Houston-born pianist and composer Jason Moran at Discovery Green earlier this year

Image: Katya Horner

All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller
Blue Note Records
Available now 

Earlier this year the Washington Post published a scathing critique of modern jazz. According to music critic Justin Moyer, jazz nowadays is too far removed from its vocal roots, overly concerned with improvisation, and pathologically averse to new ideas and genres. In other words, jazz is dead. This is an old saw—one that couldn’t be less applicable to the current moment. Singing doesn’t play a prominent role in jazz anymore? Tell that to singer/bassist Esparanza Spalding, whose last album cracked the Billboard Top 10. Jazz is too technical? Actually, many prominent young jazz artists like The Bad Plus, Dawn of Midi, Vijay Iyer, and Nicholas Payton eschew long, self-indulgent, bop-like solos on their records in favor of riffs and tightly crafted songs. Jazz doesn’t play well with others? Robert Glasper, a jazz pianist and Houston native who won a Grammy last year for his album Black Radio, which featured various hip-hop and R&B acts, might beg to differ.

Put simply, anyone who is seriously paying attention can see that jazz is far from moribund. In fact, over the last few years, as the aforementioned artists have gained considerable recognition, the genre has enjoyed something of a renaissance. Thirty-nine-year-old pianist Jason Moran, who grew up in Third Ward, laid the foundation for that renaissance during the first decade of the 21st century with a string of solo albums that demonstrated both his mastery of Ellington- and Monk-based pianism and his deep affection for contemporary popular music, particularly hip-hop, neo-soul, and electronica. “I’m a modern player,” Moran told Rick Mitchell back in 2002 (quoted in Mitchell’s recent book Jazz in the New Millenium: Live and Well). “I bring new ideas to old things.” Last month, after a four-year hiatus from recording as a band leader, the MacArthur Fellow released his eighth album, All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller, a collaborative project that emerged out of a series of public dance parties he and genre-defying singer/songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello began hosting in 2011. Needless to say, it’s an album that should be mandatory listening for all of the Justin Moyers of the world.

The intro features a chopped and screwed vocal sample of Waller explaining how to play an organ—you’ve got to “put your hands on it, get that right tickin’ rhythm”—over a Wu-Tang-esque beat. It perfectly encapsulates Moran’s longstanding mission to revamp, rather than mimic, the music of the past.  From there the album abruptly moves into the lead single, a mid-tempo, horn-laden remake of Waller’s 1929 hit “Ain’t Misbehavin’” led by Ndegeocello that sounds more like an homage to acid jazz than to the music of the roaring twenties. Next comes the instrumental cut “Yacht Club Swing,” one of several forays into Afro-beat found on the album, followed by a trio version of “Lulu’s Back in Town,” which offers another glimpse at how one can trace the stop-and-go aesthetics of modern beat-making—think not just percussive sampling but also cutting and scratching—all the way back to stride piano.

By this point in the album it’s clear that Moran is much more than a modernizer. He and Ndegeocello both have an incredible gift for isolating and laying bare the very real connections between jazz and other genres, some of which, like hip-hop, are often considered fairly distant relatives.  One knows intellectually that these art forms are part of a continuum. But while listening to this album you don’t just know it—you feel it. Especially on two other standards: “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” On the former, Lisa E. Harris follows the original melody for the verses and is joined by Ndegeocello for a brilliantly soulful refashioning of the hook, while Moran switches in and out of stride on a basic, gospel-tinged vamp. “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” however, is the album’s real highlight. Ndegeocello slows it down, gently and playfully teasing out the song’s eroticism and pathos with her smooth vocals. She somehow manages to sound lustful, defiant, and lonely all at once. Her version seems destined to go down as a classic interpretation— no small feat considering that the tune has been recorded by Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday.

All Rise is the closest Moran has come to producing a masterpiece. It’s not perfect. “The Two Sleepy People,” for instance, sung by Houston-bred trumpeter Leron Thomas, seems out of place here—a little too Christmas-y. Nevertheless, it’s the most consistent album—conceptually and instrumentally—this leader of the new school has released so far. Even the sound quality is outstanding (it was mixed by Bob Power, the soundman behind albums by Erykah Badu and D’Angelo). I should also add that those allergic to virtuosity will be pleased to find that the soloists don’t ramble. One hopes that Moran will continue to move in this direction and keep breathing life into what many of us still consider America’s greatest indigenous art form—the Washington Post be damned.   

 

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