“I like music that sounds as if it was sawed by a rusty saw,” says pianist Jason Moran.
Ahead of his show with Archie Shepp on the opening night of the EFG London Jazz Festival, Moran looks forward to creating music with the saxophone legend, and explains why the future of jazz looks bright. Preview feature by John Bungey:
Pianist Jason Moran who has shared a stage with all the greats – Charles Lloyd, Joe Lovano, Archie Shepp and Bill Frisell among them – is explaining the mysteries of his craft.
“When I’m accompanying someone, not only am I accompanying them, I’m there to interrogate them. The role of a pianist in the rhythm section is more than just pushing someone along, making sure you’re there as a barrier for the soloist.
“I like to let the soloist lean on the wall and then take the wall away and watch them fall – and then catch them,” he says with a chuckle. “When music feels like that, no one can turn their ears off.”
At the EFG London Jazz Festival the player that Moran will be letting fall then scooping up is the great pioneer of free jazz, saxophonist Archie Shepp. Their shows together have already yielded a live album, Let My People Go, that came out in February. It documents a sublime meeting of minds between a jazz elder and a modern virtuoso; not only does Shepp sing through his tenor saxophone, he occasionally sings in deep, velvety tones.
“I’ve loved Archie since I was in college,” says Moran. “Fire Music [Shepp mixing the avant-garde and traditionalism in 1965] pointed to the brand of music that I thought was possible – a blend of folk music, but folk music as if it was sawed by a rusty saw. It buzzes, it has lots of texture and it splinters off.”
Shepp is 84 and Moran 46. “We come from different generations but share what it is to be raised in the South [Moran in Texas, Shepp in Florida before the family moved to Philadelphia]. A lot of our relationship to the music is also a relationship to how the South feels, the good parts and the bad parts, and how we try to use the music to rattle that conversation.”
Shepp’s anger at racial injustice may still be a key driver of his music but has his sound mellowed? “I think there is a refinement that happens over time,” says Moran, “and that’s true whether I’m listening to him or Charles Lloyd or Wayne Shorter or Sonny Rollins as they get into their eighties. Moran finds these veteran masters totally original (Sam Rivers is another he mentions): “Whatever you have in your playbook, it might not work ‘cos they make very drastic decisions that aren’t what the saxophonists of my generation will play.”
Moran made five albums with Lloyd. How does he compare with Shepp? “They both believe in the lyric. They are both singers at heart. Charles doesn’t sing in public as much as Archie. When Archie plays, even in moments where he flies off the page he is still orating. When Charles plays it’s more like he’s meditating.”
I’m meeting Moran at his London hotel the morning before he plays a duo concert with bassist Christian McBride at the Wigmore Hall (REVIEWED HERE) . They have barely worked together but Moran is keen that they don’t over-rehearse that afternoon. It’s about retaining the spontaneity, he says.
Playing again in distant cities post-lockdown, leaving his wife, the soprano Alicia Hall, and their 13-year-old twin sons in New York, has been a quite a wrench. “Being home every night with my family. I’d never done that, ever. That was amazing.”
But Moran’s renaissance career demands that he keep moving: he’s artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, he has recorded more than a dozen albums with his Bandwagon trio, and he makes visual art – Moran is one of the few musicians to be represented by a gallery. Earlier this year he presented his second show at the Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York, intricate work on Japanese gampi paper with layered lines of saturated pigment and washes of colour.
For Moran his art is a much more satisfying visual expression of his ideas than the lockdown videos that other stuck-at-home musicians were compelled to make. He did not miss playing live so much because “the paper became my stage”. It was more fulfilling than trying to become a TV director and create three-minute videos on a phone, he says with a smile. That wasn’t for him.
Moran also fits in teaching, and believes that the uncertain times his students are living through will fuel their ideas. “They’ve seen the world at a very fragile point. They’ve seen climate crisis, seen the threat to democracy, seen the other climate crisis that is people travelling germs around, and they’ve watched the [music] industry totally stop.
“I think that might breed a kind of urgency. Those are part of a recipe that goes into a renaissance, some sort of cultural revolution. I think it’s coming and it’s coming from people who are continuing to play despite all the signs saying, ‘Why would you want to do this? There’s no money in it, there’s little support and you’re wasting your time.’ The jazz clubs are dwindling – I’m speaking specifically about small environments – but within it, our humility as a community is also what gives us longevity.”
Furthering the cause for optimism, that evening Moran and McBride present an outstanding show to a packed Wigmore Hall – a mercurial journey through Monk and Mingus via their own work. Oh, and they didn’t over-rehearse – the set was conjured up during a meet-up that lasted 30 minutes.
LINKS: Archie Shepp and Jason Moran: Let My People Go, Barbican, London EC2, Nov 12, EFG London Jazz Festival
Jason Moran’s lockdown solo album, The Sound Will Tell You, is available on BANDCAMP