Wednesday, April 7, 1999

Ivory Dances

Posted By on Wed, Apr 7, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Those who heard the Blue Note New Directions show at Motor last month will recognize – no doubt with a rush of blood to pleasure centers of the brain – the lineup of pianist Jason Moran’s debut disc as a leader. There’s alto sax colossus Greg (the wizard of) Osby, new jazz thinker for the millennium. And postmodern vibes ghostbuster Stefon Harris. Along with Moran, they’re the main movers of Blue Note’s renaissance, giving this set a scintillating aura reminiscent of Osby’s work with pianist-composer Andrew Hill. Moran, who once studied with Hill himself, has been with Osby’s band since 1997.

The opening track, "Gangsterism on Canvas," has that bittersweet-melodic, Andrew Hill feel resonating down long corridors of blue. But Moran soon moves into his own repertoire, shocking our preconceptions with a take on the third movement of Ravel’s piano suite, "Le Tombeau de Couperin." A 20th century French composer quoting and paying homage to another from the 18th century seems like dubious material for American jazz, but Moran blends the theme into lush chords à la McCoy Tyner, turning the piece into a lyrical, lilting dance.

His mining of the sparser formats continues on "Kinesics," a halting, darkly virtuosic solo, and the resurgent "Release from Suffering," which showcases exquisite support from Lonnie Plaxico (bass) and Eric Harland (drums). The larger group tracks with Osby and Harris layer and distribute the interaction of the soloists, so that everybody contributes but nobody takes the reins from Moran, who is far and away the emotional focus of this record.

Student that he was of Hill, Jaki Byard and Muhal Richard Abrams, Jason Moran has nevertheless emerged with his own sound and a remarkable intelligence, an ear for the full range of piano literature and breathtaking chops. The magic dancing in your head starts here.

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