Movement is a universal contingency of music, yet, it seems as if the tradition and emotions are being repressed even as music continues to create the grooves we yearn for. This is a problem for piano maestro Jason Moran. Not only does he want to make you dance, he is now custom tailoring an entire show to make sure you dance. Read below as we discuss everything from composing music with the intention of spurring movement to his aspirations for working with some of the most lyrically astute emcees of today.
Can you start off by discussing what brought about your desire to put on your upcoming show, The Fats Waller Dance Party?
It’s about movement. This is kind of the same thing that’s happening in hip-hop now as well. Hip-hop was dance music. Now it’s head-bob music. Whereas the artists were doing these intricate dances in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, now people just stand in place and bob their heads. If you look at jazz’s history, things might pan out to be the exact same in hip-hop in another 50 years or so.
But in jazz there used to be all the dancing associated with the music. For a long time these went in tandem, even up to Charlie Parker in the ‘50s. Bands would be playing and people would be dancing. But that hasn’t really been the case in any of my concerts, unless someone from the audience kind of becomes intrigued by something. And then they stand up and all of a sudden they are seen as the freak when they decide to move. In actuality, that’s probably the most human thing to do, to move to the music. So, I was wanting to test myself. Can I put music together that is dance-worthy? And also, to put it into the people’s minds when they come to a concert that this isn’t really a concert to sit and watch, it’s a concert for you to move to however you feel you want to move. That’s where it really started. Harlem Stage approached me about addressing Fats Waller’s music and I thought he was the perfect vehicle to address this current issue. What we’re going to play is under the umbrella of jazz, but it’s a very wide umbrella. We’re adding all of these other beats on top to make sure that I would still want to dance to it. It’s got to feel good.
When you’re arranging a piece of music with the intention of getting people to move, how does that happen?
Tempo is important. If you find the right tempos it’s just like if you go to any dance club now. Also, what is the fabric of the landscape that you’re setting up? So in hip-hop it might be the sample that’s going to recur over and over again to give you that groundwork that you’re going to build for the lyrics and harmony and melody. So what’s the beat, what’s the tempo, and what is that little melodic piece of information that’s going to repeat? That’s also such a great seed from which every other part can grow from it. It might be a bass line that’s just a few beats long. That repetition will start to grow and grow. Then the horns come off of that. Then Meshell Ndegeocello starts to sing after that. Then we remove certain parts so that it’s just the drums and horns again. You mix it as you’re playing like it’s all on a mixing board.
Why did you pick Meshell for this project?
Meshell is a great singer, she’s a great icon, a great bassist and a great bandleader. She’s also great side-woman. She really understands so many aspects of music: how to write, how to accompany, how to be in command of the stage. I don’t sing and I wasn’t going to try to practice to become a singer for the gig. I wanted to get someone who was a singer, but not really a jazz singer…or a man. My wife and I were thinking about who we could call on and Meshell came into mind. I just randomly said in an interview with New York Magazine that Meshell was my dream project. Somebody read that and told her. So she was like, “Oh, of course.” You know, I’ve done the same thing with Ghostface and Doom too. It hasn’t worked for them [laughs]. Nobody has called and said, “Doom heard you up for it, what do you want to do?” But it worked for Meshell. She’s masterful. We think about what the musical issues are within the music that we’re attracted to, but also some of the social issues. So dealing with Fats Waller, an African-American performer in the ‘20s and ‘30s. It’s going to demand a different type of personality from Meshell, which she’s very aware of.
When you are playing around the world, is it different in terms of people moving and dancing?
It’s more or less the same everywhere, but I think it’s mostly the same because people are coming to a concert and there are seats set up. That puts it in their minds that they are going to sit while at the concert. So that’s what they do. I think the reason people don’t move is because they’re not really asked to by the venue. I mostly play concerts where people are sitting down. It’s very rare that people are actually standing up to listen to me. I wouldn’t even want them to do that to my music unless the venue told them, “you’re supposed to come here and dance.” Then they listen to this crazy music and dance. Let’s do that. But nobody has ever said that’s what they want their audience to do.
I think the best thing has been when I’m playing free concerts and children are around. Children are actually the freest ones to move, way more than adults. Watching the rare times that I do play outside, children are generally dancing. They’re not listening to see if it’s a good groove, they’re just responding to sounds in a pure way. I don’t think a lot of people around the world are tapping into their culture like that. I always tell people when we play Planet Rock, if you want to come up here and breakdance than come up here and breakdance. I don’t care. If you’re bold enough to come do it, then I think you really need to do it. But it rarely happens, so I’m trying to force the issue with this one.
How do you approach your relationship with the piano? Do you set aside time to practice, or is it mostly performing these days?
Mostly I’m working on repertoire. I’ve been playing a lot recently with my wife and she chooses some pretty bizarre repertoire. I say bizarre because it’s mostly classical which most jazz musicians aren’t tackling. That’s really how I like to practice. I look at repertoire. Different pieces demand different things from you technically. So when playing Bach very smoothly and slowly without the sustain pedal, you really have to work on your legato. It’s very difficult. Whereas if you’re playing Mozart, you have to work on a different type of staccato. I did scales when I was young, but as I got older I just started to play a wider variety of music. Technical challenges arose and I would learn from that because the music or the song demanded it. I also just don’t like listening to like arpeggios and scales over and over again. It’s just boring. I’d rather practice some songs.
I don’t really set aside time because my schedule is so erratic, but usually I have goals. Take the Fats Waller thing; I have to transcribe an entire Fats Waller song, so that I can play it note for note during this concert. This is one of the impositions I’m making on myself. What we’re going to do is, I’m going to be a human sampler, sampling Fats Waller. So I have to learn Fats Waller songs. His stride of piano is very clean and crisp and very precise. Mine is not, so I have to get there somehow.
