Photograph by Richard Cannon.
Jason Moran (piano), Christian McBride (bass). Wigmore Hall, 06.10.2021.
The first gig in Christian McBride's turn as artist-in-residence at the Wigmore Hall, following Vijay Iyer's turn in 2019, this was, also, as he announced from the stage, his first performance outside the US since the worldwide spread of the pandemic. Less clearly an experimentalist than Iyer--who played two-piano duets with Craig Taborn and brought experimental hip-hop artist Mike Ladd for two duo performances in a single night--McBride nonetheless chose for this opening duo to bring in an artist who straddles the mainstream and a more experimental approach informed by a rethinking of black compositional trajectories from James P. Johnson to J-Dilla and DJ Screw. Jason Moran will be performing with Archie Shepp in their spirituals-heavy duo at the London Jazz Festival next month. In the much larger space of the Barbican, I've found such concerts tend to lose the intimacy vital to their emotional transmission (let alone the hefty ticket prices), but there were no such problems in the Wigmore (with its heavily-discounted under-35's tickets). The Hall provides an ideal medium-sized space for music of chamber proportions, and its acoustics are excellent: the musicians played un-amplified, thankfully losing the artificial thud that characterises too many large-venue jazz performances, with each detail here singing out crystal-clear. And, despite its generally more conservative programming, the Wigmore was, lest we forget, the site of, for example, the fundamental encounter between Anthony Braxton and Derek Bailey in 1974, a precedent which was, sadly, presumably unknown to the majority of those in attendance this early October.
I'd also been to the Wigmore for the previous day's afternoon concert had seen young US violinist Randall Goosby playing a programme of violin/piano music by African American composers deriving from his recent album Roots, which aims to re-tell the story of 'American' classical music through its Black presence, from Dvorak's use of spirituals to the contributions of William Grant Still and Florence Price. The most interesting part of that concert, to me, were the 'blue/s forms', solo pieces by Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson, sometime pianist for Max Roach and a composer across film, television and classical idioms, whose pieces take seriously the formal implications of marrying what Mingus called 'folk forms' to modernist harmonic extensions. Such pieces are studies in what it means to vary and extend, to 'worry' a line that move out of the vernacular adaptations by Price and Still heard elsewhere on the programme and towards something approaching the radical repetitions later advanced by Julius Eastman.
Something of that concern with what it means to repeat, in multiple senses--the single note, the circular rhythmic or harmonic pattern, the paradoxically cyclical-progressive nature of improvisation based on chord changes--informs Moran's work too, as it questions the parameters of bop's harmonic vocabulary as opened up by bop itself, extended by free jazz, and shut down again by the 1980s counter-reaction and its legacies, marrying this to the iterative structures of other forms of black music, from hip-hop to gospel, the instrumental transformation of the voice, the voiced transformation of the instrument.
Upon his emergence into the music in the early '90s, McBride, meanwhile, was positioned as one of the 'Young Lions'--young musicians playing traditional, acoustic, bop-derived music in the wake of Wynton Marsalis and Nationalist-turned-Conservative Stanley Crouch, with some of the resources of American capital at least temporarily behind them. Though he rode that wave during the so-called 'jazz bubble' of the late '80s and early '90s (analysed in Dale Chapman's recent book), McBride came to see the "Young Lions" term as unduly promoting a limited set of musicians and styles at the expense of others. As he commented in Down Beat at the turn of the Milenium:
The whole ‘young lions’ hype, which, unfortunately, I was part of, peaked in the early 1990s. I say ‘unfortunately’ because the hype was so strong, I don’t think any musician from that ‘movement’ will ever be looked upon by certain people as serious musicians. We’ll be looked at as puppets for record companies and managers, or People magazine–type personalities as opposed to, well, Down Beat magazine–type personalities.
And indeed, the marketing and recording strategy pursued by major labels like Verve soaked up the majority of the limited resources available to the broader field of jazz as a whole for what was ultimately a limited, blinkered vision of what the music is, based on a dubious respectability politics and an erasure of the aesthetic and political radicalism that had characterised the music of the '60s and that still suffuses free jazz, which, I would hazard, was in fact the music's major source of continued, politicised investigation and creative extension, and yet which was the principal victims of the Young Lions' success.
Meanwhile, Crouch's other main target--apart from 'ethnic music'--fusion, both of which he saw as a betrayal of the virtues of acoustic, swing-based jazz, is familiar territory to McBride, who is not averse to electric playing, and is capable of an elastic transformation to seemingly any context. (It was McBride who played bass in the one-off meeting between Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman in 2011 that gathered accolades as one of the performances of the decade.) When playing acoustically, his tendency is to more traditional walking bass patterns, along with bluesy, self-consciously virtuosic solos, each note placed out for maximum effect. But Moran's distinct identity as composer and improviser promised to take things gently away from the straight-ahead territory at which McBride could excel in his sleep, and this duo, while hardly as tied to the music's avant-garde as the Iyer-Taborn duo of 2019, were sure to shake things up, just a little.
