TAKING IT TO THE STREETS Jason Moran's concert paraded onto Gainsborough Street.
I have to admit, I was not sanguine at the beginning of this highly anticipated concert by pianist and composer Jason Moran. It had been a while, and I forgot how unforgiving Jordan Hall's acoustics are to loud bands with drums. And drummer Nasheet Waits played loud. What's more, Tarus Mateen played electric bass. With five horns on top and Moran's piano in the middle, the sound boomed and reverberated off the wood and high ceiling of this sacred hall invented for classical music.
I was also beginning to have doubts about Moran's concept. The piece, "In My Mind" — which Moran estimates he has played about 30 times since its first show in 2007 as a commission from the San Francisco Jazz Festival — is a very personal take on Thelonious Monk's historic 1959 concert at New York's Town Hall, with original horn arrangements by Hall Overton. Moran deploys video, audio samples from Monk rehearsal tapes, and projected text. The stage was outfitted with a large video screen backstage and two smaller screens at each side (David Dempewolf was the video artist). They were framed to look like old TV screens, and the prelude to the concert included old news shots of circa 1959 footage, everything from Nixon and Khrushchev to long-forgotten TV shows. All well and good. But for the second tune of the night, "Friday the 13th," the images kept cycling through the same nine photos of Monk in various contexts. Not promising.
But over its 90 minutes, the show underwent a transformation. It emerged as a moving — and musically compelling — double portrait of Moran and Monk. For one thing, Moran wasn't content to play the tunes "straight" with room for solos (though there was maybe one "extra" trombone solo I could have done without). Instead, he and this band (usual trio mates Mateen and Waits, as well as a student horn section of alto, tenor, trumpet, and two trombones) dug in and opened the music up. At times, as with the closing "Crepuscule with Nellie," they'd dig into a phrase and keep repeating it, while Moran painted broad, free patterns with the keyboard. There were several of these moments, with often surprising, dramatic crescendos. Moran wasn't content to play through the changes: he forced his players to focus on this interval, this rhythm.
The video, too, seemed to catch up with the concept. One of the most moving passages was a sequence showing Moran's own room on Riverside Drive — a circular pan of still photos, so it seemed, high-contrast, painterly. Text flashed an inventory of the apartment's contents on the screen, sometimes flat statements, sometimes ironic ("The Door," "My Chairs," "My Snobbishness About My Chairs"), and, finally, a statement about how Monk changed his life. Meanwhile, the band played "Monk's Mood" — an affecting soundtrack.