Q&A with Alicia Hall Moran: Adding to a Daring Catalog

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Alicia Hall Moran and Thomas Flippin perform at Gavin Brown’s enterprise in New York.

(Photo: Ed Marshall)

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.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

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.

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