Two titans of 21st-century jazz piano will join forces at the Walker’s McGuire Theater this Saturday. The audience is in for the rarest of treats: a meeting of equals that promises to break new ground even as it revisits shared history.
The commonalities between Jason Moran and Robert Glasper extend beyond their instrument. Both artists attended Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and they have both since refined distinctive languages characterized by an openness to a vast range of stylistic impulses. The breadth and depth of their respective visions would be impossible to encapsulate in a single playlist. What follows, then, is not intended as a representative selection, but as a freely associative dive into their multifarious artistry.
Track One: Jason Moran & The Bandwagon — “Break Down” — Artist in Residence (2006)
“Break Down” originated as part of Moran’s Milestone, a Walker-commissioned suite. The voice we hear belongs to legendary conceptual artist Adrian Piper. Piper’s original speech enjoined artists to make their processes public and transparent:
Piper: “Artists ought to be writing about what they do, and what kinds of procedures they go through to realize a work, what their presuppositions in making the work are, and related things. If artists’ intentions and ideas were more accessible to the general public, I think it might break down some of the barriers of misunderstanding between the art world and artists and the general public. I think it would become clear the extent to which artists are just as much a product of their society as anyone else with any other kind of vocation.”
In a playfully reflexive gesture, Moran heeds Piper’s suggestion to “break down” ideas by breaking down and rearranging her commentary itself. By rendering this rearrangement so transparent–we hear the unaltered source speech in its entirety later in the album–Moran alerts us to the constant deconstruction and reconstruction of meaning that characterizes his artistic process. Moran’s layered musical statement interacts with Piper’s original statement, and the resultant profusion of intertextual meaning invites the listener to take part in the interpretive fun.
In the span of just three minutes, Moran has laid out an ambitious array of artistic aspirations: to make art that is both abstract and accessible and to ‘break down’ barriers between artist and audience, form and process, and language and music. Over the course of his career, Moran has done remarkably well on each of these fronts, garnering critical acclaim and an ever-expanding audience.
Moran’s decision to mine Piper’s speech for its cadences and melodic contours as well as its semantic content points towards one of Jason’s early and ongoing influences: hip hop.
Track Two: Q-Tip — “Life Is Better” — The Renaissance (2008)
The honeyed tones of this Q-Tip cut come from none other than Robert Glasper. Glasper has an extensive history of collaboration with pre-eminent hip-hop artists, and there are few rappers/producers more venerated than Q-Tip. A founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip also offers a link to a seminal time in the admixture of jazz and hip hop.
Q-Tip’s rhymes clue us into his keen awareness of his own aesthetic lineage:
One step at a time, a man walked on the moon
One record got played, Kool Herc said boom
Playlist setting: Cold Crush, Furious Five, and the Masterdon
Cosmic Force, Bammbaataa, Jazzy 5
His lyrical reference points provide a glimpse into his listening history as well as the history of hip hop at large. (Norah Jones even intones earlier in the song, “I’m so into your rich history.”)
Moran and Glasper share this ideal of crafting autobiographical and cultural narrative through music. In Downbeat Magazine, Moran mused,
“Which songs do we play that really tell our narrative? Looking at songs, even song titles or song composers, expresses where I am, or who I am … That sets up this place where we sit in current jazz piano, a place where you are able to tell these narratives, which are your personal ones. Somebody might say they’re open for criticism, but it’s open more for discussion. It’s trying to find that place where you can tell your story freely. Black people weren’t able to tell their story here, and some are still coming to grips with how to tell that story.”
Track Three: Jason Moran — “Gentle Shifts South” — The Bandwagon (2003)
Discussing “Gentle Shifts South,” Moran told Nate Chinen, “[The] piece is my grandparents talking; that’s my family history when I play that piece.”
Jason’s plangent playing here creates a wonderfully evocative atmosphere. The piano’s rich overtones seem to hover in the air, enveloping the listener in the bittersweet warmth of remembrance.
Track Four: Robert Glasper Trio — “Think of One” — Double Booked (2009)
Within the first 45 seconds of this track alone, we can hear traces from across the history of jazz piano: the rapid-fire barrages of Bud Powell, the left-hand stride patterns of the early pioneers, and the joyous, jagged dissonances of Thelonious Monk, who composed the tune. More than a simple homage to his forebears, the voice that emerges is unmistakably Glasper’s own. The trio’s take on the song has a playful persistence to it, dancing around the theme again and again until it explodes into something rapturous.
Monk’s music is a touchstone for both Glasper and Moran, as is the music of the early stride piano masters, but they share a preference for addressing these legacies obliquely rather than as linear influences.
Track Five: Muhal Richard Abrams & Amina Claudine Myers — “Swang Rag Swang” — Duet (1981)
This swinging jaunt from celebrated AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) pianists Muhal Richard Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers showcases the piano duo format at its finest. The melodic thread holding the piece together seems to be a single motif that sounds vaguely like an inversion of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy.” From that germinal material, Myers and Abrams pull and push against one another, spinning the idea through every wondrous permutation imaginable.
The AACM’s impact on the current generation of forward-looking jazz artists would be hard to overstate. Moran has worked to shine a spotlight on this still-vibrant collective, spearheading a celebration of AACM member Henry Threadgill in Harlem last year and covering a Muhal Richard Abrams composition on his inventive solo album, Modernistic. (Threadgill and Abrams performed on the Walker stage in March as members of Jack DeJohnette’s ‘Made In Chicago’ Quintet.)
Track Six: Jason Moran & Robert Glasper, “Retrograde” Live
Here, Moran and Glasper fulfill the tremendous promise of their collaboration. Their interplay sounds comfortable but not complacent. It’s a pleasure to hear them alternate between digging into their shared vocabulary and pushing each other to new heights. The two artists make use of the full spectrum of pianistic possibilities, shifting from comping to soloing, from rhythmic ideas to lyrical ones, all fluidly and seemingly effortlessly.
Moran composed the tune they are playing, or, more precisely, arranged it; “Retrograde” is the product of his experiments with playing “Smoke Stack,” a song composed by his mentor Andrew Hill, in reverse. It seems to me that this provides the perfect metaphor for Moran and Glasper’s approach to music history: looking backward in order to move forward.
As these two masters play in tandem, their collaboration takes on the quality of a dance: moving forward and back, side to side, across the space and history of the piano, and ultimately reaching what feels like consummation, only for us to be reminded that at some point it will end.
We’re lucky to be invited to the dance party.