Jason Moran Draws From Diverse Sources For Sophomore LP

Award-winning pianist's Facing Left offers reconceptions of piano-trio format.

Above the piano in 25-year-old pianist Jason Moran's New York home, a Jackson Pollock print hangs on the wall. It's emblematic of Moran's approach to music: Just as Pollock was known for listening to jazz while he painted, Moran draws from a range of sources for creative sustenance.

"I have that huge print from Pollock by the piano because the influence is reciprocal," Moran explained. "He was into hearing music while he created, and I sometimes do the opposite. I'm influenced by everything from an ant to a dream."

The wide range of Moran's influences, musical and non-, is evident from the initial listen to Facing Left, the pianist's newly issued second record for Blue Note.

The release continues what has been a banner year for the pianist. His first record, last year's Soundtrack to Human Motion (Blue Note), recently won the Jazz Journalists' Award for Best Debut Recording. Moran currently occupies the piano chair in saxophonist/producer Greg Osby's group, and he fronts his own trio.

Osby produced Facing Left, which features Moran's working rhythm section: bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits.

Inventive Composition

"Thief Without Loot" (RealAudio excerpt), the second tune on the record, didn't originate at the keyboard. "'Thief Without Loot' comes from the transcription of a Japanese friend of mine's voice," Moran said. The pitches and the rhythmic complexities of her voice just made a hip tune."

That thunderous cut also features a rare use (on a piano trio record) of overdubbing with an electric piano. "I like to take advantage of the technology," Moran said. "Even though it's not live, I loved playing the Fender Rhodes electric piano on the tune and then mixing it in with Tarus and Nateen just thrashing!"

Another of the six original compositions from the leader is "Fragment of a Necklace" (RealAudio excerpt). This slowly unfolding tune with an alluring melody was written with only rhythm in mind. "I studied with [pianist] Jaki Byard in 1993 and later with Muhal Richard Abrams. With Muhal, we looked at the Schillinger System of Musical Composition. He explained that the essential aspect of music lies within the rhythm. [In 'Fragment of a Necklace'] the rhythm was thoroughly worked out. But the notes were picked at random," Moran said.

Asked about his former student, Abrams said, "He is a great musician and I have immense respect for him."

Moran left his native Houston and came to New York seven years ago, after finding out that Byard was teaching at the Manhattan School of Music. "With all the things you see on TV about New York, I cried the night before I left Houston to come up here. It's a totally different vibe. But to study with Jaki, that's why I came," Moran said. Soon after, he landed a gig with Osby. "Greg introduced me to guys like pianist Andrew Hill and Muhal, and that became like a second family."

It's more difficult to be identified as a composer than as a player, according to Moran. "There aren't too many really happening composers around now. Andrew Hill will write stuff that'll blow your mind. Muhal is unbelievable, saxophonist and composer Henry Threadgill, Greg Osby and alto saxophonist Steve Coleman — those are the guys I really love. With all of these cats, the improvisation has become so much of the composition. They express more with their written material than what most people can express with their supposed solos."

Old Soul, Fresh Approach

Osby sees Moran as being in the lineage of those great composers and establishing himself stylistically as a player. "As a leader, sometimes on the bandstand, I think damn, I just want to stand back and listen to Jason work. He's been here before. By that I mean he's not just a 25-year-old guy, he's the embodiment of the souls of a lot of great people. He's on the threshold of redefining the piano trio because his sound is so huge."

There may be traces of pianists such as Hill and McCoy Tyner in Moran's playing, but they're just part of the language absorbed. Moran has his own thing to say with it, dominating as composer and performer with a conception both fresh and firmly rooted.

Osby points to the leaders who have called Moran for record dates or touring. "Just look at the forward-thinking people who call on him. [Vocalist] Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman, creative people like that."

The presence of Osby as producer on Facing Left helped in a number of ways. "With Greg, he would come to the rehearsals and check things out," Moran said. "Since I've worked with him through a few records, we know each other quite well. He also can suggest hip technical things, like getting a better bass sound or making the drums sing out a little more. He added a chemistry to the record."

When not gigging, Moran can be found at the movies. Two cuts from the new record are covers of soundtrack tunes. "Yojimbo" is from the Akira Kurosawa movie of the same name. "Murder of Don Fanucci" comes from "The Godfather Part II." "The music that happens when Robert De Niro walks across the roof of an apartment to kill his prey is so killin' that it makes a great tune," Moran said.

Aside from playing in Osby's band, Moran was part of Blue Note's New Directions project, the basis of a group featuring Osby, Moran and vibist Stefon Harris. They made a self-titled record and toured extensively in 1999, and they'll reunite for a date this summer.

Jason Moran tour dates:

June 30; Ridgefield, Conn.; Aldrich Museum (Trio)

July 4; Skidmore, N.Y.; Skidmore College (Quartet with Osby)

July 11–16; New York, N.Y.; The Jazz Standard (Trio)

Aug. 8&150;13; New York, N.Y.; Village Vanguard (with New Directions)

Sept. 5—10; New York, N.Y.; Iridium (with Joe Lovano and Greg Osby)

Oct. 20; Houston, Texas; Da Camera/The Wortham Center (Quartet with Osby)

Nov. 15–December 15; European tour with Greg Osby's Q