Radical Transparency: A Review of Jason Moran’s The Last Jazz Fest
Skip to main content

Radical Transparency: A Review of Jason Moran’s The Last Jazz Fest

The Last Jazz Fest. Photo: Bobby Rogers

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Here, artist Dylan Redford shares his perspective on The Last Jazz Fest by Jason Moran and The Bandwagon with Ryan Trecartin, Lizzie Fitch, and Ashland Mines (DJ Total Freedom).

“The year was divided into two parts—the wars and the festivals.”

—Zora Neale Hurston from Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo

the last jazz fest
the last solo
the last ballad
the last applause
the last  chorus
the last  fee
the last rhythm changes
the last blues
the last intro
the last trading
the last brunch […]

—Excerpt from Jason Moran’s artist statement for The Last Jazz Fest

Experiencing Jason Moran’s The Last Jazz Fest is bearing witness to a crumbling fantasy. Commissioned and presented by the Walker Art Center, The Last Jazz Fest features Moran’s trio The Bandwagon, DJ Total Freedom, and artists Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin. Largely improvisational, the performance was a sensory overload: Fitch and Trecartin’s dense visuals paired with fragmented jazz scores mixed through harsh, complex digital filters was, well… a lot. The multidisciplinary performance was challenging, both musically and conceptually. As Vito Acconci, performance artist provocateur, often argued: making your audience uncomfortable is low-hanging fruit; what’s next? The Last Jazz Fest is productively uncomfortable; it asks audience members to interrogate their expectations and assumptions around jazz, to melt our fantasy of artistic transcendence, and to expose what is erased or ignored to feel “present.”

Full disclosure: while I generally like jazz, I know very little about it. I am aware that jazz’s history originates in black culture, another context I cannot speak to. I am also aware of the cumbersome history of white dudes (which I am) explaining jazz. So why the fuck am I writing about this show? Well, I have followed Ryan Trecartin/Lizzie Fitch’s work for a long time, I know about art stuff, but more importantly, I think this show, or one of its many layers, is directed at audience members like myself: white people who sorta know about jazz and have attended the occasional, and maybe their last, Jazzfest. Already in the titling, The Last Jazz Fest, Moran sets up an expectation for a particular type of viewership, a particular type of experience.

In the Walker’s McGuire Theater, audience members confront images of overlapping moons, projected on the theater curtains, shifting in and out of focus. The curtains open to reveal a centrally located three-tiered tower. Two projector screens hang on either side of the structure, a diptych. On the left side of the tower, on what appears to be a large steel ladder, stands DJ Total Freedom, back arched over a broad set of knobs and synthesizers, wearing a blond wig.

DJ Total Freedom’s mix establishes an unnerving ambiance. Harsh tones undulate between pitched-down vocal samples and metallic percussion.  Samples, some vocal, some instrumental, have an archival quality, aged as if played from a broken jukebox. There is a conflict: the sonic media, historical and contemporary, are confused—there’s friction here, distinctions between new and old made irrelevant. And the audience discomfort is palpable.

The Bandwagon, Moran’s ensemble, takes position. The tower has three levels—stages—for the performers. The bassist, Tarus Mateen, sits at the bottom within the scaffolding, perched on his amplifier. On level two of the temporary steel stage with gray industrial carpet sits Jason Moran at a grand piano. Above him, on level three, sits the drummer, Nasheet Waits, enclosed within a clear plastic panel room—a hybrid shelter between a recording studio and a wilderness deer-hunting tower. It is a temporary structure, module, designed to be taken down and rebuilt at any location. The stages, compressed into a single structure, appear somewhere between building scaffolding and a survivalist compound.

Nasheet Waits in The Last Jazz Fest. Photo: Bobby Rogers

Moran begins to play, though it is hard to tell at first, is this a sample or is it live? Unable to discern the digital from analogue, the “recorded” from the “live,” I am groundless. I am surprised by how much I desire temporal clarity. For the evening, the contemporary and the historical are fluid: sometimes in conflict, sometimes in concert. I found myself, somewhat embarrassingly, just wanting to hear the “jazz.”

Images transition from saccharine moons to nighttime nature landscapes. These images are lo-fi, grainy, punctuated with stock digital renderings of trees and bushes. DJ Total Freedom’s sonic modulation softens, transitioning the images from night to day. Cutting between iPhone, Instagram, and 4K formats, Fitch/Trecartin’s images are saturated with greens and yellows, grotesquely so, yet the landscape itself is banal. The foliage is reminiscent of a park, a suburban yard, or town forest. There is nothing epic or particularly “beautiful” about this landscape. A forklift comically cruises up a newly dug dirt road with a small piano ratchet strapped to its front. With Moran’s live composition, the tractor montage takes on silent film quality, like that of a Buster Keaton film. Images of nature with jazz composition feels misaligned. I cannot immediately make the connection, how are these spaces, “jazz” and “nature” related?

