A Message In Our Music Part 1: Jason Moran

Courtesy of Jason Moran

After digesting the phenomenon which is Jason Moran, his eminence in music is even more mind-blowing once you consider the fact that he is just 37 years old.  In addition to receiving just about every award, acknowledgement and accolade within the jazz spectrum, he is also recipient of the 2010 MacArthur fellowship, and has just recently filled the imperial shoes of the late Dr. Billy Taylor as the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Advisor for Jazz.  Leading one of the most relevant and longstanding piano trios of our time, Moran has also performed and recorded with contemporary and legendary artists like Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman, Sam Rivers, and Charles Lloyd.  He’s a special guest on drummer Jack DeJohnette’s new release, Sound Travels; a stellar album with an array of artistic powerhouses like Bobby McFerrin, Esperanza Spalding, Lionel Loueke, and fellow Manhattan School alum, Ambrose Akinmusire.  (Moran also produced Akinmusire’s critically-acclaimed Blue Note debut, When The Heart Emerges Glistening.)

His impressive resume aside, Moran’s influence as a pianist and composer is tremendous.  The Houston native’s love for the visual arts has led to endeavors well beyond the mere “unexpected”.  It was a no-brainer for me to implore Mr. Moran’s participation for this project; a special opportunity to explore the mind of the man who is, as Rolling Stone magazine puts it, “shaping up to be the most provocative thinker in current jazz.”

Check it out, as Moran and I share some of our thoughts based around three pivotal social albums.

Charles Mingus Ah Um

“Mingus is…I think he’s related to me [laughs],” says Moran when asked about his decision to pick this album as part of our discussion.  “Only because I studied with Jaki Byard.  That’s how I think of my family.  Jaki Byard makes a lot of other people my relatives because I was really under him.  So, considering that Jaki was playing with Mingus was when they were playing much of this political music, I always think about what Mingus represented as sort of a much more hard-edged Duke Ellington, you know?”

An artist who has brilliantly utilized multi-media platforms to express himself as a musician, it’s no surprise that Moran would rely on more than the music to impact his students when teaching a Master class at Manhattan School.  “I showed 45 minutes of [an episode of the PBS series] Eyes on the Prize.  It was the episode when they discuss the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas and Governor Faubus and…how crazy he was.  So I showed them the film for about 45 minutes, then at a certain point I just turned on a live version of “Fables of Faubus”.  It was around 12 minutes long…and then I watched the students react.  Because [for] most of them, “Fables Of Faubus” is just words or something that maybe Mingus made up.   There was a student from Finland in the class, and he said after watching it and listening to Mingus’ song, ‘Well, now it makes a lot more sense.  Because being in Finland, my friends and I used to always wonder where that energy came from.’  I said, ‘Yeah, exactly.’  This is an entire segment of the population whose life is dealing with stuff like this.  And we’re just watching an edited excerpt of people’s everyday lives.  You can’t imagine what that does to a population mentally and physically.  And we’re still trying to cope with all of that…even now.  So it broke down a lot of people’s understanding of society and the affects it has on music.  That everything is not just about a chord, or a melody or the greatest groove…it wasn’t about that.  It was therapy.  People were using the music as therapy.”

“You know, sometimes I go to these museums all around the world and they have portraits from the 1600s and 1700s, during the Victorian era [etc.].  Bunches of portraits…so we kind of get accustomed to seeing portraits of people other than us.  And in music, it doesn’t exist in the same way, but it’s part of the reason [my wife] Alicia and I are embarking on writing a series of portraits for artists we know, most of whom are African Americans, because for me, as a composer, I mean, I’ve written a song for my parents, and my family in Texas, but wow, maybe I should continue trying to explore that even further because what if you started to document your community?  Photographers document their community, writers document their community, or you’re doing it right now through an interview.  And musicians, what do we document?  How do we document our lives and the people who are around us?  That’s how you kind of put a date stamp on where the population is.  You take that moment to snapshot everything that’s around.  So Mingus does that.  He snapshots how crazy America is in the 1950s and 60s.   People won’t know that history so frequently, but here we are still talking about it.”

John Coltrane Live at Birdland

Personally, I will never forget the first time I heard John Coltrane’s “Alabama”.  It was haunting and spiritual on impact, way before I would learn of the gruesome events from which the song is inspired.  Spike Lee transports us to the height of tension in the Civil Rights movement in Malcolm X, when the song is a backdrop to footage of the brutal Jim Crow South, where four black girls Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Denise McNair (aged 11), Carole Robertson (aged 14), and Cynthia Wesley (aged 14), were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  Written and performed by Coltrane just weeks after the tragedy, I have often wondered about how he dealt with something so devastating, so I was very excited when Moran suggested we talk about this album.

