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Jason Moran’s “Ten”

There is a danger in proclaiming a recording as Record of the Year (RoY) before, let’s say for the sake of argument, mid-December. Releases flood the marketplace in the last months, sometimes THE last month, jockeying for position for inclusion on important year end critic’s lists.

But there does exist the possibility that one release is so head and shoulders above the rest, that it arrests one’s attention, and qualifies for an early proclamation that it IS the year’s best. I think Jason Moran’s “Ten” is one such release.

Who is Jason Moran? Jason Moran (born January 21, 1975) is a jazz pianist who debuted as a band leader with the 1999 album “Soundtrack to Human Motion.” Since then, he has garnered much critical acclaim and won a number of awards for his playing and compositional skills, which combine elements of stride piano, avant-garde jazz, classical music, hip hop, and spoken word, among others. Growing up in Houston, Texas, Moran began playing the piano when he was six, though he had no love for the instrument until, at the age of 13, he first heard the song “Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk and switched his efforts from classical music to jazz. He attended Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and then enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music where he studied with pianist Jaki Byard. While still in college Moran also received instruction from other avant-garde pianists including Muhal Richard Abrams and Andrew Hill. He also currently serves on the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music, taking over the position occupied by his former teacher, Jaki Byard.

The title, “Ten,” has to do with the decade-long experience of his trio, the Bandwagon, and his spectacular growth as a bandleader. Bandwagon is bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. The New York Times’ marvelous jazz critic, Nate Chinen, says of this trio “Their rapport, distinctive from the start, now suggests a model of lithe collectivism. Mr. Moran’s piano forms the core of the group, but its sound is inconceivable without the thumbprints of Mr. Mateen, with his nimble, nubby bass guitar style, and Mr. Waits, with his earthy mutable approach to rhythm.” Their collaborations are sturdy, confident and extremely imaginative, particularly when seen in performance. But one of the strengths of “Ten,” and why it stands head and shoulders above the rest, is how well they create in the studio.

There’s a number of wisely chosen covers on the collection: a reinvented player-piano piece by Conlon Nancarrow (“Study No. 6,” in two versions) and songs by the jazz pianists Jaki Byard (“To Bob Vatel of Paris”), Thelonious Monk  (“Crepuscule With Nellie”) and Andrew Hill (“Play to Live,” written with Mr. Moran). “Nobody,” a hidden track, was the theme for Bert Williams, the minstrel star. “Big Stuff,” a bluesy stroll, was composed by Leonard Bernstein for the Jerome Robbins ballet “Fancy Free” and recorded by Billie Holiday. The centerpiece, though, is “Gangsterism Over 10 Years,” which appears near the album’s midpoint. Moran has been revisiting this “Gangsterism” theme on each album, coming up with new approaches, yet staying true to the core idea. Each version is a “status report, but this one, with its retrospective title, doubles as a statement of principle.” (Nate Chinen—NYTimes)

I saw the trio September 11th at the Rosslyn Jazz Festival in Rosslyn, VA. They played selections exclusively from “Ten,” and it was a stunning performance, despite competing with the overhead flights out of National Airport. Mateen’s bass is a sturdy and organic pulse, working in total syncopation with Watt’s ever true rhythmic sense. And Moran? Ideas pour out of his fingers and dance across and through the listener’s consciousness.

“Ten” (Blue Note) is a release any fan of the jazz piano-bass-drum trio would do well to check out. I stand by my early statement, too. It is the Record of the Year for 2010.

Photo of Jason Moran at the Rosslyn Jazz Festival by Lee Mergner—JazzTimes