It says something about the capacity for invention displayed by pianist Jason Moran that it was almost a disappointment to see him taking the stage Tuesday night joined "only" by his band the Bandwagon at a show presented by the Jazz Bakery.
Granted, the New York City-based Moran is already appointment viewing for jazz fans given his mountains of acclaim and how rarely he ventures west (Moran performed solo at the Hammer Museum in 2011 but estimated it had been 10 years since his band last played L.A.).
Yet the pianist nearly upstaged himself with two audacious shows at the new SFJAZZ Center last weekend that found him improvising alongside a ramp full of skateboarders. The unexpected juxtaposition of two creative forms became one of the most buzzed-about shows of the year.
Anyone familiar with the 38-year-old pianist had to know that Moran would still have plenty of high-flying tricks of his own Tuesday. Taking the stage at the Musicians Institute's cavernous performance space, the group showed why it's one of the most arresting piano trios today with a show that tapped a number of sources at jazz's roots and incorporated daring new moves that pushed its sound into the future.
Moran kicked off the show with piano great Fats Waller in mind, playing a rollicking swing plucked from his songbook that melded the sound of the '20s and '30s with an off-kilter funk pulse. The combination might have been considered heresy by purists, but the sound came together so naturally that it bounced squarely into 2013.
Moran later referred to Waller as an "obsession of ours," a fact that's become apparent in recent shows that found the pianist wearing an oversize, cigarette-chomping Fats Waller mask, including last month's "Fats Waller Dance Party" at the Kennedy Center with Meshell Ndegeocello.
Tuesday night, a rejiggered "Jitterbug Waltz" rode a gorgeous melody from Moran into the sultry sort of R&B groove you could imagine Prince singing over. The song collapsed into a clockwork rhythm from drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen, only to rise again behind Moran's piano lead.
It wasn't Moran's only run through history. Reprising something from his 2011 solo show, he introduced a sample of Thelonious Monk tapping his feet, which Moran looped into a quirky, decidedly Monk-ish rhythm. "This is what I needed to hear," Moran said, and the band followed in Monk's footsteps with a piece that approximated the sound of a trio dancing with a legend.
Monk made another "appearance" in a medley that brushed against a few familiar themes as the Bandwagon continued pulling at the song's corners, driving it into uncharted territory.
As the night progressed, there were moments that carried the intimacy of hearing someone describe themselves via a mixtape. Moran ceded the stage to another musical titan with a clip of blues great Mississippi Fred McDowell, which led the band to build upon McDowell's slippery guitar in a cross-generational conversation.
Moran honored his late teacher Jaki Byard with a rollicking "Out Front" marked by a sea of tumbling keyboard rolls. The churning hip-hop pulse of "Cisse 3000" was spiked by some surprise scatting by Mateen. "This band has been together 13 years and he's never done that before," Moran said happily.
But the night belonged primarily to Moran's rewarding fascination with Fats Waller, who also will be the focus of an album due on Blue Note in the fall.
Opening with a cut-up interview of Waller by Jack Benny sidekick Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Moran built a melody from Waller speaking about the endurance of swing. Rising and falling around "I think it will be here forever and a day, without a letter," the band curled into an odd-angled swing before zigzagging from buoyant stride piano jazz to head-bobbing funk, avant-garde exploration and back again.
As the song kept evolving, expanding and returning to center, there seemed no limit to the new forms Moran and the Bandwagon could imagine, thereby proving Waller's point beautifully.
Twitter: @chrisbartonCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times