Keeper of the Keys

Pianist Jason Moran laces his strikingly original music with the soulful sounds of jazz greats

(Cheryl Carlin)
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Andy Moran knew his son had promise, but he was also impressed with Jason's tennis trophies and his golfing skills—as a teenager he shot in the low 80s. Then McCoy Tyner came to town to visit HSPVA. Tyner, who had been John Coltrane's pianist, is generally regarded as one of the greatest players of the last half-century. "I picked him up at the airport," Andy recalls, "and I said, 'Mr. Tyner, I'm really glad you're coming down to hear the students.' And he said, 'Mr. Moran, I'll be honest with you. I came here to hear your son.' I was really like, Damn! McCoy Tyner! Telling me that! It was really a big thing for me."

Jason went on to the Manhattan School of Music, where he came under the tutelage of Jaki Byard, whose playing was at once cutting edge and steeped in tradition. It's an attitude Moran came to embrace fully, as have some of his peers. Pianist Robert Glasper, who followed Moran at HSPVA, says, "We're from the hip-hop generation, so we have this side of us that wants to push jazz to the next level. I don't want Thelonious Monk to come back from the dead and say, 'Y'all still playing that?'"

Moran sees his conceptual-art approach as one way forward, but he clearly wants his layered works to touch people as well as make them think. In "Cradle Song," which Moran dedicated to his mother, the furious pencil scribbling peters out about a minute before the end of the recording, leaving the pianist alone to conclude the piece. And then, almost imperceptibly, Moran slows down the music and quiets his playing to a whisper, ending in an aching silence.

Jamie Katz, the former deputy editor of Vibe magazine, lives in New York City.


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