Jason Moran – The Harlem Hellfighters
(Video premiere, streamed on 22 January 2021.)
Here’s an unexpected pleasure. Jason Moran toured this important history-awakening project in 2018, briefly but brilliantly, to mark the centenary of the end of WW1. The pianist’s state of the art trio and seven horns played music inspired by the repertoire of James Reese Europe, and the band he led for the all-black US 369th Infantry Regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters.
I caught the new ensemble then in Cardiff, as recounted HERE, and thought that was it: a project that met the occasion superbly but then receded from view. So it was fine to be able to revisit it now.
The video, presented by Serious and the Kennedy Center – where Moran is artistic director for jazz – captures a performance by the trio and a US horn section (image below), rather than the band drawn from Tomorrow’s Warriors we saw in the UK. They dig deep into Reese’s mix of blues, marches and ragtime, making old things new. Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits on bass and drums supply immaculate timekeeping, and bring twenty-first century rhythmic flair when called for. Moran is a powerful presence at the keyboard throughout, without completely dominating the proceedings, and his organising intelligence makes the whole suite cohere.
James Reese Europe. Screenshot from Kennedy Center stream
The video editors had to decide how to treat the projections that went with the music – new film, and footage of Reese, and of his band’s triumphant return to New York. Should they leave them in the backdrop, or cut away from the band to full-screen visuals? They opt for a mix of both, which more or less works: you may want to watch this on a largish screen.
But watch it you should. It’s a musical gem, and the quality of sound and vision makes for an entirely satisfying replay. Pandemic limits may mean music promoters becoming more like publishers, getting creative with the backlist. If so, this sets a high standard for such ventures.
LINK TO PERFORMANCE : The Harlem Hellfighters performance is available to view on YouTube until the end of February.
OTHER LINKS Serious web page on the show
More about the project at the Harlem Hellfighters website
Kennedy Centre’s online exhibition about James Reese Europe (and more video)
Jon Turney’s 2018 Cardiff Review
Screenshot from Kennedy Center stream