Jason Moran, "Ten" (Blue Note)
Pianist Jason Moran calls this record with his long-running Bandwagon trio the first one not driven by a concept, but let me lay one on it. The concept is division.
Like: "Blue Blocks" splits between omnidirectional ecstasy and antebellum reverie. "Gangsterism Over Ten Years" splits between carefree badminton and two-handed ecstasy. Leonard Bernstein's "Big Stuff" and Jaki Byard's "To Bob Vatel of Paris" split between easygoing blues/stride and caffeinated mania.
The divide deepens when Moran approaches "Study No. 6" by Conlon Nancarrow. The composition's pseudo-naive player-piano beauty makes a challenging ally for Moran's spontaneous brilliance, and our man responds by gathering the harmonic elements and taking off in his own directions. That's Split 1. For Split 2, he records two entirely different versions -- one pushed by Nasheet Waits' rumbling drums and Tarus Mateen's tumbling bass, the other a suspended group meditation. Split 3: Moran stakes out territory complementing the bass and drums while inhabiting a substantially different musical space from either. Split 4: Both versions remove the listener from his body and gently waft him into a realm of dissociative bliss. About the only faint elements both "Studies" hold in common is Nancarrow's sweet allusion to Latin balladry.
Moran executes a similar divorce/reconciliation with Thelonious Monk. Playfully infuriated by the unshakable spell Monk has always cast over his playing, Moran chops the lazy "Crepuscule With Nellie" into segments and reassembles them cut-up style before sighing and resigning himself to a more reverential run-through of the way the tune is s'posed to go.
Another meaningful dichotomy: present vs. past. Moran revisits the years 1966 and 1967 (nearly a decade before his birth), flashing back to legal separation with the dark Afro-tango "RFK in the Land of Apartheid" and obliquely commenting on cultural revolution via the pastoral drift of "Feedback Pt. 2," into which he drops gently jarring samples of Jimi Hendrix's feedback from the Monterey Pop Festival. And the final track begins in the vividly real present -- Moran's toddler son wailing along with his dad's improvisation -- and pauses for a minute of silence before jolting into the jaunty "Nobody," a popular tune from the turn of the century by the black minstrel Bert Williams, who performed in exaggerated blackface. Ponder that one.
Moran's technique and range of feel rank alongside anybody's, and Waits and Mateen can plainly run with his thoughts before the cane hits the floor. (On the sonic end, dig the way engineer Sascha von Oertzen reproduces Mateen's punchy rubber-tire bass.) Just as strong as the musicianship, though, is Moran's conceptual skill, a partner rather than an adversary of his music's beauty.
I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Moran briefly in January, when he was performing as a member of Charles Lloyd's landmark quartet, which he's been doing with ever mounting excellence for a few years now. I was struck by his alert, penetrating gaze and his easy humor, and I realized I was standing next to an unusually intelligent motherf*cker. This album is more confirmation, although we might speculate on whether brains fall into the asset column. Seems Moran is fated to lavish subtle art on a crude-ass world.
Aruan Ortiz Quartet Featuring Antoine Roney, "Alameda" (Fresh Sound New Talent)
Aruan Ortiz wasn't yet Wallace Roney's pianist when he waxed this item four years before its current release; one wonders what Ortiz thinks of it now. No problem figuring out what Roney heard in him: a gift for melody (with a twist), a wide palette and an '80s-grounded aesthetic (though Ortiz is in his 30s). Ortiz downplays his Cuban roots; though he can knock out those bold, clean chords when he wants to, he prefers to come up with jumpy krazy-kat riffs, which he often follows up with an unexpectedly soft touch and a measured approach to improvisation.
The addition of Antoine Roney's high-tech tenor on three tracks to pair with the meatier, more inflected Abraham Burton on the same instrument comes off as gratuitous; all Ortiz really needs is rhythm kings Eric McPherson (drums) and Peter Slavov (bass), who crowd the low end with attractive subliminal layerings.
Ortiz's delicately Latinized and judiciously dissonant imagining of Chopin's "Etude No. 6 Op. 10" makes most distinctive use of his gifts. But it's funny to hear him crack up at himself at the end of the jostling jam "Landscape of a Dry Watermelon," which shocks the ears when he trips out with the album's only use of cool, resonant Fender Rhodes. "What a bad boy I am, wailing on that old thing," Ortiz seems to imply. He might want to think about being bad more often.