Planet Rock.” “This is like watching Armstrong transforming Tin Pan Alley tunes in the Thirties, or listening to Coltrane play ‘My Favorite Things,’” a friend of mine said last year, as we watched the Bandwagon perform Bambaataa’s song live at the Blue Note in New York City. “It’s the kind of engagement with the culture at large that jazz needs so desperately, in order to thrive.”

But there’s more than that to recommend Moran to hip-hop fans: On his newest recording, Artist in Residence, Moran continues his practice of improvising against looped fragments of conversations. What results — a reverse negative of freestyling over a beat — is as passionate, funky and forceful as it is thought-provoking.

This interview took place on a blustery day, in the study of Moran’s Harlem apartment. Our conversation went on for a few hours and encompassed everything from his take on post-Katrina New Orleans (he likened the city’s legacy to Salzburg’s) to his love for unjustly obscure hip-hop.

Alex Abramovich: Let me start by asking about your cover of “Planet Rock.”

Jason Moran
: “Planet Rock” was one of the songs we danced to as kids in the early Eighties. I heard it again around 1992, after I’d started getting serious about piano and hearing music with pianistic and jazz ears. I remember driving down the street with my brother, and when it came on the radio I was like, “Man, this is a serious piece of music.” It actually goes through sections. There are interludes, it’s well put together and it’s lengthy for a hip-hop song. They don’t make ’em that long anymore. Right before I was going to do Modernistic I was thinking, How do I make a solo recording that’s as vast as what I listen to? How can I incorporate “Planet Rock” into solo piano repertoire and have it rub shoulders with Schumann? And how can they be on the same record with Muhal Richard Abrams and Jaki Byard?

It was a matter of finding the connections between hip-hop and the piano-as-percussion-instrument, which I did via John Cage’s prepared piano music. If I could put all that together, I thought, then “Planet Rock” could still work as a hip-hop piece, and not some jazzy version of it. It could still hold some of that drumbeat, it could still hold that bass line and I could play the lyrics. In a lot of jazz versions of hip-hop tunes they never play the lyrics, they just play the background music.

AA: Bambaataa had done the same thing with Kraftwerk as you were doing with him.

JM: Yeah. That’s what I like to do: Connect generations by playing one song and making it relevant, hopefully, to today’s audience.

AA: You arrived in New York in 1993. What did you make of the jazz scene at that time?

JM: I thought it was amazing. I could go to the Village Vanguard and hear Andrew Hill. I remember one summer in SoHo they blocked off a street. Cecil Taylor was onstage with a piano at one end of the block. At the other end there was another platform with a Japanese dancer. But the dancer used the entire street as the stage, danced all through the street and all up under Cecil Taylor while he was playing. Shit, there ain’t much of that happening anymore. I’m so glad I saw those things. It seemed that back then the music felt more within the city, freer to the public than it is now.

Also I was uptown, and Harlem was entirely different. Everybody was on the street selling things. I bought instruments on the street, bought records on the street. The city was in a different place. Forty-second Street wasn’t the same 42nd Street. I still think that I got here late, but early enough to see some of the grit.

AA: You went to a magnet school for performing arts, in Houston. At around the same time a lot of music programs were losing funding and shutting down. Kids still had access to turntables, but not trumpets or pianos.

JM: All the musicians I knew were quite serious, so they always had instruments. I was always in schools where instruments were available. I never saw the other side, but always knew it existed. What’s scary is that, since there aren’t necessarily a lot of musicians just functioning out here in the world, as professionals and making a living doing it, it might take a middle-class mindset to think, “Oh, that is a possibility for me.” There’s a wider sense of perspective, whereas someone with a lower-class income might not see that as a possibility. But I feel there’s a rebirth happening.

AA: With kids in schools today?

JM: Yes, and even in pop music. There was a long span where you wouldn’t see bands onstage. Now pop musicians all have bands. And, actually, a lot of those bands are made up of jazz musicians I know. You can look in Kelis’s band, Nas’s band, Mos Def’s band, Talib Kweli’s band, Erykah Badu’s band. Hopefully, the child who listens to this music sees you don’t actually have to be the person out front. You can be the cat playing trumpet, playing bass or playing keys.

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