It was difficult to expect what was going to come out of the collaboration of Jason Moran and Meshell Ndegeocello revamping Fats Waller tunes in an attempt to remind the world that jazz music is exciting, fun, and a can make you dance. By any measure, this is a difficult task to take on, but then again, who better to try than Jason and Meshell?
The first thing you noticed when you walked in (aside from the beats bumping from DJ Raydar Ellis) was the atmosphere. The Harlem Stage Gatehouse was transformed into the legendary Smalls where Fats Waller immortalized his late-night jams. Despite the fact that there were tables pushed back from the stage, there was a certain sense from the crowd that everyone knew they were going to be up and dancing soon enough.
The concert started in an abrupt and satisfying manner with Jason Moran marching onto the stage declaring “Let’s play!” before he immediately began attacking the piano in his best Fats Waller imitation. The talented roster of musicians in the band which included Mark Kelley, Charles Haynes, Cory King, Leron Thomas, Lisa King, and Marvin Sewell soon followed suit. Yet, it wasn’t until Meshell marched out with the professional dancers that the party really got started. Before the first song was even halfway done the majority of the audience was up and dancing with the professional dance crew spicing up the mix. Fats Waller was most definitely in attendance in both spirit and incarnation as Moran donned his custom papier-mâché Waller head made by Didier Civil. It looked as if he couldn’t see through it, but the furious spurts of piano strides never ceased.
The music could best be described as Fats Waller compositions intertwined with a modern twist of electronics, MPC’s, funk, and hip-hop sensibilities. There would be moments of Jason simply playing the Waller compositions note-for-note, but those moments would be contrasted by immediate responses from the band bringing the song back to 2011. On vocals, Meshell shined at doing what she does best, making an intimate experience between the performers and audience. Despite Mark Kelley holding down the low-end, Meshell even took multiple chances to bring in some low-end funk of her own on bass as well.
The entire experience was immediately and overwhelmingly powerful. By any and all standards this was an amazing collaboration faced with a daunting task. Despite the difficult and demanding nature of the concept, Jason, Meshell, and the band went above and beyond all expectations. With all succeeded, the concert ended in a fitting fashion with Meshell and Jason leading chants of genius, applying it both to each other and to Fats Waller. Although this was the last set of the last night, I would hope that the concert gets to be performed on a worldwide scale. The effects and message it holds are of the utmost importance for both jazz and live music.
Words & Photos by Eric Sandler