Jazz review: Jason Moran at the Hammer Museum

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Not unlike the sudden thunderstorms that rumbled across the city this week, something initially seemed wonderfully random about Jason Moran’s solo show at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater Thursday night.

In a one-off West Coast appearance as part of the Hammer’s Pacific Standard Time exhibition ‘Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980,’ the New York-based, Houston-born Moran isn’t someone with obvious ties to L.A. In fact, he’s been a regrettably tough catch on his own lately apart from recent local dates backing Bill Frisell and longtime collaborator Charles Lloyd (who was also on hand in the crowd).


Still, from an artistry standpoint, there’s a very short list of pianists who approach Moran’s level in today’s jazz. Now 36 years old, Moran received a MacArthur ‘genius grant’ last year, which also saw his latest album ‘Ten’ lead an armload of critical best-of lists, and he was recently named the Kennedy Center’s artistic advisor for jazz in a wonderfully inventive choice. But for all the accolades, naturally it’s the music that says so much more.

In just over a one-hour performance, Moran delivered what at times felt like a symposium on American music, but slowly transformed into an intimate glimpse at the musical gears turning in his head. Coming onstage in a reddish-orange beanie and puffy winter vest, Moran told the crowd he needed to ‘set his mind right,’ and triggered the brawny soul classic ‘No One Could Love You More’ from a laptop on the edge of his piano. Then he stepped away, bobbing his head, allowing Gladys Knight to deliver an opening statement. When he returned, Moran bounced at the piano bench, fingering notes to shine around the music’s edges. As the song faded behind him, Moran launched into an echoing, slow-burning piece that grew in tangled complexity until it coalesced into the chunky, cascading melody of ‘Blue Blocks’ from ‘Ten.’

If there were any feelings of disappointment in the crowd at catching Moran solo rather than with his longtime group the Bandwagon, they evaporated as it quickly became apparent Moran wasn’t really alone for much of the evening. The next song found Moran’s piano spiraling in off-center angles around a gently shuffling tap-dance rhythm from his laptop, which Moran explained was the looped sound of Thelonious Monk briefly dancing around a loft.

‘This is what he sounded like when he wasn’t playing piano,’ Moran said with a measure of awe, then went on to capture Monk’s spirit in an unconventional, swerving duet that felt more like an expansion of Monk’s legacy than an impersonation.

Other laptop-triggered interludes from guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell and Billie Holiday allowed Moran to both speak for his love for their music before expanding upon it, deftly coursing through flashes of ragtime, blues and moonlit balladry, sometimes within the same piece. A lush rendering of ‘Body and Soul’ gave way to the gleefully twisted ‘Ringing My Phone (Straight Outta Istanbul),’ a piece from Moran’s 2003 live album that found him playing alongside and bafflingly harmonizing with a woman speaking in Turkish, revealing the hidden yet undeniable music in language.

Speaking to the crowd later, Moran described a conversation where someone told him they liked ‘jazz in the afternoon and on a high floor,’ a convention-defying description that stuck with the pianist as he wryly promised his projects in the new year would deliver just that. While jazz fans can excitedly wonder what that could mean, based on what was heard at the Hammer we can rest assured that it will be the furthest thing from random.


Art review: ‘Now Dig This!’ at the Hammer Museum

Album review: Jason Moran’s ‘Ten’

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-- Chris Barton