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Jazz pianist Jason Moran finds music in the sounds around him

By Marianne Messina

TAKING FULL ADVANTAGE of New York City's vitality, Jason Moran ingests gobs of environment and churns it out as music. A day in the life of this young jazz pianist/composer might include a trip to the Metropolitan Museum, a tight-fit jam session in his bedroom with trio-mates Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits, and most certainly, movies.

On his new album, Facing Left, the song "Yojimbo" was inspired by Kurasawa's samurai film. Another piece revamps Carmine Coppola's "Murder of Don Fannuci" from Moran's all-time favorite movie, The Godfather Part II. Beneath the crisp jazz overlay a dark underworld of conflict seethes and boils. Similarly, "Battle of the Cattle Acts" sounded like a rumble, according to Moran, with its introductory melody played on drums. "Drums are like a warrior's instrument," Moran explains.

The self-proclaimed multitasker often has TV, music, phone and computer all going at once. "It's like a constant bombardment," he admits. "And that lends itself to the kind of stuff that I write because it's at times very scattered in its resources." He is also given to diabolical experimentation. In "Fragment of a Necklace," Moran generated the rhythm by applying mathematical equations and graphs. Aptly titled, the song's chaotic musical thoughts never complete themselves. Another experiment, "Retrograde," is a song by Moran's mentor, Andrew Hill, played backwards. "The harmonic resolutions don't have the same function," Moran points out. "You are forced to create an improvisation that you may not harmonically be used to."

Armed with a software program that graphically depicts the wave components of sounds, Moran thinks nothing of dissecting the human voice and transcribing the pitches to make songs. He mentions one piece written around the taped conversation of a pimp talking in a documentary movie. "I put it in the computer; then I totally transcribed it. It was very interesting to look at how, when the pimp got on the phone and he was talking to one of his workers, he was really making harmonic sequences with his vocal inflections. And when he got indifferent or a little angry, the key changed. And then at the very end, he said, 'Everything will be OK' and he made this complete resolution. It was very strange."

This year, the prestigious San Francisco Jazz Festival commissioned Moran to compose an original piece. "I wanted to stretch the boundaries of what I normally write," says the 25-year-old Moran. The piece, to be unveiled October 31, involves playing to a computer-tampered tape. "What I did was tape myself saying 'A San Francisco Jazz Festival commission,' and really altered it a lot to where for the first minute or so it sounds more like a bass line than a person talking. Then it breaks down; it starts to sound like it's stuttering ... and then I wrote music that accompanies that ... I think this was the perfect opportunity to try something that I always envisioned doing--basically something crazy ... it should be interesting."

Jason Moran will be playing Sunday, Oct 29, at 5pm at Fuel, 44 S. Almaden Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $15. 408.295.7374.

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From the October 26-November 1, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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