Live review

Jason Moran and The Bandwagon at the Village Vanguard

Jason Moran and The Bandwagon
(Village Vanguard, NYC, 27 November 2019. Review by Mark Lewandowski)

Thanksgiving week at the Village Vanguard has become to the jazz fan as much of a staple as turkey and cranberry sauce is to most Americans. Pianist Jason Moran and his long-time associates of the Bandwagon (bassist Taurus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits) walk through the packed-out, misshapen Greenwich Village basement with a cool collectiveness that shows the audience that they are indeed ‘home’ for the holidays.

Jason Moran and The Bandwagon. Photo courtesy Jason Moran

Before they’ve even played a note the atmosphere is palpable; we can all tell that something magical is about to happen. “We’re celebrating our 20th year as a band”, Moran states with an obvious relish, to applause of genuine affection. In the modern world, with all of its impermanences, this is no mean feat. Gone (largely) seem to be the days of a fixed line-up of musicians such as in the bands of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane; creating, over the course of decades rather than a single tour. To witness such a stellar cast of musicians maintaining this tradition proves that this idea of a band is not merely a concept of the past and can still be aimed for. “When I was 17 years old, I sat right there [points] and saw… some of the wildest music I ever heard… that’s what we’re going to do for you now,” Moran comments before jumping down to the piano bench with the zealousness of a child on Christmas Day.

And off they went, the three musicians shimmering and dancing over Geri Allen’s Feed the Fire. The deluge of music that ensued was a stunning example of how this band’s longevity has fed their collective fire as Moran, Mateen and Waits swirled with a iridescent mosaic of colours, textures and rhythms. All this time, I couldn’t help but notice the photograph portrait of Geri Allen on the wall smiling down over the pianist’s left shoulder in seeming approval. The walls of this hallowed club are full of the images of the masters of the music who all contributed to the collective history of this genre. It is the continuum of this history that is strikingly apparent in the Bandwagon’s approach. At the core, a deep and thorough understanding of the whole spectrum of the jazz cannon. Masterfully collaged without ever straying into the territory of pastiche.

These musicians are thoroughly modern. This is summed up by their repertoire which often includes the great early Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson’s You’ve got to be Modernistic. This, we didn’t hear on this occasion, but we heard a substantial array of material covering a huge variety of repertoire – another shining piece of evidence to the pros of this longtime musical association. The Richard Rodgers standard, Lover was juxtaposed back to back with a stunningly beautiful original composition of Jason’s wife, the vocalist Alicia Hall Moran. Old and new working together in perfect balance. Moran’s playing on these selections zigzagged between jagged, frenzied percussive outbursts transforming the piano into 88 pitched drums, and the most still and unctuous legato counterpoint as he caressed the keys with both of his hands, evoking the intimacy of two slow-dancers for the last dance.

Each band member contributed material also, giving the strong feel that this ensemble is a collective of team players. In the same way Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus composed for specific personalities rather than generic names of instruments, one cannot imagine the Bandwagon without the guttural blues-filled flurries of Taurus Mateen’s semi-acoustic bass guitar or the myriad of intermingling rhythms of Nasheet Waits. Yet more of an example of why longevity has contributed to this bands success and success has in turn contributed to this bands longevity.

For the jazz musician – improvising in the realtime – even the last played phrase has become part of history. Jason Moran and the Bandwagon have tapped into this history to propel them rather than restrain them. The band rise and fall as they play with a fluidity that encompasses all of their shared knowledge and experience within their own music and the music of those who came before them (smiling down from the walls). One of Moran’s recent projects is his STAGED installation at New York’s Whitney Museum in which he recreates the walls of three other legendary New York jazz rooms: Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom; 52nd Street’s Three Deuces and the East Village’s Slugs Saloon. A brochure which was carefully placed atop of the Vanguard’s beautiful Steinway piano. The Bandwagon performed in all of the three recreations of these long gone New York institutions including a duo concert of Moran and another pivotal innovator, Archie Shepp.

Jason Moran is not simply using the past as a stencil or framework for his music – he’s getting right in there, from the inside out. As the musicians’ last notes rang out through this most perfect of the world’s listening spaces, everyone present went up the famous steep black and red stairs onto the sidewalk this cold Thanksgiving week night, reminded that there is indeed a lot to be thankful about.

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