“I was at an event at Princeton and there was a panel discussion of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) members,” says Moran.  “They were talking about how crazy it was to be down there in the South. Some of them were from up north and someone asked if there was a difference between how racism feels up north, versus how it feels down south.  The panelist said the first day he got down south he was driving from the airport, and a cop pulled him over and told him, ‘I know why you’re down here, you need to get out of here.  You’re down here to make trouble.’  And that cop is not only the cop, he’s the sheriff, he’s the mayor, he has the biggest businesses in town.  It was that massive and overwhelming sense of danger.  Also, Nasheet [Waits] gave me some interviews of Kenny Clarke, and he’s talking about being down south with Louis Armstrong. When he got fired by Armstrong’s manager, they just kind of left him down in Georgia with his drums.  A black cab driver was like, ‘What are you doing down here, you better get in this car’ and he took him someplace where Kenny was able to find his way back north.  I mean, you can’t actually imagine this kind of trauma that people were feeling personally, and as a community.  Then put it in the context of hearing about this bombing when Trane plays that song up North in New York…it’s like a hymn or a low moan.  It’s impacting, it’s mourning, it’s most dark, you know?  This is something real.  It’s something prominent and it sounds like this.  And it’s a collective moan of African America at that point.”

Nina Simone Live in Concert

Nina Simone is someone I was late to discover.  Growing up, I was enthralled with the “singer’s singers” of jazz, and had not really given much thought to the magnitude of Nina Simone until I had, as my elders would say, “done some livin”.  Now that I have done just that, and more specifically, become a mother of a son who will become a Black man in America, the significance of Nina Simone in my life has increased exponentially.  Moran suggested we talk about this album in particular because of “Young, Gifted and Black”, which for me,  feels more like the Black National Anthem than the actual one.  It is the anthem which spoke to the time, and I think this makes it personal to me.

More from Moran…

“Sometimes I think the stylist — and there are lots of stylists within this canon — they change the context of the songs that they’re playing.  So Art Tatum adds all this dazzle and this sparkle and just feels like…I don’t know, like these really intricate chains from West Africa, you know?  Like these amulets of gold that kings and queens would wear, and now he’s paying a song like “When Sonny Gets Blue”, and he’s adding all of this to it, which is not there when the composer wrote it.  Same with someone like Earl Hines, where he’s adding these chords.  So Nina is the same way.  She sings these songs, and she’s totally changing the context.  Certain songs never sounded so real and pertinent to African Americans until they came out of Nina Simone’s mouth.  You feel like it’s talking about your experience, so I think in a way, those kinds of artists also curate the kinds of songs that they think may have an abstract relationship to something political, but then she also does this boldly by writing these other songs.  So here are these songs that honor these great people like Lorraine Hansberry with “Young, Gifted and Black”.  It’s a statement that marks the time in which it was written and Black Pride is kind of at its peak in the movement.  So even the use of the word “Black” puts a date stamp on where we are. I remember my grandmother being in quoted in an article where she says she was colored, negro, black, and African American, all in one lifespan.  So it date stamps it, which I think is just so important for the form.  That you can look at the lexicon of African American songs that way.  And also Nina as a pianist and how she accompanies herself, the kinds of chords that she uses, and how those sounds mix with the timbre of her voice…she was just unique all the way around.”♦

Watch a clip of IN MY MIND, the feature length documentary of Jason Moran & The Big Bandwagon’s take on Thelonious Monk’s Town Hall recording. 

“A Message In Our Music” Coming This February From Alternate Takes

Jazz (Black American Music) may not be the first genre to come to mind when dealing with the subject of music which is socially conscious, but it should.  While The Impressions, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The O’Jays and Gil Scott-Heron gave voice successfully to the plight of Black America through song (and action), jazz musicians were making overt statements about race and culture many years before, and continued doing so alongside their peers across a range of musical classifications.

When we think about it, jazz music is essentially a personification of everything this country stands for in theory, but fails at in practice: freedom, democracy, liberty, and justice.  While some may condense the Black freedom struggle to the years that spanned the Civil Rights Movement, it’s not hard to understand why this is an incomplete and naive summation.  Within the last few years, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Timothy Stansbury Jr., and James Craig Anderson have become household names and global reminders that America continues to bounce the check of equality that Dr. King so eloquently spoke of in his “I Have a Dream” speech almost fifty years ago.  From the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, to the African Liberation Movement, jazz has been an important musical narrative of the journey of Blacks in America for decades.

