LJF 2016: Jason Moran

Dave Jones appreciates the musical talents of Jason Moran and his fellow musicians but sound problems and net curtains limit his enjoyment

This set was a performance of one piece of music, a very long one in jazz terms with it coming in at just over an hour, but that’s probably to be expected as the piece in question was a commission for the Jazztopad Festival in Wrocław and the Polish Cultural Institute, as part of the 2016 European Capital of Culture programme.

The piece, entitled Wind, was dedicated to the city of Wrocław, and this was represented visually in a number of ways, but chiefly by the use of net curtains which were made by Wrocław locals that Moran met on a visit to a market in the beautiful south-western Polish city. These were used to adorn the large, high back wall of the Milton Court Concert Hall, and also as a veil in front of the musicians, attached to what looked like three garden gazebos – one each of medium size for the string and brass players, and a larger one in the middle for the rhythm section, which separated the string and brass players by some distance. I wondered if the physical part-separation between the sections was partly to aid separation of sounds in the PA mix, but that might well just be a by-product of the theatricals.

The sense of theatre was completed by moving air which ruffled the aforementioned net curtains at the back and also by the use of variously coloured mood lighting, which emphasised the silhouettes of the band, particularly drummer Nasheet Waits and Moran (pictured above right) himself on piano. Perhaps this was no coincidence, as the artistic use of silhouettes is no stranger to Poland.

This theatrical setting certainly added to the air of expectation, but at first sight the stage resembled the back of a village fête and I initially assumed that at some point the musicians would become unveiled to aid communication with the audience. However, this was not the case until the piece was completed in total silence, when the band finally emerged from behind the curtains to enthusiastic applause to speak for the first time and introduce themselves.

I can’t help thinking how much more interesting this set would have been if the initial veiled spectacle ultimately resulted in being able to see the band while they were still playing. After all, people go to jazz gigs to hear and see the musicians and this would seem particularly important when the band provides an interesting cultural mix between African American and Eastern European musicians. So let’s see them while they play together, at least for some of the time.

Speaking of the band, it was comprised of Moran’s American band The Bandwagon, with Tarus Mateen (bass), the aforementioned Nasheet Waits (drums), Marvin Sewell (guitar) and a Polish chamber ensemble featuring Piotr Damasiewicz (trumpet), Piotr Wróbel (bass trombone), Dawid Lubowicz (violin), Mateusz Smoczyński (violin), Marta Niedzwiecka (organ), and Krzysztof Lenczowski (cello) whose very good recent album I reviewed in JJ earlier this year.

The programme notes supplied before the performance (reflecting the Western classical nature of this event) inform us that “The consistently inventive pianist/composer [Moran] reflects on a world where underground cultures reset the cultural clock, and on where music takes its place in the wind of resistance and change – the music that happens in private, behind curtains…” So yes, we can understand the significance in this context of the veiled band; an interesting theatrical concept for a jazz group, but did it work musically?

Well, for me, this was the wrong venue for this performance. Yes, it does have a wonderful acoustic for acoustic instruments, but that doesn’t extend to drum kits and amplified bass, guitar and piano (I’m assuming the piano was amplified). The mix, especially in the more animated sections of music when the whole band played, often sounded unclear. Add to this the effect of the veiled musicians, and the end result is that not much apart from theatricals is communicated to the audience.

I’d like to have heard this in a jazz club, so if a big band can be accommodated in Ronnie Scott’s, why not this medium-sized band? Yes, the strings probably wouldn’t sound as good in Ronnie’s because of the lack of natural acoustic (although they were amplified at Milton Court anyway), but there’d be much more immediacy between audience and band, plus the fun of hearing it in a more relaxed setting.

Ensemble jazz with a rhythm section rarely feels great in a concert hall, and that reminds me of just how far away from jazz this performance felt in some respects. It’s some 30 years since I last stepped foot into the Guildhall School of Music (the site of the Milton Court Concert Hall), and even though the Guildhall was one of the few progressive conservatoires at that time that provided a course in jazz (and with great tutors), I think if any of the jazz people there stepped forward in time to witness last night’s concert, they might well think that they’d stumbled upon the wrong gig and were instead witnessing a late 20th century semi-theatrical contemporary classical performance.

So what did the music sound like? Well, it’s a commission on a serious theme, so it’s jazz that needs to sound serious and arty and in this context it was for a while rather like 20th century Western classical music, until nearer the middle of the piece where there were more recognisable jazz elements in soloing and group interaction. But because of the sound quality these didn’t carry the weight they would have otherwise. I’m not so sure that this piece had a great deal to do with Polish music, although there were hints of it here and there whether classical, folk, or contemporary jazz, alongside the occasional early New Orleans-sounding jazz stylings.

Moran’s piano playing didn’t feature all that prominently in this performance, which seemed a missed opportunity and any moments where he was more prominent were often masked sound-wise. Overall, the experience of listening to this gig was rather like attending a veiled rehearsal of a new work, with some of the performance elements having been removed. 

Photo by John Watson

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