Review: Jason Moran in Edinburgh
Jason Moran's tribute to Fats Waller encompassed hip-hop, house, disco and funk, as well as raising some complex issues for Andy Hamilton
As I hadn't done my homework, I wasn't expecting the volume level or the Cuban-rhythm intro to Jason Moran's late-night set at The Hub – the large church just below Edinburgh Castle, rather incongruously converted into a jazz venue. Moran (pictured right) is one of the most creative of living jazz pianists, his work crossing genres and artistic disciplines, and affirmed by the award of a MacArthur Grant. This evening’s tribute to Fats Waller originated with a commission by Harlem Stage in 2011. The result was a "dance party" featuring rapper-vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello, and the album All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller (Blue Note, 2014).
Though there were no dancers in the Edinburgh set on 13 August, Moran was clearly stressing Waller the entertainer, rather than Waller the jazz master. He performed much of the time wearing a superb papier-mâché mask of Waller’s head, with cigarette hanging out, made for him by Haitian artist Didier Civil – which he had to take off periodically because it was so hot to wear. In place of Meshell Ndegeocello was vocalist Lisa Harris, doubling on tambourine and maracas. The pianist's regular partner Tarus Mateen was on electric bass, and Charles Haynes on (very loud) drums; trumpeter Leron Thomas completed the line-up.
Moran's approach meant that instead of transformations like that of Jitterbug Waltz by Mingus and Dolphy, or Ain’t Misbehavin’ by Art Lande, he presented what one writer called a "polystylistic bacchanalia of sound and rhythm", featuring heavy funk vamps, hip-hop breaks and house grooves. Moran played Fender Rhodes plus the most (and maybe the first) over-amped Steinway I've heard. It was a good sound-system – it's now rare to experience an overloaded one like that I recall ruining an Edinburgh gig by the Gil Evans Orchestra, with its amplification set to 11 – but the volume was as inexplicably excessive as that of the Edinburgh Tattoo fireworks before the gig. It didn't please a steady trickle of older audience members who exited during the earlier numbers, just as younger ones were getting up to dance.
The first recognisably Waller number was The Joint Is Jumpin', followed by Honeysuckle Rose to a disco beat. There was some genuine stride on Ain't Misbehavin', with the drummer on brushes, but then the volume rose again for a hip-hop revision, with Harris encouraging the audience to sing along. There was then a rather bizarre version of Lonely Woman which Moran introduced as "Fats meets Ornette" – I didn't hear any Waller in this. Leron Thomas, impressive on trumpet, sang Two Sleepy People feelingly, but too close to the mic – no intimacy is possible at this volume – accompanied by piano and bass. But Harris's tremulous interpretation of a very slow, re-conceptualised Ain’t Nobody’s Business stole the show.
Moran's project brings out complex issues, unwittingly as well as knowingly. As Richard Hadlock put it in his classic Jazz Masters Of The 20s, "Thomas Waller, pianist and organist extraordinary, was destined to play a subordinate role to Fats Waller, entertainer and buffoon", and one can read both triumph and tragedy in this. Waller often transformed the hack songs he was given into veiled, acerbic comment; but there was an evident desperation in his humour. Fats suffered in his lifetime and I wondered whether, in this post-modern updating, his shade was being made to suffer again. But then, to echo Lee Konitz, I guess I've always been a dinosaur from the previous century.
Photo by Clay Patrick McBride
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