Jason Moran loves to bend the rules. Throughout his career, Moran has displayed a deep respect for Jazz by constantly exploring ways to reinvent it. Along these lines, many of his albums narrate his complicated journey as an inter-disciplinary Black American artist.
A MacArthur Fellow who’s as comfortable with Björk or Bach as he is with Thelonious Monk, Moran’s celebrated Ten (2010) and All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller (2014) albums encourage audiences to listen outside the box of Jazz.
With Artist in Residence (2006), Moran composed music inspired by conceptual artists Adrian Piper, and Joan Jonas. Since then Moran routinely uses dance, spoken word, and multimedia to expand the geography of his improvisational work.
Lucky for us this panoramic landscape is on full display at his first museum show Jason Moran, a series of installations, collaborate pieces and musical performances at Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA).
Stand in the middle of Jason Moran and you are immediately immersed in sound. As your ears adjust, cacophony settles into something more measured; a synchronized series of soundtracks positioned to guide you through the exhibition. Three installations dominate the space, recreating historic clubs where Jazz flourished as it migrated south through Manhattan, evolving into a world class art form.
STAGED: Savoy Ballroom I is a stark interpretation of the storied Harlem club. A curved ceiling of ornate Dutch wax print, bends amber light shining beneath a golden music stand at the installation’s base. Delicately altered field recordings of black work songs from the State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, echo a reminder of the sacred connection between culture and art
Across the room sits STAGED: Three Deuces where a piano, bass and drum kit crowd a corner of the long passed legendary bebop club. Ironically in a space where you can smell the aged wood of these beautiful acoustic instruments, a digital Steinway Spirio player piano ghostly replicates a series of Moran’s improvised arrangements.
Framed by tall, narrow mirrors is STAGED: Slug’s Saloon, a vivid slice of the Lower East Side dive bar where avant garde musicians experimented with Free Jazz. In front of this imaginary triptych sits a single capsized chair and an old jukebox humming ambient sounds from the Village Vanguard.
Video projections supplement this exhibition, showcasing Moran’s diverse collaborative efforts with the likes of Kara Walker, Joan Jonas, Julie Mehretu, and Carrie Mae Weems. In what looks like a visual time lapse of his improvisations, Moran’s mixed media prints capture the frenetic blur of his muse through charcoaled finger tips played on paper taped atop the keyboard.
Separate rooms house the 361-minute fictional Jazz concert film Luanda-Kinshasha and soundtrack that accompanies the abstract video work The Death of Tom. Both hinted at the magic I might hear from Moran later that evening.
Sitting at his signature stripped down piano, Moran began the concert with a stunning solo improvisation. Slowly building tension with dense, rhythmic baselines, a natural reverberation filled the space with the discomforting but compelling sound of something akin to faint wind chimes announcing an approaching tornado of sound.
Following with Monk’s ‘Round Midnight and an updated remake of Ballin’ the Jack, Moran ended with a final improvisation that spoke to the spirit of Andrew Hill, Muhal Richards Abrams and Cecil Taylor; three masters who helped shape his early sense of all that’s possible on the piano.
Settling into the telepathy that comes from almost two decades of playing together, bassist Taurus Mateen and drummer Nasher Waits joined Moran on stage to unpack James Reese Europe’s,Russian Rag. With his chair straining to keep up with his movement around the keyboard, Moran navigated the trio in and out of rhythmic forms that signaled stunning improvisational collaboration.
After the thrill of watching Jason Moran play impossibly complex music with the kind of skill and emotional sensibility that are rare in Jazz, I came away with something I didn’t expect to find: an exhibition that elegantly documented a remarkably gifted artist whose fluidity, thoughtfulness and intention go to the heart of reshaping the political and cultural contours of creativity itself.
Jason Moran’s exhibition remains on display at the ICA through January 21st.
Michael Ambrosino writes about music, culture, and technology and is the producer and host of Dialectics on 33third.org