Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano

Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano


Howard Adelman

I will return to my series on antisemitism soon enough, but I must take two detours, one into jazz and a second into the theory and practice of sovereignty based on a conference I attended Friday.

I am not a jazz aficionado. I have no record or disc collection. And though I listen to Jazz FM91 on the radio, I would not say I do it regularly. But I do ensure I get my fix by attending the jazz series at Koerner Hall that Mervon Mehta puts together each year.

It was not always like that. I used to teach in the evenings. In the seventies, after my graduate seminar, I would drop into one of the clubs for one set as a way of unwinding before heading home. I was not a fan of rock and missed many famous concerts – such as the one in 1977 before I moved to Israel for a year when Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones performed and then was busted for heroin possession on an occasion made even more famous because he was consorting with Margaret Trudeau, the mother of our current Prime Minister, who had just split with Justin’s father when the latter was Prime Minister. I missed Richard’s concert at the El Mocambo, even though I often went there when a blues band was playing.

I was not a purist, for I often went to the Horseshoe Tavern on the north side of Queen Street to listen to country, though I stopped when the venue switched to emphasizing punk. I loved listening to the Downchild Blues Band at Grossman’s Tavern in my childhood district on Spadina Avenue between Dundas and College Streets. However, my favourite place was the Chick’N’Deli on Mt. Pleasant just south of Eglington, partly because the scene was so intimate, partly because the venue was en route from Glendon College to my home, but mostly because some of the greatest jazz greats played there.

What takes me down this nostalgic lane was listening last night to one of the most terrific jazz concerts I have ever heard. Jason Moran and The Bandwagon were featured at Koerner Hall last night. The trio, which included Tarus Mateen on the bass guitar and Nasheet Waits on drums, played one tune by Fats Waller, “The Sheik of Araby.” Sometime in the seventies, I had heard Fats Waller play that very tune at the Chick’N’Deli.

However, Jason said that was the tune he was playing. If he had not told me, I would never have known, perhaps the absolute proof that I am not a jazz aficionado. When Fats Waller played at the Chick’N’Deli, it was wild and the place was literally jumping. Jumpin and jivin! But last evening, Jason made the music soar instead. It cascaded up and up. Just when my heartbeat said it could not swirl faster and higher any longer, the music would go up again, faster at even greater heights and with more twists and turns, not once again, not twice again, but four or five times. I thought I would burst.

Jason Mason’s music whooshes and reaches crescendo after crescendo. Evidently, when he was in high school in Texas, he was an avid skateboarder. Jazz music clearly usurped skateboarding because it allowed him to almost escape the pull of gravity and to take us with him. This is not just a metaphor. While Waller would interweave Dixieland and blues, stride and swing, Jason was more of a classical artisan weaver who cut each strip from the trunk of a swamp tree and interwove those strips in new ways by infusing the music with both classical and post-modern atonal elements to create a synchronized whole.

In his porkpie hat and fashionably stubble beard, Jason Mason is a creator not a curator. He gives homage to traditional flare, but with complex rhythms that take you on a roller coaster that is no longer anchored to the ground. Yet he allows you to savour each and every note.

It is hard to choose which was the best number. His piece, Thelonious, that he played last evening was one of Monk’s own compositions. The playing was both a tribute and one personified by Moran. Jason Moran regards Thelonious Monk as the greatest jazz pianist in history. You can listen to a full tribute at http://www.npr.org/event/music/446866440/jason-moran-plays-thelonious-monks-town-hall-concert. By intersecting modernist elements, the composition is refreshed, renewed and reinvigorated in an absolutely new way. It should not be surprising that the first album that Jason released in 2002 was called Modernistic.

Last night, Jason Moran played Body and Soul in a way that took out the conjunction and turned the body into soul. It was like having a religious experience. But his music is also political. He has written compositions to convey the feeling of both slavery in America, apartheid in South Africa and, in the movie, Selma, the struggle against institutionalized discrimination against blacks that continued into the sixties in the United States and has taken new forms since. Moran fuses intellectual analysis with empathetic re-enactment. He will infuse pop genres unfamiliar to me, but also combining African beats and stride. He played a portion of Wind taken from the soundtrack that he wrote for the famous 2016 documentary 13th on race, and incarceration rates in the U.S. injustice system that I have yet to see, but I have read enough about it to know I must watch it. The music he played last night made me move it to top place on my bucket list.

I Ain’t Misbehavin and I Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, but when I do, Sweet Honey Bee in the hands of Jason Moran, Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits takes me upward into the clouds to suck sweet nectar from extra-terrestrial flowers. At the same time, like Fats Waller’s most famous tune, the music takes me home, takes me on a nostalgic trip when my first brood were just entering their teens, and when I was totally immersed in my teaching and research career. That is more than a metaphor. Moran and his trio opened with a tune called Gangsters or something – I did not catch the title – or perhaps I heard it totally incorrectly because I was thinking about an Australian mobster and drug dealer by the same name as Jason Moran who had become infamous when I was visiting Australia fifteen years ago before I even became a research professor there from 2005-2008. Until I heard that number, it never occurred to me that jazz could really be about murder and mayhem.