A Message In Our Music is a three-part series from Alternate Takes, featuring candid and enlightening conversations with modern masters Christian McBride, Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran.  Each will discuss jazz from this under-examined angle, while reflecting on the albums that are most meaningful to them on the subject.  Don’t miss this very special series this Black History Month!

Ambrose Akinmusire: An Emergence of Truth

Photo by Demandre Ward

Ambrose Akinmusire was born in 1982, a symbolic and transformational year in jazz.    Wynton Marsalis had just released his self-titled debut album on Columbia Records, while he was still a part of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.  This album would prove symbolic, as it represented what was to come; a desperately needed re-emergence and preponderance of acoustic and straight-ahead jazz.  This revitalization during the 1980s produced several pivotal artists who bridged the cultural gap, and served as the catalysts who incited the current generation of jazz musicians.  Now, almost exactly thirty years later, Oakland native Akinmusire is at the apex of a similar potential revival.

Winner of the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition, Akinmusire has been on the jazz radar as a paramount player for a few years now.  Fast forward to the present… Downbeat Magazine named Akinmusire both Rising Star Jazz Artist of the Year and Rising Star Trumpet in their 2011 Critics Poll, in addition to giving his Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, a glowing four-star review.  The Los Angeles Times named Akinmusire one of their 2011 “Faces to Watch” and The New York Times has also hailed the virtuoso, placing him on everyone’s it-list.  Now this time, the critics are unanimously on the money. Akinmusire and his quintet have emerged as a force with which to be reckoned; raising the stakes when it comes to individuality, intent, vision and modernism.

Unlike the respective eras of his predecessors; when Blanchard, Payton and Hargrove exploded onto the scene, Akinmusire has arrived at a time when there is so much disparity, discrepancy and downright indifference about jazz.  Follow any social media threads about the genre and it’s instantly apparent that there are a lot of disparaging sentiments toward the general state of jazz and every imaginable (and sometimes unimaginable) sub-context.  And whether you agree or take issue with what’s on the table, the underlying truth is that people are frustrated, making Akinmusire’s advent that much more substantial.

Much of the jazz audience proclaims an air of stagnation, lack of inventiveness and compromise of the art form.  Akinmusire agrees.  These subjects are compounded by matters of race, culture and the overall state of the music industry, making the waters for diagnosis conveniently murky for most, but not all.  “I don’t think many people are doing it,” Akinmusire blatantly states.  “I think a lot of people want the approval of critics, so they end up dumbing their shit down.”

For Akinmusire, the intent is first and needs to be established long before getting on the band stand.  His quintet is made up of close friends and long-time collaborators: tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Harish Raghavan and fellow Oakland native, drummer Justin Brown.  Growing up in Oakland, Akinmusire’s philosophies about loyalty and community are entrenched in his artistry.  “I try to be as honest as possible with myself.  I try not to hang out with people who I don’t like.  I try to trust my instinct.  In five seconds of being around somebody, I know whether or not I can really vibe with them.  So, I think that’s related to the music too.  I try to surround myself with musicians who I feel challenged by as opposed to musicians who are just killing.  I try to surround myself with musicians who I don’t know how they’re going to sound six months from now, or five years from now, or ten years.   If I hear somebody playing, and I can say OK, twenty years from now, I know exactly how they’re going to sound; I don’t really fuck with them. I think all of that is related.”

From the opening track of When the Heart Emerges Glistening, there is a relentless fire which rages from the band, causing a neck-snapping reaction from the listener.  It is reminiscent, but only in the sense that you are transported to a time when jazz as a whole was courageous and bold.  The telepathic nature of the band’s interaction and the ensuing execution is mind-blowing.  “I think that everybody in the band is extremely hard on themselves; they’re never satisfied,” says Akinmusire, as he tries to put their chemistry into words.  “Like, if we had the best performance ever, and you come backstage, we’re all gonna be sitting there with our heads down like ‘Man, that sucked I need to practice.’  Everybody is constantly shedding and trying to move forward.  And there are no egos in the band at all…at all.  Nobody ever gets mad at the other person for messing up or changing parts or anything like that.  So, I think there’s that and also we’ve known each other for so long.  I grew up with Justin.  I met him when he was in middle school.  I’ve known Walter since 2001.  Harish, I’ve known for maybe 6 years.  Gerald, I met when he was still in high school, and Sam Harris (the new pianist in the group), I went to Manhattan School of Music with him.  And I just grew up like that.  I grew up in North Oakland and there’s this saying that you stick with your crew from the beginning to the end, even if there have been some weird, funny development issues, it will eventually…you know…it’s like family.  No matter what, you’re supposed to have their back.  I think that everybody who I have in the band has the same sort of outlook and I think you hear that in the music.