You teach as well. What do you try to instill in your students?
Awareness is the biggest idea. Awareness of where they are musically and where they are culturally. That awareness should become apparent in their musical choices. I think if your parents raised you a certain way, then that also dictates how you approach your instrument and music because music is a relationship that you have with not only the music, but also these people that you’re working with. I really try to get them to be in tune with that. If they are, then we can kind of work through their history to expose themselves in their music. And that’s kind of hard because most students at 20 years old are not really used to looking at themselves. They just want to learn what’s hip and what’s new that’s going to make them money as a musician. That’s a big issue.
Find the music that supports your lifestyle or culture and ideas. It’s not like, “Nobody understands me.” Fuck that. That’s bullshit. People said that about Bach, people said that about Mozart, about Beethoven. They say that about every iconic figure that still has resonance today. Find these people; find something that resonates with you in their music. Then expose that. Once you do that, you start to form a community. Take it as serious as you can for as long as you can. It’s a very difficult thing though.
As a musician, when did you start becoming aware and what brought it on for you?
I think I became aware when I was 25 and I had already had a couple of records on Blue Note. It’s just maturity. As you grow older and you start to feel new things and have lived on your own for a little bit longer, certain things become apparent. Especially artistic choices. Early on I knew there was something I should be doing from watching other musicians that I admired. I was not positive it was going to work out though. Even after having a couple records on Blue Note, I still wasn’t really positive. This uneasiness propelled me to work harder and harder. That’s what has really paid off and brought me to where I am now. Providing the ultimate challenge each time has been the thing that’s helped my musicianship the most
What do you think of the jazz scene today; does it have a future with young audiences?
That’s the issue. I think it does. I think that with all of the musicians going to school, people end up working just like business or law students. Not everyone is going to be an A-list performer, it just doesn’t happen like that. But even still, they will remain fans of music. I think with as many schools as are around, there is an audience just within ourselves.
We are continuing to grow because jazz education is continuing to grow. I mean, I don’t ever expect there to be throngs and throngs of people showing up for this stuff because throngs and throngs of people don’t show up to 3-Star Michelin restaurants either unless they’re extremely wealthy. But even the extremely wealthy don’t necessarily know about cooking in that way. Jazz is a refined sort of listening experience. It takes an ear that doesn’t demand all of the answers all of the time. In pop music, the beat is always there and there’s a hook. In jazz people don’t give a shit about a hook. It demands a lot of the audience. Just like contemporary art. Most people don’t go to a contemporary art museum either. People don’t see contemporary dance. I don’t ever like to talk in the terms of high and low, but some of these forms that are taught in conservatories, they also are suffering the young audience thing. Especially opera. That’s an ongoing thing though. We always find a way and we always find our audience.
What do you think about hip-hop today?
I would say the good thing about the so-called “golden era” is that groups with actual content in their lyrics were becoming successful and touring. You would hear them on the radio. I remember hearing Public Enemy on the radio when their first single came out. What really worthwhile hip-hop is being played on Hot 97 at 11am or 2pm? I’m talking really good stuff, not like the one that they’ve played a thousand times that day and now I think it’s good. That’s the problem with radio.
One of the good things that’s happening for jazz though is that there are so many people crossing the line back and forth, that there’s actually becoming a scene. If you go to a Robert Glasper show, it’s almost treated like an emcee jam session. That he had Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def, and Kanye on the stage at the Blue Note…that’s some bad shit historically. That kind of thing is interesting to me. Even teaching at NEC, enough of the students are coming in and showing their new compositions that are based on Dilla beats. He has, for me, been the last great jazz innovator. As a producer in the hip-hop world, he’s affected the way I comp, the way Robert comps, the way we write music, the way the groove feels, the way you write a melody line. He’s affected so much change to a certain sect of jazz that is now becoming the standard.
I’ll give a shout out to Ghostface and Doom one more time. What’s your ideal project with them?
I like what Robert does, but I want to pair the entire thing down. Get rid of all the drums. Get rid of all the electronics. Get rid of the 50 other people standing on stage. Get rid of all the loud 808 bass drums and loud snares and all this. It’s like, ok, here’s Doom, he’s got a microphone and I’m sitting at the piano. That’s it. Do an entire show. And that’s challenging for both of us. It’s challenging for the audience as well because it will be a different type of satisfaction. I want to try that. Just myself and Ghost or myself and Doom or myself and Bun B or myself and Pharoahe Monch. I picked these people because I think lyrically and the vocabulary they use and their subject matter is very esoteric. I think that fits perfectly with how I approach the instrument as well.
Then we have to figure out a way to make repertoire without being in a studio. Like just come over my house, I have a piano here, let’s just do it. It’s pairing it down, getting rid of all the pop around it. Just lyrics and just the music. It would be a real kind of concept project. That could also fail and I’m ok with failing because that’s how you learn. You can’t just make a song over and over again. That is part of the problem. A good thing about a group like the Roots is that they don’t ever really submit to a formula. They continue to move past it. Emcees can’t just say the same shit over and over again in their lyrics. How long can you talk about actually living a lifestyle when now you’re within the top one percent of American wealth? That’s just not true anymore. That kind of lie can only go so long. Also for young African-Americans growing up, they don’t need to believe this. It’s a possibility for us now to make it to that top one percent. We should start talking about different things and I’m hoping that a new generation of emcees will start to realize that. It’s like saying that I should be playing that same songs that Louis Armstrong did. That’s just not going to be the case. He dealt with an entirely different set of circumstances that produced him. So what are the circumstances that produce me?
Interview by Eric Sandler
The Fats Waller Dance Party with Jason Moran and Meshell Ndegeocello
Jason Moran Online