Since last fall, the brilliant jazz pianist Jason Moran has been touring with his reconception of the music of Thelonious Monk. Mr. Moran's show, "In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall 1959," played San Francisco and Chicago back in November, but New Yorkers aren't likely to see it for another 13 months. (At least we'll be able to experience it at the venue where the music originated, Town Hall, so there!)
However, for those of us who can't get enough of Mr. Moran, particularly when he interacts with veteran players (in both a metaphoric and a literal sense), the new year brings two unusual examples of the young pianist working with his elders. This week, he is part of a trio with the drummer Paul Motian and the tenor saxophonist Chris Potter at the Village Vanguard; Mr. Moran is also prominently featured on "Rabo de Nube" (ECM), the forthcoming album by the saxophonist Charles Lloyd.
Wednesday's first show began with three distinct heads converging on the Vanguard bandstand: Mr. Motian, with his famous bald pate and dark shades (how does he see?); Mr. Potter, with his enviably well-covered scalp, and Mr. Moran, with his pork-pie-like fedora, a fashion statement that seems at once avant-garde and retro, evoking an era when players wore their hats onstage as if the police might break down the door and they would need to make a hasty exit. This was only the group's second night, and this particular lineup had never played before, but already it had gelled remarkably. The set was divided between familiar standards and loose originals that seemed more like minimal patterns of notes than fully formed compositions.
Mr. Moran was especially impressive on the originals that defied a known theme; he reminded me of an old-time vaudeville "sketch" act, in which someone from the audience draws an abstract doodle and the artist-performer has to turn it into a recognizable image. It was as if someone left a few phrases of semi-random notes lying around on Mr. Moran's piano and he took it upon himself to weave them into coherent melodies. Yet there were other occasions when he did precisely the opposite, taking a famous tune and breaking it into shreds of melody, as though he were taking down a pre-fab house and reconstructing it in some other, entirely different fashion.
With his big tenor tone and dynamic personality, Mr. Potter's playing was especially ear-catching on Tadd Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now," which the trio essayed with too much aggression for the piece to be called a ballad. The set then reached its apogee with a hyper-energized, pure-power take on Charlie Parker's famous blues in F, "Billie's Bounce," with its memorable tag. Mr. Potter brought it to such an extreme climax that for a moment it seemed as if there was a skylight over the saxophonist's head (impossible, since the Vanguard is a basement) and bolts of lightning were flashing all around him ó like something out of "Young Frankenstein."
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Charles Lloyd has been a major figure in the jazz world since he first toured with Chico Hamilton and then Cannonball Adderley nearly 50 years ago. As a bandleader and composer, his major gift to jazz has been to soften the cutting edge and centralize the fringe, with an overall approach highly influenced by the avantgarde of the 1960s, yet considerably less extreme. He's also made it a point to assemble outstanding bands and write good tunes for them to play ó qualities that are much in evidence on "Rabo de Nube," which was recorded at a concert in Switzerland last April. Bless Mr. Lloyd also for hiring outstanding players and letting them do exactly what they want: The opener of the new set is "Prometheus," a 15-minute ramble on which, after a brief head from the leader-composer, all three members of the rhythm section ó Mr. Moran, the bassist Reuben Rogers, and the drummer Eric Harlan ó go off on their own.
I've never heard Mr. Moran play more conventionally, and he shows that he'd be a major pianist even without any of his signature moves. He also shows more of an inclination toward Mr. Lloyd's Afro-Asian explorations here (in a vein similar to John Coltrane's "Africa/Brass" and "India"), and the second tune, "Migration of Spirit," has a religious bent to it (opening with a prayer-like invocation).
"Rabo de Nube" concludes with two nods to Monk: "La Coline de Monk" is a four-minute piece, the first half of which features Mr. Moran unaccompanied and not so much referencing Monk's specific tunes as playing a new melody in a vaguely Monk-ish style, before being joined in a duet by Mr. Lloyd, who directly quotes "Epistrophy." This turns out to be a lead-in for the album's highpoint, the melody "Sweet Georgia Bright." Originally introduced in 1964 by Mr. Lloyd and Adderley, "Bright" is a variation on the early jazz perennial "Sweet Georgia Brown" as well as Monk's own variation thereon, "Bright Mississippi." By bringing us back to 1925, then up through Monk and Adderley and Mr. Lloyd's own musical history, Mr. Moran is once again transporting us through the entire history of jazz in a mere 16 bars.
For those of us eager to hear Mr. Moran's full-length re-imagining of Monk, we were offered a few tantalizing tidbits at the Vanguard on Wednesday. One of the Motian pieces contained extended allusions to "I Mean You," and here, Mr. Moran's juxtaposition of traditional piano styles, including stride and avant-garde displacements of sound and space, recalled both Monk and Jaki Byard. The set also included a lovely reading of "Ruby My Dear," in which Messrs. Moran, Potter, and Motian allowed the melody to open slowly and gracefully, rather like a flower; here, the avant-garde technique of breaking down a tune actually seemed to enhance its romantic aspects. By the time they finished, Monk's ballad was a fragmented gem of a ruby.