Glasper, Moran Stride into the Spotlight at Winter Jazzfest Blue Note Tribute
There was a moment during their performance of Albert Ammons’ “Easy Rider Blues” that Robert Glasper and Jason Moran almost became one. Their two grand pianos sitting side by side on the small Town Hall stage like a cozy pair of left and right shoes, the pianists submerged their disparate styles nearly into a single voice, exploring the stride and boogie-woogie songs captured on Blue Note’s first-ever recording session (heard on The Complete Blue Note Recordings Of Albert Ammons And Meade “Lux” Lewis). The performance was a major highlight of a concert tribute to Blue Note Records’ 75th anniversary that took place on Jan. 8 at New York’s Town Hall during the 10th anniversary edition of NYC Winter Jazzfest.
Close friends who attended the same high school in Houston, Glasper and Moran—the former a Grammy winner for hip-hop inflections as singular as the latter’s explorations of the music of his mentor Andrew Hill—submerged themselves four-knees-deep in the lazy stride of “Easy Rider Blues,” segueing into Ammons’ “Boogie Woogie Stomp.” These two Blue Note artists excelled in pursuing the songs’ wellsprings of rhythmic gaiety and melodic invention.
Amid stride improvisations, Glasper and Moran traded busy, bluesy note clusters, then repeated each other’s lines in various broken-triplet and 16th-note rhythms while alluding to Monk, 20th century classical, Americana and a funky sliver of Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew.” Jointly jamming on Steinway grand(s) and Rhodes electric piano, Glasper and Moran brought their jubilant spirits, virtuosity and good humor to a revved-up New York audience ready to drink it in.
A second piece, “Text Me,” was based on the duo’s back-and-forth phone texts, reflected in call-and-response rhythms, seesawing melodies and quotes from Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” before resolving into delicate Debussy-like chord fragments.
“Gentle Shifts South/Tribute” honored the pianists’ mothers, a bittersweet, beautiful composition with Moran on acoustic piano and Glasper on Rhodes. The duo closed with the antithesis of love and happiness, Moran’s “Retrograde.” Based on Hill’s “Smokestack” played backwards, the song became engrossed in what sounded like single-note hammering and complex, convoluted vamping over a roller-coaster samba pulse.
The pianists, both dressed in natty tuxedos and sneakers, delighted so deeply in the stride that one hoped their duo set wouldn’t end after a scant 40 minutes.
During their second set, Glasper and Moran were accompanied by drummer Eric Harland, upright bassist Alan Hampton and special guests vocalist-poet Bilal and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. Ornette Coleman’s “Toy Dance” announced the full quintet, with Bilal waiting in the wings. After Harland’s extended intro, expressed in cymbal flourishes and a funky backbeat, Coltrane began to wail, the song growing as hot as a furnace. As Harland punctuated the music using two snare drums, two bass drums, two hi-hats, a floor tom and three ride cymbals, Moran and Glasper dug in, turning their conversation into a maelstrom of sound.
Next, Hampton’s resonant bass solo opened “All Matter,” with Bilal entering stage left batting vocals around like a beatnik Thom Yorke channeling Bjork, ululating the lyric “what is love” in various vocal guises as the group segued into the standard “Body And Soul.” Bilal bounced off the music as charged as any improviser, holding a notebook and pen in case inspiration struck.
Moran spoke to DownBeat after the show. “The last time Rob and I played two pianos was three years ago,” he said. “I produced a two-day festival called ‘713–212 — Houstonians in NYC,’ and the final show was Rob and I. Other than that, we always attend each other’s shows, so we know what each other is up to.”
Blue Note will celebrate its anniversary with releases and events throughout the year. Moran, the artistic advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., will curate “Blue Note At 75, The Concert” on May 11. Artists from the label’s present and past roster will perform, including Moran, Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Wayne Shorter and others. Information about the show is posted at the Kennedy Center website.