Jason Moran Tips Hat to Tradition While Transcending the Jazz Idiom

Grammy-nominated for "All Rise," pianist breaks new ground with 'Selma' score

Jason Moran Selma Composer

Norah Jones might have resuscitated Blue Note Records with her adult contemporary balladry, but pianist-composer Jason Moran might be the jazz label’s poster boy for the future.

“What’s important is that people move the music forward,” says Don Was, Blue Note president and veteran producer-musician. “One of the things that makes Jason so deep is that his roots and knowledge of tradition are impeccable. He’s learned all styles and totally assimilated the musical history. And with all that in his arsenal he’s able to do something completely new with it.”

Even for the ever-prolific Moran, a MacArthur Fellow who’s the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center, it’s been a remarkable year. His album “All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller” was nominated for a Grammy. He’s been playing live nonstop in various configurations, including three appearances at the Monterey Jazz Festival, where he staged his Fats Waller Dance Party, a show that originated on the Harlem Stage and that gave birth to “All Rise.” He organized the Blue Note 75th anniversary celebration at the Kennedy Center that gathered both the old guard (McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutcherson, Wayne Shorter) and the relatively new (Jones, Terence Blanchard). And he scored his first narrative feature, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” about Martin Luther King Jr.’s push to pass the voting rights act in Alabama.

Moran’s stewardship of the Kennedy Center’s jazz program suggests a less doctrinaire approach than his purist compatriot at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis, an old friend whom he immediately called for guidanc e upon being approached for the position. “One of the beautiful things he said to me is, ‘Whatever work you do down there that’s good work in D.C., it will be good for everybody,’” recalls Moran.

But preaching the gospel to the converted is one thing, broadening its reach is another, and Moran’s vision calls for something less formal and more accessible. “What I’ve been trying to is create an extra venue inside the Kennedy Center that is typically for R&B or soul concerts where audiences actually might want to stand up in a more casual setting rather than in a hushed, quiet venue,” he adds.

“All Rise” stands as a protean example of Moran’s mixed-media sensibility, acknowledging Waller’s stride style and energizing it with shades of R&B, funk and hip-hop.

“If you’re Jason’s age or Robert Glasper’s age,” notes Was, who co-produced the album with Meshell Ndegeocello, who sings and plays bass, “There’s no avoiding hip-hop culture; they grew up in the middle of it. If you sit down and you play improvisational music in a stream-of-consciousness way, who you are and what you’ve listened to comes out.”

Moran, who’s also on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, speaks with an educator’s keen insight. “As a listener we’re looking for that person who kind of excites the molecules within us — who knows how to tell the story that resonates deeply to our core, and almost prompts us into action,” he says. “Fats Waller has been that person for decades. When people need a lift, sometimes they go to him. I know I do.”

Whether it’s the Blue Note-style hard bop of the ’50s and ’60s; the muscular fusion of the ’70s, or the airy, searching lyricism associated with Manfred Eicher’s ECM label, for which he collaborated with Charles Lloyd on “Hagar’s Song,” one of the stand-out recordings of 2013, Moran’s unique hybrid style has made him a critical darling. His “Ten” album, with its nods to Thelonious Monk, Leonard Bernstein and Jimi Hendrix, scored Downbeat magazine’s trifecta in 2010: jazz album of the year, pianist of the year and jazz artist of the year.

And now with “Selma,” Moran — no stranger to audio visual collaborations with such artists as Adrian Piper, Joan Jonas and Kara Walker — strikes out into more populist territory.

“I didn’t know the intellectual approach to music that he was taking until I started to research him,” says DuVernay. “And it was just a meeting of like minds very quickly.”

The score — employing a 25-piece orchestra that relies mostly on piano and strings with the occasional woodwind and percussive accents — is mostly characterized by its restraint. “Usually when I see films that don’t have any score attached to them, I think they’re beautiful,” says Moran. “I love just the naked sound of the voice. That’s already music. Our process was to be able set very subtle landscapes. Then, when it needs to move forward in the mix, we’re able to do that as well.”

Adds DuVernay: “I’m very sensitive to music leading the emotion, or being manipulated by music. There’s a way to do it with a hammer and there’s a way to do it with a feather. And I don’t like being told how to feel, and so that was a lot our conversation.”

One remarkable track, which combines ambient sounds with tambourine and the voice of Seabell Kennedy from the ’40s, set the tone for the soundtrack’s overall sensibility.

“I kind of manipulate the sample a lot,” says Moran. “The rest of the score doesn’t sound anything like it, but that women’s voice creeping in is the thing that we kind of built everything around.”

The collaboration was fruitful enough that working together again appears inevitable. “In an industry where there aren’t a lot of people who look like either one of us,” says DuVernay, “to find collaborators who are from the same cultural space and care about the same things is rare.”

One thing is certain: Moran will continue to chart new vistas in ways that have nothing to do with fame or fortune.
“After the first realization of my first recording for Blue Note, it was like, ‘OK, so I’m not doing this for record sales,’ that’s never a part of my focus,” says Moran laughing. “You make a record because you have to chart your progress, not only for yourself, but for your audience.”

Was sees something more, both of-the-moment and long-lasting. “The term ‘genius’ is bandied about rather lightly in our culture,” he says. “This guy is the bona fide goods. Just watching him sit down at a piano, clear his mind of preconception, and just create from the state of a beginner’s mind is something to really marvel at — just the kind of unbrideled creativity. . And then to see what he comes up with, going from zero to 60 in 10 seconds. He’s certainly one of the most talented musicians in jazz or in any field.”