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Jason Moran: Finding Sound, Then Making It His Own

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Jason Moran: Finding Sound, Then Making It His Own

Jason Moran: Finding Sound, Then Making It His Own

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Jason Moran is a mainstream jazz musician with ideas that are wickedly outside the mainstream. His music sometimes involves visual or performance artists. His concerts can open like an old school hip-hop show with collages of sound. He's an improvising musician who's been commissioned to compose.

NPR's Walter Ray Watson has this profile.

WALTER RAY WATSON: Jason Moran is happily married with twin sons. Yet he's obsessed by another woman: the piano.

Mr. JASON MORAN (Jazz pianist): I mean, I really consider them all women. Not every woman likes the same kind of conversation. You have to know your subjects that fit for each person. But the pianos, if they don't like what you're saying, then they won't talk back to you. And you want it to talk back to you.

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: Creating conversations with pianos and other musicians is only part of Moran's preoccupation. He also hunts for sounds outside of music.

(Soundbite of song, "Breakdown")

Ms. ADRIAN PIPER (Conceptual artist): (Rapping) Breakdown the barriers. Breakdown misunderstanding. Breakdown the art world. Breakdown the artists. Breakdown the general public.

WATSON: For his 2006 album "Artist in Residence," Moran sampled the voice of conceptual artist Adrian Piper. He transcribed her speech, its pitch and cadence into something resembling a melody line to challenge his fingers and his bandmates, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits.

(Soundbite of song, "Breakdown")

Ms. PIPER: (Rapping) Breakdown. Breakdown. Breakdown. Breakdown. Breakdown.

WATSON: This work was a commission from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Commissions are a regular part of Jason Moran's creative process. He says they allow him a financial cushion - and the time to do research on people, places and history. But he also collects sound on his own.

Unidentified Announcer: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. MORAN: Over in Europe we've done a Lithuanian basketball game that I taped from television.

Unidentified Announcer: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. MORAN: So you hear the feet on the ground, you hear the ball, you hear the announcer and then you hear the crowd, so there's lots of orchestration already built into the sound. And every once in a while I'll play something that the announcer will say.

Unidentified Announcer: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of cheering)

WATSON: For his latest album, Moran appropriated Jimi Hendrix's guitar feedback from the Monterey Pop Festival.

(Soundbite of song, "Feedback Pt. 2")

WATSON: It's Moran's range of interests that attracts collaborators like violinist Jenny Scheinman.

Ms. JENNY SCHEINMAN (Violinist): He once said to me, people always hire me to play out, and it's so nice to be able to play lyrically, for somebody to ask me to play beautifully.

WATSON: Jenny Scheinman was floored a few years back when she heard Moran play in New York. That led her to compose with Moran specifically in mind for her last album and one tune in particular.

Ms. SCHEINMAN: Say "Hard Sole Shoe," which has, you know, an orchestral sound behind and around Jason and everything else is supplied by Jason. I think of that as, you know, a double orchestra. It's Jason's orchestra at the piano and the orchestra that comes in and out of his solo.

(Soundbite of song, "Hard Sole Shoe")

WATSON: For his own music, Moran's been known to add strains of Ravel and Debussy. But he also hears and follows inspiration lurking in darker corners.

(Soundbite of song, "Nobody")

Mr. BERT WILLIAMS (Vaudeville artist): (Singing) When life seems full of clouds and rain and I am filled with nothing but pain, who soothes my thumpin' bumpin' brain? Hmm? Nobody.

WATSON: "Nobody" was made famous by Bert Williams, a popular and controversial Vaudeville artist - a black man who performed in blackface.

Ms. MORAN: You know, it made me tear up to think about, you know, the conditions for him as a performer. But I was like, wait a minute. This guy was really famous. I mean, he wasn't really poor - he was really famous. And probably making a good living as a singer, and he's a great singer. He's like Jack Johnson, you know, kind of like, you know, an African-American at the turn of the 20th century, kind of had some - he's kind of free a little bit. Kind of.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: Moran's choices are not just gimmicks. They're meant as inspiration for him and his bandmates. Bassist Tarus Mateen says the way the trio works is truly collaborative.

Mr. TARUS MATEEN (Bassist): Because of being able to play whatever was coming to me and knowing that I would have support from the musicians, and that they would be listening from the beginning of note one to the end of the gig.

WATSON: The trio, called the Bandwagon, is about collective improvisation. But Moran considers himself a composer, using Thelonious Monk as a model.

Mr. MORAN: And the way Thelonious Monk does it, it's about two things: It's about being really simple and being really complicated. Monk has those songs which are, you know, very simple phrases. Like...

(Soundbite of Moran scatting)

Mr. MORAN: And then he'll have something like "Trinkle Tinkle," which is...

(Soundbite of Moran imitating an instrument)

Mr. MORAN: You know, it's bizarre.

WATSON: Jason Moran says he wants to make sure he keeps writing music using those models: music that's challenging, as well as music that's simply about a vibe.

Walter Ray Watson, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You can hear full songs and see a video of Jason Moran and the Bandwagon at nprmusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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