Almost nothing on Here Today, the second full-length from vocalist Alicia Hall Moran, comes as expected. The opening track sets the lyrics and melody of Stevie Wonder’s 1970 hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” to the music of the “Habañera” from Carmen. From there, Moran gets even more daring, with a short, wrenching song whose only musical accompaniment is a piano and rattling chains.
This kind of norm-defying practice is standard for Moran. That’s been evident to anyone who has followed her career from her time touring with the Broadway revival of Porgy & Bess and the bold work she has done with artists like guitarist Brandon Ross and percussionist Kaoru Watanabe. She slices and sails through every project, twisting her pliable mezzo-soprano voice into whatever shape necessary to express the emotion and soul of a piece of music.
DownBeat spoke with the singer while she was on a recent trip to Italy, where her husband, celebrated pianist/composer Jason Moran, was performing, to discuss how her family history, collaborators and dynamic musical interests inspired Here Today.
Looking over your bio, I was a little surprised to learn that you used to be a figure skater.
I was. It was one of my youth sports, so I took lessons from when I was a little kid. And then slowly those turned into private lessons. And then those private lessons turned into me being on a synchro team. It’s a team of people who create patterns on the ice and do tricks in group formations. So, it’s much more closely related to synchronized swimming or drill team or cheerleading. A lot of young women get a lot of access there.
When did your focus shift from that to music?
It kind of ran into the music. I joined this honors choir in 10th grade and that quickly took all of my time. And I was really good at it. I came to this conclusion that if you’re going to be an elite skater, they’re really starting to make their mark at 15, 16. With singing, all of the best opera singers in the world seemed to me to be in their 30s or their 40s. So, I thought, “If I switch now, I can get into this early.” I talked to my skating coach and she said, “Alicia, if you have an option that will carry you through your life, you should absolutely take it.” So, I stopped the skating team. Also in my family, we come from some musicians that were quite important in previous generations, so I think my parents were proud. It’s just been a nice switch.
What musicians are you referring to?
[Former Duke Ellington vocalist] Al Hibbler. My grandma, Ruby Hibbler-Hall, from Muskogee, Oklahoma, that’s her cousin. On my other side is Hall Johnson. When you hear Jessye Norman or Kathy Battle singing a spiritual, some of those were his arrangements. He was a teacher of Marian Anderson; he had the Hall Johnson Chorale. It’s something that I’m examining in my music so much now that I’m an adult. That’s what this record is about. It’s kind of going backward through my family life and trying to solve some puzzles. This record is part of me unwrapping my own history.
Your collaborators on this album, like with guitarist Thomas Flippin and the band Harriet Tubman, are impressive. How did you connect with them?
I met Thomas in a church—his wife is a Methodist minister who fights for marriage equality. Petitioning the worldwide voice of Methodism; that’s her angle, welcoming anybody and everybody into her congregation. I find that ... him having a strong woman in his life ... gives him the sound I’m looking for in the guitar. I can’t tell you how or why. I just know that—same with Brandon Ross. I have worked with Brandon for years, but just he and I. He invited me to join him and his band, Harriet Tubman, as part of his residency at The Stone. We have a footing that is very sure that has yielded so many beautiful concerts around the country; it’s very special to me. So, when he invited me to go in with Tubman, it was like a glove.
At the same time, your husband doesn’t figure much on Here Today, unlike your previous album, Heavy Blue (Self Release), which he produced.
He’s not really present on the album. He plays a one-finger solo in one song and played and co-arranged “Feeling Good” with me. I play all the rest of my own piano; I composed everything. I kicked him out of the room when I was composing. I hid my notebook from him, because I didn’t want him to see something I wrote. He’s like a little computer, a truly talented mimic, also—he can hear it and play it back. I knew that if he even heard me play this music, he would absorb it into his music and play with the Bandwagon before I could even put it on my own record. So, he didn’t even hear these things as I made them.
Here Today opens with this mashup of Stevie Wonder and Georges Bizet. What inspired that?
I did a project in 2012 called “The Motown Project,” ... combinations of Motown songs with classical music and opera with operatic narratives, dramatic themes and turns. I would take all these little dramatic stereotypes and find their counterpart in Motown. I did a whole night of my vision for my voice, where all the soul I could put into my Mozart would be allowed and all of my German Romantic placements were allowed.
One of the more striking and personal songs on the new album is “Black Wall Street,” which is, in part, about your father, who did work on Wall Street for a time. What can you tell me about that tune?
My father is black and he was on Wall Street, so I knew I was gonna definitely make a performance called “Black Wall Street” for my dad. I did this at National Sawdust. It was seen and got redeveloped for the Schomburg Center and the River To River Festival. That night it was seen by someone [now] bringing it to Tulsa[, Oklahoma] where they had a neighborhood called Black Wall Street, a black millionaire’s row that was the victim of a savage racial attack.
Did you run up against friction as a black woman entering into the very white, Eurocentric world of classical music?
Absolutely. But what it’s also an illustration of is the personal politics of anyone attempting to be a true artist of any race. ... In terms of American history, we’re talking about life and death stakes; you’re talking about letting people thrive or wishing them to be wiped off the face of the Earth. And black people don’t own that on any side; look at human history. But we sure get a clear window into it, we get a front seat. What we hope is that the front seat teaches compassion. What I know [is that] it teaches deep intelligence in the body, in the heart and in the mind. I can see better than other people can see because of what I know. That’s why I’m so endlessly passionate about putting everything I know into the music. DB
This story has been edited for length and clarity.