Composer-pianist Jason Moran knows no bounds, and he’s been that way from the start. When he was only 24, he recorded his first album as a leader. “No doubt Moran’s imagination will take him down many interesting roads. His influences are drawn from art, literature and theater, as well as from classical music all the way to hip-hop,” wrote jazz reviewer David R. Adler of Moran’s debut disc “Soundtrack to Human Motion” (1999). The New York Times named it the best jazz album of that year.
Almost two decades have passed since then, and Moran, now 42 and the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, has indeed traveled down many interesting roads. He’s a veteran of numerous outside-the-box collaborations. His last Symphony Center visit involved visual artist Theaster Gates, saxophonist Ken Vandermark (like Moran, a MacArthur “genius grant” winner), the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band and Moran’s trio, the Bandwagon (bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits). “It’s a gathering,” was how Moran described it at the time. “An experience based deeply in the blues, a series of pieces shot through the prism of my Chicagoan collaborators.” That gathering, prompted by a 2014 Symphony Center Presents Jazz commission, was titled “Looks of a Lot.”
Three years later, Moran is back. This time, he’s teaming up with vocalist Georgia Anne Muldrow, his Bandwagon mates and others for an SCP Jazz program June 2 they’re calling “New Fables,” featuring original works inspired by the music of jazz bassist, composer, bandleader and icon Charles Mingus.
“A lot of this started with a conversation with Georgia Anne Muldrow,” Moran said. “She’s a phenomenal singer, writer, producer and MC. And she’s also a major Charles Mingus fan. So we started trading messages on things we loved about Mingus and his music. I’m a student of Jaki Byard. Jaki was one of Mingus’ favorite pianists because of his ability to move between many different worlds.”
For “New Fables,” Moran and Muldrow “looked at the songs that speak to where we are as Americans — the politics of Charles Mingus, the things he put out into the world, the things he brought light to — songs like ‘Fables of Faubus,’ ” said Moran, referring to the Mingus song about the attempts of Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who in 1957 called in the National Guard to keep schools in Little Rock segregated.
“Georgia wrote these beautiful pieces that segue between different moods,” Moran said. “Some pieces she sings on. Some pieces she doesn’t. Some pieces we remade, like ‘Fables of Faubus,’ ‘Goodbye Porkpie Hat,’ ‘Blues & Roots’ and ‘Better Get It In Yo’ Soul.’ ” — all signature songs by Mingus.
The daughter of two musicians, Muldrow is known as a R&B singer and an MC in the hip-hop world, but “she’s a real improviser,” Moran said. “She comes from the school of [jazz great] Betty Carter. In her heart and soul — in her DNA — is the music that we’re going to be playing.”
Performing along with Moran and Muldrow will be Darius Jones (alto saxophone), Frank Lacy (trombone), Marcus Rojas (tuba), Tarus Mateen (bass), Daru Jones (drums), Nasheet Waits (drums) and Daniel Moreno (percussion).
Moran, whose work is informed not only by his musical predecessors but by history, art and well, life itself, began piano studies when he was 6 years old. It was not rewarding for him, at least not at first. “The piano just sits there and looks at you,” he said. “That was frustrating, but the more time I spent with it, the more comfortable it became.”
His father, an investment banker who loved jazz, maintained an impressive record collection. At 13, Moran discovered Thelonious Monk: “That changed everything.”
He attended the Manhattan School of Music, studied with Jaki Byard, and after graduating in 1997, signed with Blue Note. Moran has made recordings with such luminaries as Cassandra Wilson and Charles Lloyd. Jazz piano legend and longtime NPR host Marian McPartland once called Moran “one of the best, most original young pianists today.”
Moran is never idle. Along with performing, recording and being an arts administrator, he has been on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music since 2010. Through his countless projects, he often reflects on the rich history of jazz, which he feels deserves constant re-examination.
“I love to look at what musicians like Mingus have done with material they’ve written,” he said. “They’ve put their heart and soul into their songs, and this gives us a way to look at their music and share it in a way that’s really inspiring.”
Video: Jason Moran discusses his influences Jaki Byard and Charles Mingus: