I started getting into pianist Jason Moran's music a couple of years ago. This is what I can assess about his playing thus far: he tells stories in the jazz language about the human experience. He's a groundbreaking, forward-thinking composer, a serious improviser and risk taker. Nothing I've heard him do is predictable. Like all musicians that I hold in the highest regard, his sound is instantly recognizable.
Moran's latest record, Artist in Residence, is based on music he created for three commissioned works over a year's time for The Walker Center in Minneapolis, the Dia Art Foundation, and Jazz at Lincoln Center. The commission at Walker Art Center is where Moran and his wife, soprano Alicia Hall Moran, composed and performed based on conceptual artist and philosopher Adrian Piper's work The Mythic Being: I/You (Her). For the Dia Art Foundation, the pianist collaborated with video/performance artist Joan Jonas to create The Scent, the Shape, the Feel of Things. Moran used an expanded version of his band, The Bandwagon, for RAIN, his inaugural commission for Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Providing the sound for three different concepts creates a challenging listen, yet Artist in Residence is greatly rewarding. This is by far Moran's most expressive work. Out of everything he states on Artist, the most compelling is Moran's ability to capture the sacredness of simple human interaction.
Mike McKinley: Last weekend I had a long car ride by myself, and it was the first time I really got to crank up your new album [Artist in Residence] and listen to it uninterrupted. It got me thinking about the last time we spoke, when Same Mother came out. You were at that point in your career where you were seriously thinking about the purpose of everything that you're writing, asking, "What's the purpose of this piece of music?" And my reaction after listening to Artist was, "Well, yeah, each one of these compositions has a purpose, and it's saying something." So, what are some of your thoughts about the album, and as a collection of compositions what you're trying to get across here?
Jason Moran: It's publicly investigating that question of purpose of the art of the abstract -- music especially being an extremely abstract form -- and really trying to make sure that the message is clear. What was great about being commissioned to write some of these pieces was I could actually focus on a purpose, or focus on an idea or an artist or a theme and go from there. And with each institution it was to just examine those reasons for being and reasons for making music. It always seems that other people are being very clear, but then once it gets to jazz, for most of it, it's fairly unclear -- which is the beauty, which makes it work. But then there's someone like John Coltrane: when you hear some of that music, there's no mistaking its purpose, there's no mistaking its message and that's one of the goals.

Right, absolutely. Another thought I had listening to this album was the risk. Jazz naturally has risk-the nature of the music has risk involved. But putting out an album like Artist in Residence, I thought it was a different kind risk. It's based on collaborations with different artists outside the realm of music; instead of just doing your own thing. I guess I've been thinking that with a lot of jazz musicians is that risk is almost becoming boring because you expect it [laughs]. You want something kind of different, you expect them inherently to be risk takers and out there taking a chance, and that's what I thought was really refreshing when I listened to this album: it was a different kind of risk, the whole approach.
Well, take Adrian Piper: when I spoke with her about a lot of the work that she did, some of which investigates really thoroughly her upbringing and her history -- she uses her history as some of the main subject matter for a lot of her pieces. And she said when she was putting those pieces out that some of the reviews people would write about the work were pretty harsh and negative. Say she had a piece with her family members in it, they would write bad things about the family as well, and she was extremely hurt by that. And when we were discussing the commission that I did for the Walker Art Center she said, "Be very careful, because if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't." And I thought that was an extremely interesting thing because I would never assume that she felt that way about her work, that some of the most powerful work that she's ever done, if she had a chance, would take it back. It's a very interesting way to look at what we produce and how we produce it. And so she said, "If you decide to include your family in some of your work, it begins to get touchy, and people try to pick it apart as much as they can -- be careful." It was kind of this ominous statement before I did my piece. I proceeded to do whatever I decided to do anyway, but I thought that was extremely interesting.
Yeah, I'm not sure… do you feel as though you agree or disagree with that?
Well, that's what makes her, her. I need her to be that way; I need her to put everything out in front of everyone, all of her audience. I need Adrian to relinquish her work like that. For me to help me do what I need to do, because it's a great symbol: it's a great example of what one can do with their personal history. And so I don't agree with her but I thought that opposite end of the spectrum of how to analyze that feeling was something that I had actually never taken into consideration. And for me what the work needs now is actually more consideration; my work is really yearning for more consideration. More consideration with the ensemble; more consideration with the music or the chords or the rhythm.
You chose to work with her when you did this commission. What was it about her work?
