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Music Review: Jason Moran – Artist in Residence

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“Breakdown misunderstanding, breakdown the artist,” a looped refrain from African American philosopher/artist Adrian Piper, is the opening to jazz pianist Jason Moran’s new album Artist in Residence. Piper’s metaphor is a theme throughout Moran’s seventh work for Blue Note Records.

As with previous works, Moran and his brilliant back-up group Bandwagon breaks down the history of jazz music, having created the experimental hybrid blues on Same Mother and an amazing improvisational effort with flutist Sam Rivers, Black Stars. On each of those records, Moran showed a flair for highly complex rhythms which weaved new frontiers for the genre’s they explored. Artist in Residence is a more subdued effort, with Moran’s minimalist approach sounding similar to Steven Reich in some places and at other times approaching the mad genius of Thelonious Monk in the free jazz composition “RAIN.”

Each of the tracks on Artist in Residence was commissioned by art and theatre centers across the country. The result is a record of Moran’s artistic exchanges and encounters with the Art World, and a deeper look into the concepts of Piper. The first track, “Break Down,” is a straight ahead composition with Piper’s sampled vocals layered over the instrumental tracks almost giving the piece a hip-hop feel. “Milestones” combines an operatic vocal performed by Moran’s wife Alicia Hall that meshes with a gently melodic ensemble piece featuring the bass work of Tarus Mateen and Marvin Sewell’s guitar.

“Milestones” is reminiscent of the European jazz found on most ECM releases, with Mateen’s bass a tribute to the work of Charlie Haden and Sewell’s harmonics similar to the earlier material of Pat Metheny. This style is continued in Refraction 2, which captures the spirit of Metheny and longtime collaborator Lyle Mays on As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. “Cradle Song,” a solo piece, is a tribute to Moran’s mother, who scribbled notes while Moran practiced piano as a child. Moran includes an inspired overlay of a person scratching out notes determinedly with a pencil.

For me, the standout piece is “RAIN”, which has its origins in the ring shouts from the era of slavery. It starts slowly, with Ralph Alessi’s trumpet, Sewell’s guitar and Abdou M’boup on percussion, and gradually builds – adding Moran’s brilliant noodling until the song almost explodes in a cacophony of joy. It is one of many trapdoors constructed into the piece, which traverses a number of bridges that lead into lush musical waves of pure African, straight ahead and avant-garde jazz.

In essence, Artist in Residence is an album of revered musical elements stretched and reconfigured by Moran and Bandwagon, expanding the territories claimed by jazz. Moran breaks down both misunderstanding of the jazz form and himself the artist, presenting an album full of deep insight and appreciation for jazz, and art that inspires us all.

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