To co-produce the album, Akinmusire called upon his mentor, fellow Manhattan School alum, and Blue Note label mate, Jason Moran, to help translate the magic which is so essential to the band, to record format.  “I didn’t have to explain anything to him; that’s why I picked him, because he’s all about hitting and being real honest…he embodies that in his art,” explains Akinmusire, who wanted the album to feel as raw and in-the-moment as possible.  “It was just a constant reminder to come out of the booth and see Jason sitting there.  It was like, I gotta be about the music.  I can’t be like I’m on Blue Note and stressing about this shit.  He helped to relax me and helped me to remember my purpose as an artist.”

This element of intangible guidance and rearing from Moran is quite familiar to Akinmusire.  Having never had a trumpet lesson until he reached college, he honed his skills as a trumpeter in a very unconventional fashion, especially for these days of extreme institutionalization of the music.  Akinmusire recalls, “I went to a jazz camp… I don’t know how we heard about it.  Maybe there was a flier at the school, and I went.  And all these old-school musicians were teaching there and they sort of became my mentors.  Bassist Herbie Lewis… I met him, and then Donald Bailey, who played with Jimmy Smith and all these people.  They just sort of started mentoring me.  They would pick me up from the house, and take me record shopping or bring me on their gigs, and I would just sit there.  Some taught at college. They would pick me up and take me to their college classes.  They really just started mentoring me.  I never really had a teacher.  I didn’t sit there and play rudimental studies, and stuff, it was really ‘groid’, like ‘Here’s a trumpet and I’m going to teach you about the history…about the music.’  Just through stories, just old-school style.  Like, most of these guys, they were old-school.  They didn’t know shit about classical studies, they just picked their shit up and played…smoked weed; some of them were ex-Black Panthers, like real ‘groid’, you know?  I mean, I would get with Roy [Hargrove] and Nick [Payton] when they came into town like, ‘Is my embouchure OK?  Yeah?  OK, cool.’  But I never had a lesson.”

This crucial piece of Akinmusire’s story is no doubt the principal component of the development of his prodigious voice.  It also manifested as an expected point of contention, when he got to the collegiate juncture of study.  “By the time I came to high school, I already knew Billy Higgins, I knew Joe Henderson.  So you got these cats [at Manhattan School] telling me blah-blah-blah, and I’m thinking, ‘That’s not what he was just telling me.’  So there was a lot of arguing.”

The institutionalized setting in which jazz has found itself engulfed, is one of the most debated issues, with most viewing the predicament as a double-edged sword.  The argument being, that while the formal setting of jazz in schools gives exposure to young people who may not have otherwise discovered the art form, in a time where venues for jazz are closing at record speed, and pop-culture is eerily dominating, the flip side is an ill-appropriate, overly-Westernized approach to jazz, stripping it of its most essential elements; otherwise known as its “Blackness”.

We’re all being honest here, right?

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

The overall discontentment with jazz is comfortably enigmatic, until you dig deeper and realize this “thing” everyone is missing, is the part which is most ancestral and least able to be captured in a school setting severely devoid of Black people.  Consequently there are two broad views:  One which has many Black people arguing that they are being written out of the jazz “present” and conversely, the other has many people strongly, but naively believing there is no room or relevance for race in a discussion regarding jazz.  Akinmusire’s take is based on neither premise, per se and as in his music, Akinmusire’s honesty is no bullshit.

“I don’t think you can take someone’s culture,” he explains.  “Once something becomes tangible, then you can take it away and that’s because we don’t have it here in our hearts.  So maybe that’s why I don’t understand [the first viewpoint].  It’s like, I’m Black; you can’t take that away from me. I live jazz; you can’t take that away from me.  If we have a whole community who understands that it’s here [points to his heart], you can’t take that away from us.  That’s the way it was with the be-boppers, before jazz education came and made it this tangible thing and a lot of people started believing it.”

The moment he said that to me, my vision cleared.  Honestly, it never really dawned on me that the onus might be on the Black jazz community, or lack thereof.  Akinmusire was born to a Mississippi-raised mother, and a Nigerian father; neither of whom were musical or very familiar with jazz.  The first musician on either side of his family, who was discovered by jazz, and not the other way around, Akinmusire truly speaks from a rare and untainted perspective.