Well, I saw a retrospective of her work in Barcelona, and her work, which began in the conceptual phase, or era, is really abstract in that you see the process of making the work and that is the work-you don't see a finished copy, it never looks like a finished copy. But then her work has shifted to some issues on race and gender and a lot of that work has been the work that has kind of defined her. But looking at her work I was never ever mistaken about what I was seeing. I thought her message was so clear, just like in the conceptual work you always saw the equation which gave the result. And with this work on these kind of social issues, you saw the message, you saw the answer and you saw the problem within the work, and there was no mistaking. You can't look at an apple then decide; oh that's actually a flower. Nah, the shit's an apple. And her work, for me when I looked at it, it was always kind of constantly piercing me, constantly hitting me right in my spine. Like when you hear a good piece of music. I say it aligns with my spine, because it is part of my root, whatever that sound is. It may be some Hungarian shit but its part of my root. So looking at her work I was seeing somebody that was extremely clear, you know? And a lot of contemporary art sometimes has no vision, no thought-as in all genres-but I thought she was exceptional at putting the message out and making you reflect on the problem. Is the problem that I'm a racist? Or is the problem that I'm a sexist? Or is the problem the war? There was never any mistaking her work, and I said, "Man that's something I'd like to strive for." Because she's not even working in my field, but this is amazing.
Right, just undeniable. So how did that translate into your approach to composing?
With some of these pieces -- the stuff we did at the Walker, the "Milestone" commission -- my wife [Alicia Hall Moran] and I kind of came up with or created a performance. So it's more than just the music, it's almost like you're listening to the highlights from the opera. But once you see the entire opera it's like, "OK, now I see the set design, now I see the orchestra, I see the singer; I see their expressions." We kind of created, not an opera, but a performance of a performance, and so we exposed what would happen backstage. So you're hearing this music on the record that is part of the main themes behind "Milestone" -- the theme or the thesis that artists ought to be writing about what they do: what types of procedures they go through to realize a work, what their predispositions in creating a work are, and it goes on. And that became what the piece revolved around, what the piece centered on. And so you know, that's kind of how I've been composing. I'm not a singer, so I can use Adrian's voice this way. So people know this is kind of what I'm striving for. None of these compositions are answers, per se, as much as they are examinations of the question.
What about the other artist you work with?
Joan Jonas. She's one of those seminal video performance artists, and she came to my commission, "RAIN," at Jazz at Lincoln Center. One of her friends recommended that she see me play because she was looking for a composer for her new performance piece. And she saw us perform "RAIN" at Lincoln Center and then the next Monday she called, out of the blue. And I didn't know who Joan Jonas was, but she described her commission, the commission that she got from the Dia Foundation, and just in her brief, very brief description and how she talked about music, I was all in, just without ever even knowing her. And once I did my research I was totally flattered. Joan works with space rather than how some artists work on canvas or they work on marble or they work with wood or video. She works with space, so maybe your entire house would become her canvas; how to really use each piece of the house live, so you're creating a live art piece. So the piece that we did, The Shape, The Sense and The Feel of Things, is a really long performance piece, which has actors and live video. Where we perform it is in this museum, Dia Beacon, it used to be an old Nabisco factory, so just imagine the scope of things. And we're down there performing for an hour and twenty minutes straight, and I'm playing solo piano. It's a phenomenal place to perform, and then to watch her, we've worked on it for 6 months, to watch her kind of create this piece, it was unbelievable and eye opening to think about space in that way.
Again, working with Joan, how did that translate when you sat down to compose?
JM: The great thing about working with Joan is that she enjoys music so much that you would always know what she likes, and she would tell you what she likes. And we would kind of improvise back and forth; I would play something and then she would start dancing or she would start moving or she would start improvising text and then after a while we centered on some of these themes, which are some of the things I have on the record. That was kind of composing in a way -- when you're not sitting in a room by yourself but you're actually working on creating things live with the producer or with the other creator. And so that makes it just as much Joan's composition as much as it is mine because, you know, she was inspiring some of the pieces that I played with her: the notes and the rhythms, and then we did it so much that it became a composition. That's a very different way for me to compose. The only other time I've worked with somebody that close was working with Andrew Hill, and they're around the same age. So it was quite an amazing experience.
You mentioned the composition "RAIN." That's the one that really stretches out the most on the album. I really like it, so let's talk a little bit about that composition and what you were going for.
It's like our 2005 version of a ring shout, which is what happened in the slave culture. Slaves would sometimes be in the woods or they would be in a church after a service and they would have these ring shouts where a lot of singing would go on, a lot of joy, a lot of dancing in a circle in a counter-clockwise movement, they would dance and sing -- and many times for hours. These are the reports that I've read, this happened back in the late 1800s, mid 1800s down in Texas and Georgia. There are still many places today that recreate the tradition. And so I was thinking about my being an African-American in 2006 and always being so in touch with who and what was slavery in America, and being so much a product of that, then thinking about how to reflect on that in a way and compose a piece that would kind of grow, not only reflect the joy of being alive today, but also the pain of what most of those people endured. And it's kind of crazy to think that somebody in the 1800s would never necessarily know that five or six or seven generations later that this would be some of their offspring and this is what they're doing, you know? So I chose one theme and decided to address this theme and to really take it into a couple different zones and by the end reach this frenzy that, you know, many of the people that witnessed the ring shouts tried to recreate this frenzy that most of them kind of arrived at where everybody is kind of losing themselves and losing control of their body, and then they're totally exhausted and then it's over, just that quick. So, that's kind of what the piece is about.