January 29, 2012

Jazz Royalty Captivates Barnes Hall

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Darn that dream. You know there’s something great stirring when an audience maintains an awestruck silence (punctuated only by rapturous ovations) throughout a performance.  Even before pianist Jason Moran and his special guest, bassist Dave Holland, could play one note, the effusive audience rolled out a red carpet for the duo.  The affable and unassuming pair truly earned every inch of applause they received, holding nothing back as they took the audience through sprawling soundscapes and hypnotic tangoes. This intimate evening in Barnes Hall was infinitely better than a dream.

These titans never clashed. Holland’s philosophy of “playing it all” (on advice from another legendary jazz musician, Sam Rivers) was evidently shared by Moran. From Rivers’ “Beatrice” to Moran’s “Gummy Moon,” Moran and Holland were first-rate co-captains, eagerly and leisurely taking turns to steer the ship. Their partnership shone in “Gummy Moon,” Moran’s composition inspired by the many nights he spent reading “Goodnight Moon” to his small children. As Holland played a persistent and steadily comforting bass line, Moran’s soothingly-rendered notes gently crafted a dazzling narrative that sometimes leapt in surprise.

The duo certainly made working together look like a walk in the park. Well, actually, they did take the audience “Once Round Central Park.” The song, composed by their late friend Paul Motian and played in his honor, saw Moran and Holland conversing light-heartedly traipsed around the park. The pair displayed a startling ability to sketch out scenes and emotions, alternating between tranquil introspection (perhaps as they passed a lush field or paused by a magnificent fountain on their stroll) and effusive excitement.

Thankfully, they did not stop at Central Park. Holland took the audience “Hoovelling” — valiantly jostling with the crowd as you quickly navigate your way through impossibly congested New York City streets. The fictional term was coined by Holland’s friend as a joke (“hoovelling is something New Yorkers’ do”) when Holland first arrived in New York City. Holland was taken in. He reimagined the encounter in a stunning and succinct piece of music, playfully mimicking the zealous zigzagging. The fast and furious walk left everyone — including Moran — breathless. A visibly-awed Moran just leaned back in his chair and stayed silent for a full minute, before chuckling as he returned to the keyboard, “I just have to sit here and watch this.”

This is just one instance of the charismatic pair’s strong mutual admiration, and the music aside (if you can even forget that for a moment), watching two men blissfully and honestly loving what they do is cause enough for joy.  That’s even more amazing when you consider that both musicians have just as frequently been praised for their originality and genius, as they have been associated with some of the biggest names in 20th century jazz. At Saturday’s concert, they paid tribute to Duke Ellington with their radiant rendition of “Wig Was.”

To describe Moran and Holland as “royalty” is no hyperbole. The tale of how Miles Davis discovered Holland has become the ideal of many an aspiring musician’s dreams.  Shortly after Davis watched Holland opening for the Bill Evans Trio at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, Holland joined the ranks of Davis’ 1969 “lost quintet” that also featured Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter and Jack DeJohnette.

Moran has also had big shoes to fill, and he’s proved to be more than capable of filling them. His latest studio album Ten widely received glowing reviews — not unusual for a Moran album. Moran recently replaced his long time mentor, the iconic pianist Billy Taylor, as the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz after Taylor passed away in 2010. On Saturday night Moran, alongside Holland, certainly exemplified Taylor’s vision of making jazz accessible — something that makes people dance and laugh.

Together, Moran and Holland forged a brand of jazz that is cerebral, inquisitive and fun. There’s more than a touch of Thelonious Monk in Moran’s finger work, and that’s hardly surprising since Monk was “the first pianist who made me want to be a pianist,” as Moran earnestly told New York Magazine. Moran playfully alluded to Monk’s forceful one-note stutter in the encore piece “In Walked Bud.” The teasing, catchy chord sequence of Monk’s 1944 standard got the audience swaying and nodding. Moran and Holland thrived on that exuberance, delivering the sparkling musical equivalent of levitation. They could not have concluded their concert on a more fitting, or startling note. Moran and Holland proved that for at least one night, dreams can come true.

Original Author: Daveen Koh