Interview by Dominic Reilly
Late one night recently I had the pleasure of talking with Jason Moran. He was in New York and I was in my dark little office at 11pm. We discussed his upcoming project that he is performing at The National Concert Hall on the 2nd November.In My Mind: Thelonious Monk at Town Hall 1959. The European tour of the project started last Wednesday in Belgium.
As Moran puts it… This is the Monk season where we celebrate 100 years since his birth. It’s also Dizzy Gillespie’s 100th anniversary so it’s the birth of the Bebop kids. It has been great for the last month thinking about Monk and playing his music a bit more frequently.
Are you a piano fan?
Most things start from the position of the piano, Monk shows us that first; it’s because of him that I can learn about everybody else. Monk taught us “technique is a thing you have to use creatively….Not a thing to show off”. That allowed my ear to hear things that were attractive in other piano players.
I felt that that part of what has helped me make the kinds of projects I make is because I act on my intuition to fall in Love with things that might not begin with the position of the piano. So whether it’s a sculpture or an essay all of these things help inform and why then I play the piano.
How do you compare Monk to other composers in other genres?
Monk is the most important and the best musician PERIOD. And I mean that. He made me!!
Without him I would have no understanding of what Bach really was trying to do or I would have no understanding of what McCoy Tyner was trying to do. He gives me all of the frame, all of the tools, all of the complexity, all of the rhythm, all of the melody. He is very thoughtful and yet he leaves a lot of space. There are very few people like that in the music world and that’s what I mean. Thelonious Monk is responsible for every note that I have made at the piano. If I had not had an intersection with his music then I would not be talking to you right now.
That is incredible praise for Monk. At what moment did you become aware of him?
I was 13 years of age at home in Houston. I walked into a room and my parents were watching TV but they had the sound off. They were watching the wreckage of a plane crash where a prominent Houston politician died in the crash, a friend of my parents. As this dreadful scene was unfolding on the screen with no sound, out of the speakers of the stereo system was Monk playing “Around Midnight”. I was aware that the room was very tense but there was this sound coming out and somehow my parents had that music on while this was happening. I was perplexed and enamored by what I was hearing and I said… Who is That?… and instantly fell in love.
So is it fair to say that among all other musicians, you can look at Monk and say, “He’s my guy”?
All the way. He is just so distinct. All my heroes are distinctive. Herbie, Keith, Chick, Brad and Gerri. It’s great to see them play and them be able to talk to them about their performance but there is something special about Monk who I have never meet but yet I am fascinated by. Round the time when I was falling in love with Monk and his music Clint Eastwood and releasing the documentary “Straight No Chaser” and that was a validating moment because the guy, and the music, who I was failing in love with was being celebrated on the big screen, That was a big deal!! So I knew that my taste was not strange, and now I could also watch the documentary about his life.
Was there a difference between Monk the pianist and Monk the Composer?
Well generations after his death people gather from around the world and musicians gather in jam sessions and still want to play his music. Monk is really the fabric on which jazz is built. There is something about the compositions he writes that leaves a lot of space for the performers to step inside it. A challenge for a pianist is that Monk has such a distinctive approach as to how to play his songs on the piano. Many of us try to copy how he played his songs his way. However how he sounds is so tied into how he was as a human being. Another thing I like about his compositions is he is able to write the simplest things in the world and the most rigorously complex things. Sometimes it’s like he is trying to make an obstacle course for the musicians. They have to pay attention. They have to be awake.
With the concert next week there is a visual element to it?
That’s probably one of the most powerful parts, it is a video that plays throughout the concert that was made by an artist I work with called David Dempewolf. We pulled together a lot of different locations, my apartment and the loft where Monk worked. Another scene in the film is in North Carolina where his grandparents were slaves and we walk on the very same land. So I wanted to make a wider piece about his ancestors and then move forward to his decedents of which I consider myself one.
Is there Narration?
All of the text is built into the scenes so there are moments where the audience is reading things that I am saying on screen and moments where they are reading what Monk is saying. So the text is embedded I don’t pick up the mic to talk, I just play. It’s like a piece of theatre this is a script.
What kind of instrumentation is on stage?
Tuba, trombone, trumpet, Alter Sax, Tenor Sax, bass and drums, and of course me on piano.
You have brought two project forward in a very short period of time, The Fats Waller Project and now the Thelonious Monk tribute. Is there something about project s you like?
When I was young I appreciated someone showing me somebody else’s music apart from their own and so as I reach a certain age I want to share my appreciation for pianists who give me a lot of backbone. Also I know that Monk made a Duke Ellington record and made it sound like Monk so I want to see if I can make a Fats Waller record and make it sound like Jason Moran? Is that possible?
I feel that part of my job as an artist, and one who has being taught by so many great musicians, is that playing homage is one of the best things I can do to promote the longevity of their names.
Why is there not a Jason Moran project?
My band is the Bandwagon and we have being together for 18 years. We tour long and hard. That is where I always start from. They are Tarus Mateen (Bass) and Nasheet Waits (Drums). I keep that as a constant in my life. I don’t have the focus to be only out touring one kind of project. There are things I will be working on for the next five years and they will be demanding a lot of attention but a lot of the energy that is needed will be derived from how I work with Tarus and Nasheet. They help me unearth some of these songs, so I am always wearing that coat.
A last point, you mentioned earlier that you come from Houston but how come there are a lot of notable artists that come out of Houston?
Houston is an international city. There is a lot of blues and gospel in Houston and just enough jazz. We all went to the same high school, “The High School for Performing and Visual Arts”. It was tremendous as we were with a lot of students who were into dance, art, the theatre the orchestra and then us musicians and so it was powerful to be among friends who were invested into the work as much as we were.
I moved to New York in 1993 and Eric Harland moved there in 1994. Then others came like, Robert Glasper, Kendrick Scott, Jamire Williams, and so we made a scene in New York now we have a really vibrant community of Houston musicians.
Jason Moran and The Bandwagon will be performing in The National Concert Hall on Thursday 2nd November. Tickets are available from the Boxoffice at 01 417 0000 or online from www.nch.ie