Some CDs would make better records. The best vinyl releases built to a conclusion after the first half hour and then took advantage of the few minutes when you lifted the needle and flipped the record to regroup and refocus in order to grab your attention when side B started spinning.
Jason Moran, the extraordinary jazz composer and pianist, puts together half of an amazing record on Same Mother (Blue Note). If it were vinyl, I would play the flip side until the groves wore out. As a CD, though, the less focused and less successful first half of Same Mother buries the good work on the second.
“Gangsterism on the Rise” starts the album on a promising note, with Moran pounding out figures with the left hand while adding a graceful, slightly off-kilter run of notes with the right. It’s his signature style, which owes an enormous debt to Andrew Hill, and the composition recalls Moran’s best work from previous albums. No surprise, since a song from the Gangsterism series, inspired by the paintings of Jean Michel Baquiat, appears on every album Moran has recorded. Like a clock winding down, the song slows to the halt, promising that something completely different will come next.
“Jump Up,” which follows, seems less a new direction than pandering. With the addition of guitarist Marvin Sewell, best known for his work in Cassandra Wilson’s band, Moran and his trio, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, romp through the kind of overblown blues more often played by middle age white guys with beer bellies. Moran claims to be inspired by roadhouse blues, but neither “Jump Up” nor “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” an Albert King ballad from the 1970s, bristles with the raw energy of good blues.
When the group turns to “Fire Waltz,” a classic by Moran’s teacher Jaki Byard, they finally find focus. The song begins with an urgent, buzzing bass line by Mateen before breaking into a lopsided waltz. Almost melodramatic, the song builds in intensity with a classical precision before splintering apart at both the low and the high registers.
From that moment on, there are no more missteps in Same Mother. “Field of Dead” is a heartbreaking performance, with the Sewell’s sliding acoustic guitar grasping like an exhausted man reaching out for help. “Restin’,” an airy, atmospheric piece proves more affecting for its minimalism. “The Field” continues the minimalism with Moran creating echoing patterns that move far from jazz into contemporary classical music before returning to more familiar ground with a lovely series of chord changes.
The second half of Same Mother feels like a breakthrough for Moran. His previous recordings were overflowing with ideas. With the compositions that end Same Mother, Moran welcomes space into his work and creates devastating power with a few well chosen notes. This is the music I want to hear more of, not the overproduced blues that mars the first half of the album. Let’s hope that Moran feels the same.
Originally posted at A Frolic of My Own.