In Tandem, the Morans Expand Notions of Art

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Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran perform at the 2015 Venice Biennale in Italy.

(Photo: Venice Biennial)

On the 1968 album Congliptious by the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, there’s a musical skit titled “Jazz Death?” In it, Lester Bowie encounters a critic from “Jism” magazine who asks, “Is jazz as we know it dead?” After an extended—and lyrically flatulent trumpet fanfare—Bowie replies, “Well, I guess that all depends on, uh, what you know.’’

What Jason and Alicia Hall Moran, who met while students at the Manhattan School of Music in the mid-’90s, know about the state of the art form has been gleaned from years of intensive work with a staggering range of world-renowned collaborators—poets, scholars, filmmakers, choreographers, furniture makers, visual artists and, yes, fellow musicians. The couple wed in 2003 and now live in Harlem with their twin sons.

Jason began touring and recording with saxophonist Greg Osby in 1997, later signing with Blue Note, issuing an impressive run of releases: Soundtrack To Human Emotion (1999), Facing Left (2000), Black Stars (2001), Modernistic (2002) and Same Mother (2005). These established his Bandwagon trio—featuring drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen—as one of the most daring and resourceful improvisational ensembles on the scene.

Original compositions shared stage and album space with an eclectic bevy of artists the group claimed as fellow travelers: Duke Ellington, Jaki Byard, Sam Rivers, Bjork and Afrika Bambaataa. The 2006 album Artist In Residence highlighted a slew of Jason’s major commissions, already a staple of his artistic profile, and included music derived from his encounters with conceptualists Adrian Piper and Joan Jonas.

The list of collaborators soon would include other high-profile names on the international art circuit: Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Carrie Mae Weems and Julie Mehretu. The in-depth book Jason Moran, published in conjunction with a 2018 Walker Art Center exhibition, considers the artist’s practice and his collaborative works as interdisciplinary investigations, furthering the fields of experimental jazz and visual art.

While at the Manhattan School of Music, Alicia developed her extraordinary mezzo soprano voice and performance presence into formidable instruments. She also has collaborated on stage with an array of artists from multiple disciplines, including Weems, Bill T. Jones, Charles Lloyd, Adam Pendleton and LaTasha Diggs. She toured with the revival of Porgy and Bess in 2013, taking over the lead role from grand dame Audra McDonald. She also has developed several independent projects that feature her own sui generis artsong inventions—the motown project, Black Wall Street and, most recently, Breaking Ice: The Battle of the Carmens.

Alicia and Jason have created work together for a number of institutions and events, including the Venice Biennale, the Whitney Biennial, Harlem Stage, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

They’ve also formed their own YES Records label and have released two albums by Alicia—2015’s Heavy Blue and her latest, Here Today. The latter features cover art by Amy Sherald, who recently unveiled her portrait of Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Last year alone, Jason released four albums on the label: Thanksgiving At The Vanguard, Bangs, The Armory Concert and Mass {Howl, Eon}.

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August 2018
Vijay Iyer
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