Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano

Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano

by

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

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Jazz and Democracy

Jazz and Democracy

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday evening on stage at that absolutely exceptional musical venue, Koerner Hall, Marcus Roberts, after he introduced the outstanding members of his band, The Modern Jazz Generation, and his planned program of the evening celebrating New Orleans and the jazz greats from that amazing city, turned toward his piano and seemed about to play. Then he turned back to the audience. He said that, although he had blabbered on long enough and should begin playing, he wanted to ask the audience a question. Perhaps they had heard there was an election going on south of them. He wondered whether there were any supporters of Donald Trump in the audience.

To my surprise, there were a considerable number as indicated by the applause and the favourable shouts. I thought Marcus Roberts would get up and walk out. Instead he asked, “And who supports Hillary Clinton?” The applause and cheers made the response for Trump seem miniscule in comparison. Then he asked, “Who supports Bernie Sanders?” It was hard to tell who received more applause, Hillary or Bernie. In the din and chatter that followed, before he turned back to play, I thought (or imagined) he mumbled, “Well I guess I can stay for the evening and play.

Though there were a scattered few young people in the audience, mostly musicians I guessed, the overwhelming majority were long in the tooth like myself. Our teenage years were spent in an age of crooners, in an Al Jolson revival, and with doo-wap and then folk music dominating the air waves before the early rockabilly of Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis took over as rock-and-roll, Elvis Presley and the British Beatles invasion displaced jazz as the musical beat of the young. I still remember listening to Bo Didley at the Chicken Deli on the west side of Mount Pleasant below Eglinton, when rock made rhythm and blues a musical medium for fogies in their late twenties, thirties and forties.

After all, when I started university, Blackboard Jungle was playing in the movie theatres and the sound track featured Bill Haley and His Comets performing, “We’re Going to Rock Around the Clock.” I loved the movie but found it hard to listen to what I considered raucous noise. In my faulty and confused memory, I initially thought that Sidney Poitier starred as the WWII vet and frustrated and forbearing English teacher in a tough inner-city American school, but as I replayed parts of the movie in my mind, Sydney Poitier was the leader of the hard-nosed gang and Glenn Ford was the teacher. I had superimposed a movie forty years later, “To Sir, with Love” onto 1955.

Long in the tooth indeed! I decided my memory had been ruined by loud music. After all, everyone needs a scapegoat. By the time I completed graduate school and began my career teaching philosophy, I left a concert by Bob Dylan at Massey Hall at the beginning of the second half because Dylan had switched from acoustic to an electric guitar; the din gave me an instant headache. Indeed, The Times They Were a-Changing and I could not keep up to the speed.

So I attend the jazz series concerts at Koerner Hall that combine rhythm and melody. Yesterday evening, I listened to the virtuoso drumming of Jason Marsalis. He is truly a genius and makes playing percussion much more than keeping the beat. He not only has mastered all the skills, but has turned drumming into a versatile medium of self-expression as Marcus Roberts sometimes boogy-woogied and other times wildly improvised on the ivories along with all the other jazz greats, young as well as old, who join him and without exception are virtuoso performers. At times it appeared that Roberts used a device on his lap which I guessed must have been a Braille reader that perhaps reminded him of the itinerary for the evening. But that is just a guess and I could not figure out why there seemed to be a bit of confusion in transitioning from one number to another in the second half.

Rodney Jordan was brilliant as the bassist and never seemed to even glance at the music on his stand. He was both the least ostentatious and modest musician of the bunch while always seeming to respond, as if on cue, to whatever music he heard around him – until he played his own solo. Wow! In the back tier of the jazz ensemble sat the incomparable Randall Haywood playing trumpet along with Alphonso Horne. The two were absolutely brilliant. Horne plays with a lot of swagger while Haywood is both bold and retiring at one and the same time. Corey Wilcox dominated the middle tier, not simply because he is a very big man, but his tuba seems enormous and then he switches to trumpet and even the horn. What a versatile and virtuoso performer! Surprisingly, Caleb Mason on trombone almost kept up. Joe Goldberg on clarinet (and sometimes alto sax), whom Marcus Roberts introduced as a former physics major, centred the front tier. Tissa Khosla, who evidently cooks the band remarkable Indian food, played a baritone (and sometimes tenor) sax on his left (our right). Ricardo Pascal was on Goldberg’s right playing on the tenor and soprano sax.

