Interview: Pianist and Monk enthusiast Jason Moran

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NEW YORK -- Before his concert Friday at Town Hall, pianist Jason Moran took a few minutes to speak with me about his upcoming performance and how his In My Mind has changed since it was premiered at Duke.

What was your reaction to Charles Tolliver’s performance last night?

I thought last night was great. It’s a real accomplishment. I’m really happy to hear the music as it was, some of those same notes played. I guess some revisionist classical people would do something similar to this, perform a piece the way it would have been played, so it was nice to hear jazz classicized that way. I was also really happy to hear the liberties that the musicians were taking—Gene Jackson, Stanley Cowell. And also the way Charles—like, how he moves when he directs that music. It was really hip to see.

Does that success make tonight high pressure?

I’m not even so worried, because it’s a difference of recreation as opposed to reaction. In My Mind is kind of a reaction to Monk at Town Hall, and it just shows how I think about Monk, his history as an African American, him as a piano legend, how he’s affected me.

Have you performed In My Mind since the premiere?

I think we’ve done it five times or so. We’ve been to a couple different countries. Three times after Durham in American, and a couple times last year. And we did it a couple times this year.

When I talked to you before the premiere, you were worried about integrating the audio clips and so on to create the experience. Do you think that’s worked?

I’ll never really be able to see what it is. Even when you watch the video you’re really still inside it. We play pretty dense as it, but adding a video component add to that. Hopefully it will kind of overwhelm them—that’s what we’re going for.

What’s it like for you up there, then?

Since everybody’s kind of around me, which is rare for a pianist, I get to feel like the musicians surround me. That’s amazing, to be that close to the drums, to the trombone, to the trumpet, which is on my left side. You get to see everyone interacting across the bandstand. When you’re playing the tunes and somebody plays something magnificent, you see it on people’s faces. That’s what Monk’s music brings out of people.

What kind of rehearsals do you have to do for a show like this, given all the stage direction, etc?

The stage direction is the main thing. I’m not into really over-rehearsing anything, since this has its shape already built in. After all that, the music portion—I’ve been playing the music with Tarus [Mateen on bass] and Nasheet [Waits on drums] for a long time, so I’m not worried about that. The other guys have been playing it enough that they know where things go. But there’s always something crazy that’s going to happen. There’s never really much rehearsal. The first time we did it in Durham, that’s where we rehearsed the most.

Has the work evolved since you played it in Durham?

It’s changed with the liberties we take with the music. In Durham we were still making sure that we were nailing it. It’s become a lot more free in some places. You can’t ever predict where that’s going to happen.

Did you have any idea when you wrote or performed this that something like this Town Hall commemoration would happen?

After we finished, a couple months later, Aaron [Greenwald, director of Duke Performances] hinted that he might do that. People always say they’re going to do things like that, but Aaron pulled this off, which is beyond belief. So hats off to him and to Sam [Stephenson, professor at the Center for Documentary Studies and director of the Jazz Loft Project] for getting this done. Schools like Duke sometimes have the stereotype that everything they do is about athletics, but they punted that stereotype to our favor, and to Thelonious Monk’s favor.

So what’s it going to be like for you on the stage tonight?

It’s gonna be pretty spooky. Even walking in there yesterday when there was no one on the stage was pretty spooky. If there was anyone I would do this for—’cause it takes a special energy—Thelonious Monk is definitely on my list of people I’d do anything and everything for because I owe him my life as a musician. And it’ll be great to play it not only in New York in Town Hall, but also for my New York audience that has nurtured me for a long time because, they haven’t really seen what I’m doing with these multimedia pieces.


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