“To say ‘this is ours’…that’s a known thing, we don’t need to necessarily say that, and saying it is not necessarily  going to make people not want to take it away if that’s what they’re trying to do.  It’s just going to exclude people like, ‘Oh I can’t do that.’  And those people might have valid things to say and contribute to the music.  I think if you just live that…like, to me, Mark Turner is like that.  He’ll never say a word.  Or, like Marcus Gilmore.  These cats don’t talk, but if you get on the band stand with them, you know you have to deal, and that’s some black shit.  Like yeah, this is our music.  But if you’re not stepping up to the plate and playing like that, then yeah you have to talk ‘They’re taking it away.’  You think Trane had to say that?  He didn’t have to say nothing. You think Lee Konitz was going to get up there with the John Coltrane Quartet?  You don’t have to say nothing.”

BOOM.

It was a bucket of ice water thrown to the face, but I’m wide awake and that’s a good thing.  The truth is, Black art forms have been habitually and historically compromised, but there comes a time when the discussion has to lead to a diagnosis and the diagnosis has to lead to a treatment and then, the treatment has to begin and Akinmusire, through his words, but ultimately through his music, has given jazz a serious bedside visit.

“George Wein hit me up last year and was like, ‘I want you to play at Zankel Hall,’”  Akinmusire tells me as we stroll down a Williamsburg street on a sunny Brooklyn afternoon.  “He wanted the quintet.  I said, ‘How about I do a big band…an all-black big band?’  He was like, ‘Yeah it’s cool!  Is that because you want to reclaim the music?’ I said, ‘No…it’s just that I want the community;  I miss the community.’  When I was coming up it was really inspiring.  I used to go out and see Roy Hargrove, Eric Lewis, Marcus and EJ Strickland, Bilal…that shit was so inspiring for me to come to New York and see all these great Black musicians just really trying to push themselves and now that doesn’t really happen and I think that the music is suffering because of the lack of community of Blacks.  If we don’t have a community, we can’t really complain, so I think that’s what needs to happen first.”

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

 

That sense of community also influences Akinmusire’s writing, as he composes specifically with his tightly knit quintet in mind. He says of the interwoven nature of his band, “It’s a blessing and a curse because I can’t write for anybody else, because I’ve been playing with Walter for so long. Justin is the only drummer I’ve been playing with consistently for the last thirteen years.  I mean there was Zach Harmon, when I was working at the Monk Institute. That was two years.  But really, with all of my compositions, I’m hearing Justin.  So when I play with other people, when they try to interpret their way it just doesn’t feel right… same thing with Walter.  He has such a specific sound and tone and way of phrasing and you know, we phrase together so when I play with somebody else and they’re not really getting it, I find myself feeling uneasy and getting upset… same thing with Harish.”  Akinmusire penned twelve of the thirteen songs on When the Heart Emerges Glistening, his pieces as distinguished and refreshing as his playing.  The album feels cinematic, in part with a theme-like pensiveness throughout. There is nothing surface about this album, but it never compromises its accessibility.  It is one of the most modern statements to come along in a while, with the culmination of history that is obviously Akinmusire’s foundation clearly not acting as a hindrance to his singular voice.

 

“I feel like people who consider themselves traditionalists are ignorant, and that comes from a lack of understanding that whatever it is you’re analyzing is related to the history of that time,” says Akinmusire about the strongholds which many so-called jazz purists have cemented in their expectations.  “So bebop was relating to what was happening at that time and it was modern at that time.  So I just try to play the music that’s of the now right now and that’s related to me and I just try to be honest with who I am.  Today I feel this way and tomorrow I may feel another way and I think it takes courage to say what I thought yesterday was wrong and I think a lot of people are scared to do that.  That’s one thing my girlfriend has taught me.  She’s very honest and she will die for honesty, and that’s something that has affected my music… same thing with my mom.”

 

What is most treasurable about Akinmusire is that like the title of this record, which represents a stripping down of all that is apparent to expose what is really important in life, he himself, stripped of the critical acclaim and accolades is, at his core, the epitome of an artist.  The word honesty or a variation of such is used in this piece alone fourteen times, not because of redundancy on my part, or naïveté on Akinmusire’s.  But because it’s the engine of innovation; the thing which will help elevate jazz to its purpose once more.♦


 

The Wu? Who Knew? Better ask somebody…like Jason Moran.

Hip-Hop and Jazz have had an enduring and well-documented love affair that has been analyzed and “broken-down” by many.  My favorite people to demonstrate this are usually DJ’s; mainly because they let the music tell the story.  It’s devoid of so-called musical expertise and  questionable parables.  But pianist Jason Moran gets it right every time.  Each time I see Moran give an interview, it’s always insightful, personal and…well, accurate.  Here, he discusses pianist Thelonious Monk, and his resonance in today’s popular music.  Digg it.