We heard a lot of diamond-toothed Jelly Roll Morton who predated my maturing ear. (The band played “Doctor Jazz” and “The Pearls” – Roberts said that the latter had been written by Morton for a girl he fell for in Europe). Louis Armstrong also dominated in the repertoire.

I walk away from an evening of such brilliant jazz feeling inspired and blessing the luck of almost eight decades of life. How can you listen to Duke Ellington’s music without being buoyed up! Marcus Roberts said last night that jazz lies at the soul of America and is always new and renewable. I think it is the most democratic music for it allows each individual musician to play “his own horn” while working in an ensemble and playing off as well as with the others. Everyone is given a voice. That is why it is the music of equal opportunity and brashness in the face of adversity. It is also a music of stable rhythms and clarity in the sound. You can hear every note, especially from the sax players.

As yesterday proved, the old can be new again, for democracy has a built-in reverence for tradition and the rule of law, but not as a set of prison bars, but as standard setting and discipline, as a framework within which individuals can grow and thrive. Democracy is NOT populism. Democracy depends on a depth of knowledge of one’s tradition and one’s contemporary environment. If it is great jazz, it is never superficial where mouthing what first comes into your mind can be mistaken for “telling it as it is.” Jazz is not postmodernist where everything is said to be of equal value. Democracy is built on standards and a dedication to protecting and enhancing those standards and allowing each individual to realize his or her full potential.

When I return in subsequent blogs to dissecting the internal and external dynamics of so-called “democracy” in Iran, please keep this in mind. Does the democracy deliver tambour and constantly renew itself by providing a decorative interlacing dialectic between the society and the supporting columns and foundations that raise that society up as well as hold it together? Do the rhythms and counter-rhythms play off one another and with one another, or does one side of the tension turn into a disloyal opposition intent on serving as a spoiler rather than a creative counter? Is the repetition and dominant rhythm one of a military band that ensures that everyone marches to the same tune, or is the beat there to ensure a constitutional core that facilitates spontaneity and creativity? Is the conversation one of call and response or does it display deaf ears that turn away from the language of the other? Does the political system cultivate listening or deafen us to the voices of others? In other words, as the miasma bubbles up in a volcanic changing environment, do we experience flight in the face of real or imagined fears, away from freedom, or does the prospect of change and renewal inspire a move towards freedom?

I do not mean to put down the mambo and the samba, rhumba or calypso, but jazz is the soul of America, as Marcus Roberts declared, because it and it alone reveres riffing and improvisation. America par excellence is the country of discovery, of invention. Are we promoting multiplicity or insisting upon uniformity? Are we revering dynamism or stasis? Are we insisting upon strict and confining boundaries or a realm which challenges and alters those boundaries? Do we revere blackness, the revelations of the dark side, or does that just scare the bejeebies out of us? And then do we wear hoods over our heads and white robes in the elusive and eternally unsuccessful, indeed absolutely stupid pursuit of absolute purity, terrific and necessary for the lab but irrelevant to the brutal confusions and chaos of everyday life? Do we understand that democracy has far more to do with the experience of Black Americans, as much as we owe to the white founders, some of whom owned slaves, who read David Hume, John Locke and Adam Smith and were children of the Scottish enlightenment? For though jazz is about invention and improvisation, that creativity requires standards of excellence, mastery of foundations. That is why Marcus Roberts is so dedicated to the preservation and renewal of the greats who founded the jazz tradition. Are those who inspire us – Gershwin and Stravinsky, Matisse and Picasso – ones who loved jazz? Is the political music open-ended or does it lead us to a dead end? Do we build by mastering a legacy or turning that heritage into idolatry?

Is our language of discourse one about frontiers or about closed and walled-off spaces? Is it about cross-fertilization of differences or about the restrictive boundaries? I, of course, in writing about Iran, will also be writing about Canada and the U.S.