Jason Moran has been to Cornell about four times in his “short career” as a jazz pianist and composer, and each time, he returns “a little bit wiser.” Last spring, Moran and his Overtone Quartet colleague, bassist Dave Holland, matched their virtuosic command of rhythm with an inspired steering of jazz standards. On Thursday night, Moran returned to Barnes Hall with his wife Alicia Hall Moran, a classical singer who — in her own words — has “always been singing Bach with a little too much soul.” Hall and Moran didn’t just perform; they shared with the audience the process of performing, which Hall described as, an opportunity to “learn in public.” Words and movement shared the stage with jazz, in a show that, though at points baffling and saccharine, was striking for its adventurousness and wisdom.
Love was in the air. “People just find each other,” Hall observed, sagely, after her smoky rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “I was Made to Love Her.” While Hall said that she is not a soul singer, and never intended to be one, her delivery was nothing less than soulful. If you’re disheartened by the bland earful you get on the radio, keep on trying, because you’re bound to find genius eventually. It was clear from her frequent homages to Lucille Clifton, that Hall is keenly aware of the form and meaning of the words and melodies she articulates. There was more than a touch of Sarah Vaughan in Hall’s rendition of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” from the 1935 folk opera Porgy and Bess. Hall will be taking on the lead role of Bess in the upcoming national tour of the musical, which is revolutionary for a show dominated by classically trained African American actors. Appropriately, “Summertime” was Hall’s strongest number; the sonorous depths she reached were barely hinted at in her renditions of other jazz standards, notably the Rodgers and Hart masterpiece, “My Funny Valentine.”
Plunging into Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” Moran swiftly shaped the spirited shuffle into something far more introspective. He splintered the familiar flight of notes, alternately hammering and caressing the keys. Decisive and incisive in his piano playing, much like his early inspiration Thelonious Monk, Moran evoked melodies that rippled through the hall. It was enough to see Moran, a Kennedy Center musical advisor and MacArthur fellow, adroitly taking on Gershwin and Bernstein. Though Monk was a compelling inspiration, Moran had other ideas. Along with Hall, he played two of his gospel-inspired compositions that were commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in conjunction with the 2008 exhibition Gee’s Bend: the Architecture of the Quilt. “I once was blind / but now I see,” Hall wailed on “Here Am I,” as Moran dragged and simmered notes into tumultuous perfection.
Hall and Moran’s love story strung together their witty and gentle tributes to their musical and literary heroes. Hall and Moran met as students at the Manhattan School of Music. Moran, who was tutored by jazz pianist Jaki Byard, was taken by Hall’s love for improvisation — an unusual trait for classical singers, Moran noted. When you love someone, he explained, you do whatever it takes to spend time with them. If you’re both gifted musicians, then that might involve “challenging someone about sonic possibilities.” Thursday’s performance exemplified the couple’s constant, scrupulous dialogue about music. You also learn to love what they love, or at least try to, and that’s often for the better. As Moran surmised, “Fats Waller is great, but listen to Schumann too.”
It seems odd to think about this night of moonlight, music and musing as a jazz concert, because really, it was more a work of contemporary art. After all, Hall and Moran did perform at last year’s editions of Art Basel Miami Beach and the Whitney Biennial. At the Whitney, they played five days of live music as part of BLEED, an exploration of the power of performance to pulverize barriers. At Barnes Hall on Thursday, the Morans concluded yet another ambitious expedition on an earnest note. Tracing the footsteps of Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra, Moran fingered the keys and Hall sighed, “I like the sunrise, I hope it lights for me.”