Tony Moreno is New York City’s version of the “greatest drummer you’ve never heard of.” Though he’s has toured and recorded with Jaki Byard, Dave Liebman, Ravi Coltrane, Chris Potter, Sonny Fortune, Mal Waldron, Barry Harris, Paul Bley and others, he has received greater recognition overseas than in New York, where he was born and raised.
Moreno celebrated the release of his double album Short Stories (Mayima Jazz) at the 55 Bar on Oct. 8. He was joined onstage by the musicians who play on the album: Marc Mommaas (tenor saxophone), Ron Horton (trumpet), Jean-Michel Pilc (piano) and Ugonna Okegwo (bass). Moreno thrilled the packed house with heartfelt compositions expressed in turbo-charged arrangements and luminous improvisations.
The quintet’s tight-knit, kinetic performance recalled an earlier era of New York jazz. Moreno drummed with a ferocious creative spirit throughout, like a streamlined blend of Jack DeJohnette, Buddy Rich and Elvin Jones, an early mentor who gave Moreno his first drum set.
The show was promoted as Moreno’s Short Stories album release event and a “thank you” to the 55 Bar. The Greenwich Village hole-in-the-wall gave Moreno’s quintet a monthly residence while he recovered from personal losses as a result of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (Moreno lost instruments, a library of compositions and numerous archival possessions in the storm.)
Regardless of its stated goal, this blowout gig would have floored anyone who entered the 55 Bar’s tiny confines. The gracious Moreno gave every audience member a copy of Short Stories.
“The band is made up of artistic companions who have performed together over four years,” Moreno noted in a press release. “Since I lost my drum set, I purchased a small keyboard and began composing again. It was, of course, cathartic. It was time to document the group. We had enough music for two CDs. I had to clean the slate and move on.”
The two-set program at the 55 Bar reflected the running order of the tracks on Short Stories—and a blistering performance it was. The first set included Kenny Wheeler’s “Foxy Trot,” Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” and six Moreno originals.
In New York City, where pickup bands are often the norm, musicians familiar with each other’s work will form casual groups for a one-night stand. The Moreno event was no such thing. His quintet performed like a cohesive artist collective, where ensemble sections and individual improvisations sprung from a supremely integrated whole.
Musical sentences began by Moreno were often picked up and extended by Okegwo. The Mommaas-Horton front line played Moreno’s melodies as a single organism before splitting off into expressive solos, and the bass-and-drums team dissected and stretched rhythms with acute accents.
Moreno’s drum solos were heroic explosions of power, grace and time-twisting punctuations.
The first set included Mommaas’ “Little One” and the drummer’s compositions “The West’s Best,” “Erroll Garner,” “55 Scotch,” “Susan’s Dream” and “No Blues To You.” Song after song, the quintet’s unified musicianship and Moreno’s scorched-earth drumming were a consistent revelation.
A quiet man of gentle demeanor, Moreno becomes someone else altogether when he sits behind a drum set. Even on the reflective ballads, Moreno’s mallets stormed, his subtle note placements revealing a profound depth of feeling. Moreno was as entertaining to watch as to hear; his balletic arm movements generated cymbal crashes, drum fills and rhythm-splitting metric movement.
In one composition, Moreno’s brisk hi-hat rolls and snare drum fire complemented Pilc’s keyboard-spanning runs, segueing to Horton’s solo and further punctuation from Moreno, whose broken rhythms perpetually displaced the time while also pushing it forward.
Throughout, Moreno’s incensed, vibrant drumming surged. He played with a fervor born of great insight, talent and perhaps not a little frustration—but frustration channeled into beauty.
Moreno—who teaches at New York University’s Jazz Performance Program and Columbia University’s Louis Armstrong Jazz Studies Program, as well as City College of New York—has toured the globe and performed on more than 100 recordings. His Short Stories deserves a wider audience, as does his beautifully artistic musicianship.