A Conversation With Bobby Zankel and Jason Moran
On April 28 at Montgomery County Community College, Bobby Zankel’s big band the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound will premiere a new piece written for the ensemble by legendary pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams. In the weeks leading up to the event, we’ll be discussing Abrams’ influence and legacy with some of modern jazz’s leading figures.
Pianist Jason Moran emerged on the scene in the late 1990s, a product of Houston’s renowned High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and the Manhattan School of Music. Discovered by saxophonist Greg Osby, Moran soon began to revolutionize the sound of the piano trio with The Bandwagon, his group with bassist Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits, often incorporating influences from conceptualist art. He was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 2010, and last year was named Artistic Advisor for Jazz at the Kennedy Center. Moran studied with Muhal Richard Abrams during his early years in New York. I spoke to him, along with Bobby Zankel, at his Manhattan apartment.
How did you first encounter Muhal?
Jason Moran: My father had a fairly large record collection, and in it were a lot of AACM cats [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the pioneering Chicago organization that Muhal co-founded in the mid-1960s]. When I started piano at age six I wasn’t paying attention to what he collected over the years, but by the time I was maybe seventeen, late in high school, I started listening to other people. I had been listening to Wynton Kelly, McCoy Tyner, Thelonious Monk, and Herbie Hancock, but then I also started listening to Andrew Hill and Herbie Nichols, and that’s when I found Muhal Richard Abrams. Muhal was suggesting something else for the piano, in the same way that people like Sam Rivers proposed something else for the saxophone. I thought, ‘This is peculiar.’ The compositions are different, his touch on the piano is different, but you hear these gestures towards Scott Joplin or ragtime or stride piano. So I really thank my father for having kind of a wild sensibility about the music he liked.
What was the impact of studying with Muhal?
JM: I got the opportunity when I was maybe 24, in the late ‘90s, to study with Muhal. I hadn’t met any person like this, with so much energy but also explaining the process in a way that made it totally accessible to me as a young musician. He packed so much into a small amount of time that I transcribed these long lesson plans, and every couple of years I go back and listen to those tapes again, because there was no way I could digest everything that he said back then. I constantly refer to them. They’re major lessons, not just about the piano but about life.
How do you use Muhal’s example in teaching your own students?
JM: Sometimes students think that they’re coming up with the most wild ideas [laughs]. And in relationship to what the history and trajectory of music has been, so much has been donea very long time ago. Also, America was at a very different point in the 1960s. So when I talk to students about the AACM or Muhal or Henry Threadgill, I try to talk about it from a very personal point of view, saying these are musicians that helped contextualize the boundaries of mainstream jazz, because they tempted further away from the road. But also it wasn’t very far because it was built on the main stem that produces great culture throughout the country. So I talk about it in this way: there’s a lot of expression that one can play.
Bobby Zankel: When you think of Monk, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Colemantheir language is so specific. But Muhal is different. How would you talk about his language?
JM: I don’t know if I could put into terms what his piano language is. It’s like a wave that goes all the way to shore rather than something that just goes back and forth. That’s how I hear him. People sometimes think that certain crews of musicians only write one way, that they don’t tempt out the seduction or beauty or passion, things that you might associate with, say, Lester Young when he plays a ballad. But Muhal is a person that’s full of life, full of love. That’s real.
Is it any easier to define his identity as a composer?
JM: No. And I don’t think he wants people thinking, ‘This is how he sounds.’ [The musicians of the AACM] spent their entire careers thinking not with those boxes in mind. Even battling ideas like, ‘This is not black music,’ that abstract music wasn’t associated with the African-American struggle or the civil rights movement. Which is absurd. So they dealt with lots of issues, whether they were sonic, social, economic, or political, and found ways to figure out within the music how to manifest these problems they were experiencing.
Bobby Zankel: He seems to have this amazing curiosity.
JM: His curiosity is unmatched, because he doesn’t know what’s on the other side of the fence. So when he starts a composition, my vision of him is that he doesn’t know how it’s going to end. He starts from one place and then it starts to feed itself, it starts to be its own web. That’s maybe the most freeing thing you can do, to be free of your own box. I haven’t gotten as far away, but I know that part of my madness over my recording career is to say, ‘I know you think that I’m going to make this kind of record, but it’s not gonna be that record.’ It’s gonna have Muhal Richard Abrams it’s gonna have James P. Johnson and Afrika Bambaataa, because to me they all make sense together. That’s what I think Muhal teaches people, that’s what he lives by as an example. That’s why we’re here right now. - Shaun Brady
Bobby Zankel and the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound pay tribute to Sam Rivers on Thursday, Feb. 2 at 9:30 p.m., $7, at Tritone, 1508 South Street, 215-545-0475.
For more information on the April 28 concert with Muhal Richard Abrams, please visit: mc3.edu.