Bass-piano duets have an obscure but storied history in jazz. Mal Waldron and Johnny Dyani, Duke Ellington and Ray Brown, Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, all offer duets with distinct characters and differing approaches to a setting that lacks the rhythmic propulsion of a drummer and in which, if the pianist isn't careful, the bass can be reduced to a mere supporting role. As a bass player who's also a bandleader, McBride is no stranger to negotiating between supporting and leading roles. While Moran and McBride have known each other for years, this was not an established duo, leaving open that crucial element of surprise. And this was their first performance, with 30 minutes of rehearsal, as McBride announced from the stage, even if that sense of spontaneity perhaps belied the careful arrangement of the programme. They began with 'Blue Monk', one of (Thelonious) Monk's catchiest and most relaxed of melodies, and a kind of meeting point for them to test the waters, laughing and calling out in mutual appreciation at a well-timed note or a spin on a jazz cliche. Despite Moran's claim that they'd only rehearsed for half an hour, they had a well-developed programme: just under a dozen pieces, each one lasting nearly ten minutes, over the course of a 90 minute programme, ranging from compositions, mainly of the '60s and '70s, from Monk, Mingus and Wayne Shorter, to Moran's originals.
The second piece, a Moran original, begins with a moto perpetuo bassline figure, over which a melody is delivered with complexified legato as the piece transitions into a more traditional blues-type figure (Oscar Brown's work of the early 60s comes to mind--it may even have been an Oscar Brown piece.) Moran, sitting in a backed chair rather than the traditional piano stool, goes for a few scampered runs, nearly knocking over the chair, but before he can get into full Cecil Taylor territory, McBride pulls him back, tethering him to the familiar changes. This happens a few times over the night, but by the end, McBride's allowed himself to enter the free zone for a minute or so, and one of the pleasures of the night is watching how he stretches his established virtuosity into less familiar territory. Another Monk piece, the rarely-performed but captivating 'Bright Mississippi', is followed by Wayne Shorter's melting 1960s ballad, 'Miyako', from the underrated 1967 album Schizophrenia. Like Monk, Shorter delights in setting up, then undercutting, harmonic expectations, but the main impact is in the rapturous yet wistful emotional territory the tune suggests. Here, the melody's delivered with McBride's melancholic arco echoing and transforming the memory of Shorter's gently brittle tenor on the original, Moran judiciously lifting the foot off the sustain pedal at just the right point, McBride plucking the same string he's continuing to bow on the final held note as Moran trills octave chords, techniques that might appear like mere display--look, I can do this!--harnessed in the service of the music's understated grace.
Solo features for each musician followed: Moran's 'how much more terrible was the night' sees him crossing over his hands to play a motorically-repeated figure interspersed with a bass clef toll; as the two hands uncross, Moran plays octave figures, reiterating the theme further down the keyboard, the sense that any part of the structure could be transposed at any point on the keyboard at any time lightly suggesting Cecil Taylor's methodology, if sounding very different in content. There's something here of the quality of Ligeti's Etudes, an assured, glassy rhythmic assurance on the edge of panic, but in control at all points. McBride's solo takes the standard 'Alone Together', melodic figures moved up and down the fingerboard, with harmonics, single note trills, and bent notes not so much decoration as an integral part of the melodic trajectory. This was a lesson in embellishment and development of a solo line, delivered with poise and poignancy, and humour--from the play on playing solo and in company of the title, to the staggered pauses, well-timed delivery of cliches or their subversion--if, sometimes, a little too much polish. A meditative Moran piece saw McBride reading off sheet music. Though the piece mainly consisted of both musicians playing through the melody, the improvisation lies in the delivery, the dynamics, as much as in the development of independent solo lines. They end with a whispered iteration to silence. The next piece, again by Moran, and more gospelly, cycles in wistful hope. Moran knows he's got an earworm of a melodic line, and whistles out the melody as he continues to play it--I'm reminded of Wayne Shorter leaning into the microphone to whistle out a spooked introduction while playing with his quartet in London over a decade ago--exemplifying the feeling of relaxed camaraderie evident from the beginning, McBride laughing in delight at Moran's audacity, and vice versa.