The Bandwagon flawlessly moves from one song to the next, sampling only parts of songs, eras, and movements, before swiftly improvising into another phrase. The performance starts to resemble a series of “sets” woven and digitally compressed by DJ Total Freedom. The name, The Last Jazz Fest, is clarified: It is not a festival of jazz performed by various jazz musicians; Moran is performing, in totality, a Jazz Festival.

Images transition from outdoor banality to audience reactions. Audience members clap and dramatically respond to what appears to be The Bandwagon’s performance. Is this footage prerecorded? Again there is temporal confusion. Are we watching ourselves in real time? The digital audience holds up signs and with jazz slogans, like spectators at a sporting event—an ontological shift occurs: we are looking at Jumbotrons, not projector screens, are we in a sports stadium, not a theater? Who will win The Last Jazz Fest?

Fitch/Trecartin sample sequences from Site Visit, their recent project, a ghost-hunting reality TV show filmed in the former Wilshire Boulevard Scottish Rite Masonic Temple.  Sampled within this new context, the stage, a backdrop in Site Visit, is the focus of the re-edit. Fitch/Trecartin’s performers destroy the theater and stage, ripping out seating, smashing mirrors, breaking light bulbs, demolishing walls—a classic Fitch/Trecartin shit show. Particular emphasis is given to a tractor tire; rolling from the balcony, cascading onto the stage, knocking drones out of the air. Drones surveil the stage, documenting tents, tires, fake plants, rowboats, motorcycles, and nonsensical ratchet strap systems. The stage looks like an apocalyptic REI display.

The Last Jazz Fest. Photo: Bobby Rogers

Towards the end, the spotlight dims and Total Freedom’s mix fades into a sample of Adrian Piper’s voice. Adrian Piper, the conceptual artist and philosopher, speaks to the necessity of artistic transparency regarding the process and meaning of artists’ work: artists should write about their work—this would help bridge barriers between artist, the art world, and the general public. The sample is a direct reference to an earlier Walker-commissioned Moran project, Milestone, in 2005, an evening-length theatrical project in collaboration with Adrian Piper. Milestone, based mainly on Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being (1974) attempts to translate its directness, its personal yet historical address, into Moran’s composition. Here, again, the historical and present collide, couched within a challenging performance. Piper’s plea for transparency feels contradictory, even Moran himself has opted out of any direct address, hence the poetic artist statement.

For the last third of the performance, The Bandwagon continues traveling through a festival of sampled history—this is as “jazzy” as the performance gets, though still fragmented in Moran’s style. I realize Moran is no longer playing, though piano riffs continue. Tarus Mateen, sets down his instrument, leaving just the drummer, Nasheet Waits, playing solo at the top of the tower. This hunting tower/recording booth acts as the architectural fusion of Fitch/Trecartin’s nature deconstruction and Moran’s exploration of jazz history—both are stages for fantasy.

There’s a myth of nature in American culture, one that obscures the violence and destruction necessary to construct such a stage—a violent erasure of people and history that came beforehand. As it has for decades, from Instagram influencers back to the Hudson River school, “wilderness” and “nature” provide a stage of American fantasies of presence, mindfulness, spiritual transcendence, escape, even selfhood. For Fitch/Trecartin, “nature” is just another department in their post-apocalyptic mall—nature as a luxury good.

Wrapping up the performance, Tarus Mateen makes his way to the bottom of the structure. Mateen, Moran, and Waits meet. The Bandwagon grabs onto the underside of the scaffolding and starts doing pull-ups, the lights fade. The Last Jazz Fest concludes with three black men doing pull-ups at the bottom of a construction scaffolding. This conclusion is powerful, disturbing—isn’t this what we wanted? Is this a distillation? The Last Jazz Fest was a tie, and this is sudden death.

The Last Jazz Fest. Photo: Bobby Rogers

Like Fitch/Trecartin’s audience footage and Piper’s voice, Moran points his finger at us: we expected The Bandwagon to perform “a Jazz fest” for a primarily white audience, who have a certain idea of what jazz is.

Maybe Moran is, as Piper desired, being transparent, maybe what was so uncomfortable about the performance is his radical transparency, a simultaneous acknowledgment of the historic and present condition of jazz and black identity. The Last Jazz Fest presents a logic, a history, a space that is not for us, the audience, but one for the performers, the musicians.

Is this The Last Jazz Fest? As Fitch/Trecartin distilled nature to a stage for white fantasy, is it time to let go of our desire for transcendence, to see jazz quarantined to the stage, outside of its clubs, its black history, and cultural context. Perhaps the “end” provides agency, a way for The Bandwagon to reclaim a history, a culture, a ritual from its spectators and return it to its performers, its culture. An opportunity to see jazz not as a stage for our fantasies, but as a space for black imagination, improvisation—freedom.

Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.