Jason Moran dreams big. Not yet 40, the pianist/composer/cultural explorer and musical storyteller carries within him visions that reach beyond the boundaries of jazz, of music, or for that matter, of any single art form. His Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series performance May 30 employs what he refers to as his “Chicagoan collaborators”: famed Chicago visual artist, musical performer and urban interventionist Theaster Gates; saxophonist (and fellow MacArthur Fellowship awardee) Ken Vandermark and the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band. Also part of the lineup are vocalist/bassist Katie Ernst and Moran’s trio The Bandwagon with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits.
For the CSO’s Truth to Power Festival, SCP Jazz commissioned Moran and Gates to create a work, which they’ve dubbed Looks of a Lot. It consists of a series of new blues compositions by Moran presented in the context of reimagined stage elements designed by Gates. “It’s a gathering,” said Moran, “an experience based deeply in the blues, the music that inspires me the most, a series of pieces shot through the prism of my Chicagoan collaborators, shedding light on our flaws and our virtues.”
As to what audiences will see and hear onstage, Moran said, “That’s the surprise. They’re going to hear these songs that I’ve yet to play for anybody. They’re going to see objects that Theaster Gates [at left, with Moran] has made for us, and they’ll hear his voice resonate through the hall.”
Although Moran was born and raised in Houston and presently lives in New York City, Chicago has always been special for him. “Musicians in my family who were pivotal in my development were living in Chicago,” he said. “They were blues musicians that toured with [blues great] Albert King. When I was a kid, living in Houston, they’d come by and bring with them this energy about music. It was real exciting to be with people who were just so excited about music. When I was in high school, I made my first trip to Chicago with my father and older brother. We heard Stanley Turrentine at the Jazz Showcase.”
But it wasn’t just the tenor saxophone magic of Turrentine or the enthusiasm of his Chicago relatives that made the Moran fall in love with this city by the lake. It was a stream of musicians who trace their musical roots here — members of the avant-garde collective the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians whom Moran encountered when he left Houston to attend the Manhattan School of Music. “The waves of AACM musicians who left Chicago and came to New York were my mentors. They are the people that for years — decades — have given me support. They have prodded me, have been in my ear and have given me my musical backbone. All these people and all their stories have affected my musicianship. This project [Looks of a Lot] is a way of giving back to the city that has helped me become the musician that I am.”
Moran began piano studies when he was 6. His parents enrolled him and his brothers in the Suzuki Method. “It was a summer camp,” he recalled. “That’s how my brothers and I got introduced to Suzuki piano. When I left that first lesson, all I could think of is, wow, I don’t know what I’m doing!”
That would change. But at first, piano playing wasn’t rewarding for him. “It wasn’t gratifying because you’re put in front of an instrument you can’t manipulate. It’s not like baseball where you can run and release a lot of energy. The piano just sits there and looks at you — like it’s saying, ‘Well, you have to do the work, not me.’ That was frustrating, but the more time I spent with it, the more comfortable it became.”
Moran continued with his piano studies but grew bored with practicing Mozart and the other composers of the classical canon. Of course, growing up in his house, he was always aware of jazz. “My father was an investment banker and he loved jazz — both my mother and father did. A week before I was born, they went to see [free jazz icon] Pharoah Sanders. I was still in my mother’s womb! When I was 13 and felt I had had enough of trying to play classical piano, I heard Thelonious Monk’s music and that changed everything. It was powerful, powerful sound.”
Moran, who received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010, has been widely recognized as a major force in jazz. “Moran is like no other pianist at work. His improvisations are dynamic, eruptive, keyed to the compositions at hand,” wrote the Village Voice. The New York Times calls him “one of the most independent minds now working in jazz.”
Despite his fame and celebrity, he loves to connect with young kids. “I think the beautiful wild card in Looks of a Lot is the kids from the Kenwood Academy,” he said. “The coolest thing in the world right now is young kids, who after a full day in school stay afterwards and practice for another two or three hours. These Kenwood kids are really dedicated. I’m writing some music for them, but I’m also writing some music for another young singer Katie Ernst, whom I met at a Jazz-Ahead program that I run at the Kennedy Center [in Washington, D.C.]. Of course, there’s Theaster, who’ll be on stage to talk about the impact Chicago has not only within its geographical boundaries, but outside those boundaries — to people across the world.”
Jason Moran’s Looks a Lot is indeed a gathering of personalities, intellects and the diverse images and sounds of this Petri dish of culture and creativity called Chicago.
Chicago-based writer Jack Zimmerman has authored a couple of novels, countless newspaper columns and was the 2012 recipient of the Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Arts Achievement Award. He currently serves as subscriber relations manager for Lyric Opera of Chicago.
INSET PHOTO: Theaster Gates (left) and Jason Moran discuss their SCP Jazz commission, Looks of a Lot, which will receive its world premiere May 30. | Photo credit: Gregg Conde (image from the upcoming documentary, “Grammar”).