A lesser-known Mingus tune from Let My Children Hear Music sets up an ebulliently sardonic swing over which the musicians overlay the familiar melody to Mingus' Lester Young tribute, 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat'. I'm not sure the overlayering really works--the poignancy of that great melody lost to a kind of technical trick--but Mingus lines give us the opportunity to hear Moran's freer side, with its lineage in the sideman work of Moran's teacher Jaki Byard in Mingus' Jazz Workshop of the '60s and of Don Pullen in the bassist's bands of the '70, as he splashes out a few clusters. Unlike the utter exuberance of his predecessors, though, Moran tends to stick to the middle register, to restrain the energy in near-ironised anticipations and reflexive echoes: playing that's almost--but not quite--in quotation marks. On the other hand, McBride's playing took on suitably Mingus-like timbres--twanging, thick, caustic, voice-like, echoing Mingus' famous 'talking' duets with Eric Dolphy. He even briefly plays 'free' in tandem with Moran, shadowing the latter's parallel motion lines as his fingers leapt across the fingerboard. A final Monk piece, 'Evidence'--probably the most radical of all Monk's compositions--was memorably deconstructed by Anthony Braxton's standards quartet in their London residency just before the pandemic. Moran and McBride play it safer, offering the pleasures of contrast as Moran lets out high-register pings over McBridge's walking bass, opening up the spaces of the melody so that what he plays is as much about what's left out as what's there, the skeletal outline of the harmonic material described and re-inscribed in real time: which is, after all, what Monk had done as early as the 1940s. The piece that sings in the head on the way home, though, is the closing piece from Moran's most recent album, The Sound Will Tell You, 'Toni Morrison said Black is a Rainbow (Shadows)', sees Moran read out a passage from Morrison's Song of Solomon as he plays-"You think dark is just one colour, but it ain't. There're five or six kinds of black". Black as colour, condition, metaphor, process: blackness in the space of the Wigmore Hall, where, as Moran put it when he played the venue in 2019, "people like me don't play in halls like this". Rapturously received, the duo play an encore. Throughout, they put on a show, and then some. An audience until recently starved for live music were delighted.
Beyond this, as I overheard someone saying on the way out, "[McBride] was much more weird and wiggly than usual"; often, there you could hear him adapt in real-time, particular on Moran's piece. And it was Moran's pieces that were in some ways the most interesting pieces on the programme, taking them away from the familiar virtuosity on which they--particular McBride--could easily have coasted the entire night. Moran's compositions tend to focus on gospel-tinged chordal progressions and melodic fragments, treated in the manner of a hip-hop sample as looping, lightly-modified figures that lope or stride ahead with a kind of melancholic poise--whose simplicity can at first seem affected, but which, on each repetition, increase in emotional power. Moran is a master of dynamics, in particular, of the hushed diminuendo, repeating the figure until it disappears into silence, into space, and the unexpected--but perfectly-placed--hammered fortissimo in the midst of innocuous explorations of familiar figures. Moran has learned from minimalism. Here I'm thinking in part of the familiar minimalism of Steve Reich, at one point an associate of pianist Anthony Davis (whose opera X is to be revived at the Met in 2023). But Davis broke with Reich over the latter's Reich's rigidity and refusal of emotional texture--a key feature of the Black music and speech he used (and arguably, exploited) in his work, and we might equally trace Moran's minimalism to Davis' gamelan-inspired work such as the 'Wayang' pieces. (At the least, Davis himself must be counted among Moran's peers for his fusion of composition and improvisation and for his extension of (and beyond) jazz's rhythmic parameters.) But perhaps a more important part of the mix is the minimalism hip-hop looping, a post-electronic form of acoustic music in which harmonic fragments sampled from jazz, soul or R&B records get chopped up, turned over on themselves like an ouroboros. On The Sound Will Tell You, Moran employs electronics he calls DrIp to add echoic traces to his notes in a manner he likens to the slowed-down effects of the late, great DJ Screw. But it's the fascination of hearing that acoustic transformation that takes the music from mere imitation of effect and into a consideration of the structural territories opened up by the now-decades old sonic technologies of hip-hop, an inter-genre, trans-historical dialogue that's, of course, very much within the 'changing same' of jazz's (radical) tradition. (Moran reflects further on some of these questions in a recent lecture here.)
In his own pieces, Moran plays patterns, and it doesn't seem to matter whether they're composed or improvised--though of course he'll run off a flurry up the keyboard to remind you of his chops. With McBride on pieces from the tradition, he can step inside the more functional role of accompanist or lead at will, comping and soloing on changes with the best of them. But his real interests lie somewhere to the left of this, investigating the kernel of figures and putting them through their paces. In this he echoes not only Davis but a piece like Roscoe Mitchell's 'Nonaah', albeit in gentler form. In its expansive, self-consciously historical 'modernistic' approach, Moran echoes the catholicity of musicians like Byard, exemplified in Beaver Harris' 1970s formulation "from ragtime to no-time", though there can be something almost arch and self-reflexive about his playing: this is considered music, and while it lacks the expansive re-structuralism of the compositional systems of an Anthony Braxton or a Henry Threadgill (with whom Moran performed in duet at Ornette Coleman's funeral), it merges the formal explorations and historical weight that befalls anyone who plays this music consciously and with good conscience with a moving resilience, a hope we might call spiritual or secular, but which resounds nonetheless. As Morrison puts it, night "may as well be a rainbow", its shades of gradation, of difference, resounding in the neglected, the shadowy, the obscure, brought to Black light, to Black life.