Moran is no gangster. Instead of killing, he is truly a genius well deserving of all the awards he has accumulated, including a Genius Award and MacArthur Fellowship (2010). He has had many nominations and several times won as best jazz pianist of the year. For, in addition to his own original works, he allows artists to be born again in a new way for a contemporary audience. He himself is an artist pure and simple, so it is no surprise that he composes works that accompany art installations and creates video artworks collected by MOMA.


If he comes your way, do not miss him.


With the help of Alex Zisman




Howard Adelman

Last night I fell in love – head over heels as the cliché goes. Her name is Helen Sung. She has a diminutive body and small Asian hands and looks like a Korean teenager or a young girl in her early twenties, but you know you cannot trust Asian stereotypes to help you pin down age or place of origin. For she was born in Houston Texas and trained in classical piano and violin at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. She earned her first two music degrees in classical music at the University of Texas in Austin but then switched to jazz and trained at the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Even though she has never before performed in Toronto, if I was a true jazz aficionado instead of just an amateur lover, I would have known about her. Instead her playing hit me like a wallop.  It had power but was extremely delicate. When she played a riff, you could hear every single note. And each was so precise. One time as she turned from the piano to the keyboard – she sometimes played both at the same time – she played and music came forth sounding almost as if it was being performed on a bass instrument and the Israeli bass player in the background, Tamir Shmerling, was not playing at the moment. Great jazz players, like rap artists, play off one another as they go from solos to background players and accompanists, but Helen Sung played as if she were part of a classical quintet. She was always in precise tune with all the other players. She not only listened keenly to each of the other performers, but smiled in joy as she listed to them perform. I have never heard a jazz pianist like her, including the late and justly famed homegrown Oscar Peterson who was dubbed the Maharaja of the keyboard by Duke Ellington.

Lynne Carrington, the celebrated percussionist and her Mosaic Project headlined at the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall last night with the Canadian, though now also living in New York, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and Tia Fuller on sax and clarinet. The latter two were just brilliant – all the more testimony to Helen Sung’s playing which my ears could not help bringing in the foreground when the others were performing their amazing solos. And that was certainly absolutely not because she made any effort to upstage them. Further, this was in spite of the fact that Terri Lyne Carrington – who is without a doubt a great drummer – often played a little too loud for my taste when she was just providing rhythm for the other players.

At intermission, I immediately bought several CDs, not only of the Mosaic recording, but two copies of Helen Sung’s “Anthem for a New Day”. One will be sent this morning to my thirteen year old grandson – the brilliant chess player that I have written about before – who also plays cool jazz piano. If Helen teaches jazz, I am determined to contact her and see if she would be willing to give Jo Jo lessons. When I got up this morning, I immediately looked up Helen Sung’s bio on the web.

She has been performing as a jazz professional for over sixteen years. Anthem for a New Day is her sixth album. She writes, composes and arranges, but I do not believe that any of her own original music was played last night. I saw Mervon Mehta, the Executive Director of the Royal Conservatory’s Performing Arts series during intermission, and urged him to bring Helen back to Toronto as a soloist. He needed no urging from me. He was as obviously enthusiastic and smitten by her playing as I was. When we go to New York to visit my daughter Shon in the second week in May, I hope she will be performing somewhere in New York so we can see and hear her again. The fusion of classical sensibility with a jazz expression is absolutely breathtaking.

Helen Sung can play rapid-fire jazz with bravado as well as quiet lyrical piece with great soul. Her range of musical hues is stunning. When technical proficiency combines with lyricism and a sense of musicality and exquisite sensitivity to the melody, what emerges is the music of the heavens. Later this morning, I will listen to her own CD and if it is as great as I anticipate, I will order her one or two of her other six albums – ReConception, Going Express, but especially her 2009 album, Brother Thelonius

It is unfair to the other star performers when an audience member falls in love with one of them – but c’est la vie. I should not overlook mentioning Nona Hendryx who performed five or so numbers as a soloist throughout the evening. She was marvellous with a powerful range and a very soulful blues and rock mixture that betrayed her roots. Last night one of those tunes was “Strange Fruit” which was more moving (and more frightening) than ever. 

 It is even more unfair when a competing performance of the well-known Bad Mehidau trio was performing at Massey Hall so, for the first time that I recall, Koerner Hall did not have a sold out house last night. Tis a pity since some others could have heard the best evening of the year.

True lovers, you see, are not exclusivists.