Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Moran, Jason

Pianist Jason Moran has demonstrated an ability to strike a delicate balance between musical tradition and innovation. At a young age, he has earned acclaim for his distinctive combinations of jazz, classical music, popular music, and hip-hop, as a composer and bandleader as well as in his work with alto saxophonist Greg Osby, vocalist Cassandra Wilson, and others.

Jason Moran was born on January 21, 1975 in Houston, Texas. At the age of six, he began to study classical music. At first, he did not like taking piano lessons and attempted to give up music on several occasions. He changed his mind about music at the age of thirteen when he heard pianist Thelonious Monk’s composition “Round Midnight.” He then returned to his piano lessons with renewed interest and a growing focus on jazz.

     Jason Moran, by Jos L. Knaepen

Moran attended Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where he played in the school’s jazz ensemble, and also led the school’s jazz quintet. His peers introduced him to different styles and perspectives on music, which broadened the scope of his curiosities.

Upon graduating from high school in 1993, Moran moved to New York City to attend the Manhattan School of Music. Jason initially came to the school in order to study with pianist Jaki Byard, who ended up becoming a mentor to the young man. Byard helped him develop his ideas and persuaded him to experiment with different musical concepts.

In college, Moran had several other professors that encouraged him in his studies including pianist Andrew Hill and composer Muhal Richard Abrams. Moran also began to perform around New York City, including a stint in tenor saxophonist David Murray’s band.

During his senior year at the Manhattan School, drummer Eric Harland recommended Moran to alto saxophonist Greg Osby, who was in need of a pianist for an upcoming tour of Europe. Upon talking on the phone, Osby hired Moran without hearing an audition.

After the tour, Osby hired Moran to be a full-time member of his band. Moran performed on Osby’s 1997 album for Blue Note Further Ado. This marked Moran’s professional recording debut. In 1998, Moran appeared on Osby’s live record Banned In New York.

A shining example of Moran’s early work can be heard on the song “Pent-Up House," in which Moran builds on Osby's melodic ideas by incorporating extended chords and harmonically advanced comping. Bassist Atsushi Osada and drummer Rodney Green add additional layers of rhythmic texture, which further allow Moran to effectively accompany the ensemble.

Moran’s contributions to Osby’s group impressed executives at Blue Note, who signed him to his own recording contract. In August 1998, Moran began to lead his own groups, which coincided with his debut Soundtrack to Human Motion, which was released in 1999.

Harland, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and bassist Lonnie Plaxico joined Moran on the album. The album was celebrated for its repertoire, which was not exclusive to the jazz cannon, and was featured on New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff’s "best of" list for 1999.

In 2000, Moran participated in the New Directions Tour, an international tour with an ensemble that was arranged by Blue Note. The group featured Harris, Osby, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, bassist Tarus Mateen, and drummer Nasheet Waits. The same year, Jason released his second album, Facing Left, which featured Mateen and Waits as his rhythm section. Mateen and Waits have been Moran’s working rhythm section ever since, and Moran has named the trio Bandwagon.

In May 2001, Moran released his third album, Black Stars, which features significant contributions from tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers. The following year, Jason released Modernistic, his fourth album. The album’s title track was based on the song “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic,” which was written by pianist James P. Johnson in 1937. The album features modern takes on songs which range from classical composer Robert Schumann’s “Auf Einer Burg” to hip-hop emcee Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock.”

“Planet Rock” is the standout track on this album, as it combines advanced sound design and production techniques with Moran's minimalistic musical accompaniment. He begins his arrangement by playing an opening melody, then responds to it with a percussive motif in the lower register of the piano, which establishes a pulse throughout the song.

Moran then juxtaposes lush chordal embellishments with sharp and flexible melodic lines. The addition of sound loops in the background serves to further update the song. Moran's keen rhythmic sense is evidenced by his ability to push and pull the boundary of the beat. The result is an updated extension of conventional solo piano techniques.

In 2003, the Jazz Journalists Association awarded Moran with its “Up-And-Coming Jazz Musician” award. Later that year, Down Beat Magazine gave him three awards as Rising Star Jazz Artist, Rising Star Pianist and Rising Star Composer, the third of which he won again in the next two years.

That same year, Jason released The Bandwagon: Live at the Village Vanguard. On “Another One,” Moran's angular melodic ornamentations and abrupt rhythmic modulations demonstrate the debt his style owes to the innovations of Thelonious Monk. What is most striking about this song is the attention that Moran, Mateen and Waits pay to each other. The three men at times bounce ideas off one another, but listen carefully throughout, which results in multiple musical thoughts happening at the same time.

On September 6, 2003, Jason married singer Alicia Hall at the First United Methodist Church in Stamford, Connecticut. 2003 also saw Moran venturing into film scoring with his score to director Seith Mann’s short film Five Deep Breaths. The same year, Jason won the first annual Nightlife Award for “Best Jazz Combo” and “Best Performance.” The following year, he won the Best Original Score Award at the First Run Film Festival for his score to director Christopher Dillon’s short film All We Know of Heaven.

On May 1, 2005, Moran released his seventh album, ?Same Mother. The album featured guitarist Marvin Sewell, who joined Bandwagon on a permanent basis. The same year, Playboy magazine named him “Jazz Artist of the Year,” their first time bestowing such an honor. The following year, Jason the album Artist In Residence. The album included several pieces that were commissioned from different organizations including the Dia Art Foundation, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the Walker Art Center.

In 2007, Jason performed on singer Cassandra Wilson’s album Loverly. The same year, he performed with tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd, appearing with him on the record Rabo de Nube. 2007 also saw Jason being named a USA Prudential Fellow, and he was granted $50,000 by United States Artists, an artist support foundation dedicated to the encouragement and promotion of America’s top living artists.

Moran’s recent projects include “In My Mind: Monk at 1959,” a recreation and staging of Monk’s concert at Town Hall in 1959. The piece was originally commissioned by Duke University, The San Francisco Jazz Festival, Chicago Synphony Hall, and the Washington Performance Art Society and featured multi-media segments and visual components.

The world premiere was held at Duke University in October 2007 and was subsequently performed at New York's Town Hall on February 27, 2009. The band that was assembled for the performance included Moran, Mateen, Waits, trumpeters Ralph Alessi and Charles Tolliver, trombonist Isaac Stewart, tubist Bob Stewart, tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, and alto saxophonist Logan Richardson III.

Moran recently returned to the Manhattan School of Music as a faculty member, taking the job once held by his mentor Jaki Byard. Moran’s latest commissions include FEEDBACK, to be premiered at the 2009 Monterrey Jazz Festival. In the fall of 2009, Moran also plans to premiere a collaboration with choreographer Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet in San Francisco.

Moran lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife.

Select Discography

As a leader

Soundtrack to Human Motion (1999)

Facing Left (2000)

Black Stars (2001)

Modernistic (2002)

The Bandwagon: Live at the Village Vanguard (2003)

Jason Moran (2004)

Same Mother (2005)

Artist In Residence (2006)

With Stefon Harris

A Cloud of Red Dust (1998)

Black Action Figure (1999)

With Charles Lloyd

Rabo de Nube (2007)

With Greg Osby

Further Ado (1997)

Zero (1998)

Banned in New York (1998)

Symbols of Light (A Solution) (2001)

Inner Circle (2002)

With Cassandra Wilson

Loverly (2007)

Contributor: Eric Wendell