Jazz pianist Jason Moran is a certified genius. It's true. He has a half million dollar check from the MacArthur Foundation to prove it. But Jason Moran isn't one of those brooding, can't-cook-ramen-but-can-write-a-tune kind of geniuses. He's actually a very charming man who happens to be able to play the hell out of a piano.
For just over an hour last night on the Billy Wilder stage at the Hammer Museum, Moran's solo concert at times bordered on a relaxed college lecture. But it never strayed far from the 88-keyed behemoth occupying the stage.
With his boots, knit cap and vest, Moran looked fresh off the ski slopes and ready to entertain. Curiously he opened with Gladys Knight's recording of “No One Could Love You More,” allowing it to float around the crowd as he noodled on the piano along with it. As the recording faded he began a rumination of clustered resonance that, over the course of ten minutes, spiraled into dissonant runs and a soft, soulful pulse.
Moran followed by playing alongside a sample of a tap-dancing Thelonious Monk while segueing into a crawling blues instigated by a Mississippi Fred McDowell recording. His blues evoked a Keith Jarrett-like spaciousness, drawing mostly from pulsating lower tones.
The piece that garnered awed chuckles was a musical interpretation of a Turkish woman's phone call. Ebbing and flowing with her patter, Moran harmonized her chatter into a beguiling tug of war that found him incorporating every sound from a background video game, to a hearty laugh. It was an amazing display of painstaking study that revealed the inherent musicality of conversation when stripped of meaning.
Eventually Moran was joined by a flute-playing in-law, Sara Johnson. Together they performed a piece from Moran's recent ballet, as well as a Johnson original. The first featured Moran in delicate tremolos behind Johnson's long tones, while the second brought a more animated performance from both musicians. Moran's staccato bursts highlighted the duo's delicate interplay.
The evening closed with a piece by the late pianist Jaki Byard. Moran's left-handed command of stride and boogie-woogie kept things grounded, while his right-handed flights launched things into the stratosphere and brought the evening to an upbeat close.
Personal Bias: Last time I went to see Jason Moran, at a midnight show, he was a no-show. I guess geniuses don't have to play midnight shows if they don't want to.
The Crowd: Collegiate, with many scarves. And Charles Lloyd.
Random Notebook Dump: We don't get a lot of living jazz geniuses visiting Los Angeles, so it was rather disappointing to see such a small turn-out for the performance. Recently LA Times jazzbo Chris Barton lamented the fact that Los Angeles does not get much love from the jazz touring circuit. When one of the biggest names in the genre shows up (for free!) and so few people fill the seats, it is understandable why artists might rather just visit the Bay Area and then head back to New York.