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Jason Moran: Seeing things differently

Should I pretend I’m back in college and attend a convocation at 11 a.m. on a weekday?

Should I pretend I’m back in college and attend a convocation at 11 a.m. on a weekday? Yes, if the featured speaker/performer is pianist/composer Jason Moran.

One of the most acclaimed, diverse, serious and playful jazz artists working today, Moran was last here in July at the Dakota as part of Charles Lloyd’s New Quartet. In May 2007 he came to the Walker with his group The Big Bandwagon for “In My Mind,” his version of the legendary 1959 Monk at Town Hall concert.

At the Monterey Jazz Festival a few weeks ago, he premiered a commissioned work that included feedback from Jimi Hendrix’s famous performance at the Monterey Pops Festival in 1967, during which Hendrix set his guitar on fire.

Moran was in Minneapolis on Tuesday as part of the Augsburg College Convocation Series. Held in sunny, honey-colored Hoversten Chapel, the event was free and open to the public. Earlier in the day Moran spoke with a jazz history class and would later address another student group.

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He began by telling the crowd (mostly students and faculty, along with a few crashers) a bit about himself. He began studying piano at age 6 and “was about to be one of those people who quit piano until, at age 13, I heard the music of Thelonious Monk.” Later he began researching Monk’s history — not just his musical history, but his ancestral history, back to slaveholder Archibald Monk.

Before playing Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” Moran invited us to “listen to the song and also its historical legacy.” Then he played the jazz standard his way: an improvised beginning, changing rhythms and moods, blues and stride, chords and arpeggios.

He told of his studies with pianist Jaki Byard, who was shot to death in his Queens home in 1999; the murder remains unsolved. After noting that Byard “taught me to explore the possibilities of the piano,” Moran played his teacher’s composition, “Out Front.”

Also on the program were “Blue Blocks,” commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for its exhibition of quilts by women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and Moran’s version of the 1980s pop hit “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force.

I just listened to the original “Planet Rock” and Moran’s recorded version (on his 2003 “The Bandwagon: Live at the Village Vanguard,” one of seven CDs he has made for Blue Note since 1999). The original tune is in there, but it’s the bones on which Moran hangs his own ideas. What we heard live was yet another interpretation.

During the Q&A session that ended the convocation, one woman (who introduced herself as “probably the oldest person here,” and she might have been) told Moran she wanted to slap him for messing with melodies.

Moran fielded questions about his practice routine during college (“I didn’t have one”), told us a bit about his teacher Jaki Byard’s assignments (“to take one small idea, like the C-major scale, and look at it from all possible angles — a single scale can be placed all over the piano”), and commented on jazz education (he teaches at Manhattan School of Music) by saying, “There are many ways to play this instrument, and they should not sound the same.”

When a student asked if he had grown up hearing jazz around the house, Moran replied, “My parents played jazz radio in the car, and we used to say ‘Change the channel!’ Then I figured out it was cool.”

Many jazz artists don’t address the audience at all during performances. (To be fair, some are shy.) So it’s a rare pleasure to hear someone as intelligent and cutting-edge as Moran share his thoughts, speak his mind, and strut his musical stuff. An event like Augsburg’s convocation is another door into learning more about jazz, music in general, and what it means to be an artist. I’ll watch for more opportunities like this and let you know when I find them.

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Pamela Espeland keeps a Twin Cities live jazz calendar and blogs about jazz at Bebopified. She tweets about jazz on Twitter.