Jason Moran - All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller
(Blue Note 3753429. CD Review by Jon Turney)
The wondrously infolded history of jazz, new improvisation in continual dialogue with old recordings, continues to inspire new ways of honouring the ancestors. One extreme has just been marked by Moppa Elliott and co’s note-for-note recreation of Kind of Blue on Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s latest release. Jason Moran’s Fats Waller tribute is nearer the other pole – deconstruction and reassembly, “distorted, but with respect”, as Lol Coxhill used to deadpan before mugging an unsuspecting standard.
There’s a lot of distortion here, but also a good deal of respect – maybe, in the end, a little too much of both. To my mind, quite a few tracks discard familiar elements of the originals without adding anything notable.
Most of Waller’s classic songs are here, not so much revisited as reinvented, as part of a dance party originally performed at Harlem Stage in 2011. That featured MeShell Ndegeocello, who co-produced the recording with Blue Note’s President Don Was. Her soulful vocal takes the lead on versions of Ain’t Misbehavin and Ain’t Nobody’s Business which are like none you’ve heard before. The melodies are re-worked, and interestingly detailed horn and rhythm arrangements reframe them. Misbehavin’ becomes a near lament, set against electronics and beats reminiscent of mid-period Weather Report. Nobody’s Business is brooding and plaintive, defiance giving way to resignation.
There’s a completely different approach to Two Sleepy People, sung as a straight ballad by trumpeter Leron Thomas with mock (?) cheesy synthesized strings. An amusingly affectionate parody if you’re in the mood, a quick skip to the next track if you aren’t. It follows a regular jazz rendition of Lulu’s back in Town which displays all the virtues of Moran and his Bandwagon trio – Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums supporting some dazzling piano which, tantalisingly fades out.
It’s a characteristic touch on a set that never settles on one thing for long. Funk drummer Charles Haynes drives most of the tracks, and trombonist Josh Roseman and, just once, Steve Lehman’s sax pop in and out of the arrangements. Moran is a constant presence on keys, now leaning into an electric riff, now adding synch colours, now letting rip on acoustic piano.
It is all beautifully crafted, and most of tracks work on their own terms. The overall effect, though, is a tad disjointed. There’s no obvious reason why one song attracts one treatment rather than another. A listener with broad tastes might enjoy all of it, but many will lean more toward some tracks than others. I was more engaged when the set moves in a jazzier direction, especially in the lengthier piano features toward the close, though the more heavily produced tracks are fun when all the ingredients gel, an engagingly light-hearted Honeysuckle Rose being the best example.
So interesting, and creative, like all Moran’s explorations, but for me it lacks the unforgettable illumination of, say, the moment in his 2007 project In My Mind when he accompanies the heavy, hollow tread of Thelonius Monk’s dance steps recorded in a Harlem loft. And for a Waller tribute-cum-recreation, I’ll be returning more often to Aki Takase’s 2003 effort, with Rudi Mahal and the inimitable Eugene Chadbourne on vocals. Now his treatment of Two Sleepy People manages to be both humorous and genuinely affecting - something Fats managed apparently effortlessly, and which Moran’s somewhat more effortful offering doesn’t really bring off.