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Jason Moran & The Bandwagon
Antwerp BELGIUM, 7 November 2003

"We are the Bandwagon, picking up passengers and dropping them off, lost, leaving them to find their own way home." That's how Jason Moran described his trio, mid-way through the one-set, 90-minute concert. The actual introduction was a kind of (extremely loud) hip-hop cut'n'paste take on the traditional spoken band presentation. A pre-recorded message gave out the names of the musicians, followed by what were presumably samples of their own playing. So you'd hear "Nasheet Waits!" followed by drum rolls.

I'd previously heard very little of Moran, apart from a few live mp3s downloaded from his website and his sideman appearance on Greg Osby's Banned in NY, but the recent flurry of positive CD and concert reviews had whetted my appetite. This was actually the first time the Bandwagon had played in Belgium as a trio, even though last summer they played here with Sam Rivers. Parenthetically, I had assumed that the hat he wears in promotional photos was precisely that: a promotional device to project retro/pomo cool, but apparently Moran wears the hat in real life, too. He had left his red chair at home, however.

After the intro, they roared into the first piece. Beginning with free playing, Moran laying out clusters so thick he was almost playing with his palms, the trio then proceeded through a veritable whirlwind of rhythmic feels before climaxing in a sort of uptempo bluesy bop for a loud and viscerally exciting piano solo. Reaching near sensory overload, I felt like I was in that Indiana Jones mine shaft, hanging on to the chariot for dear life: a great beginning!

The second song began with the piano alone: crashing dissonance settled into a more straight-forward ballad. Interestingly, Moran approaches ballads in more of a classical/pop way than in a jazz way. Then Tarus Mateen, slumped (almost crumpled) over in his chair in a cool John Lee Hooker kind of way, came in with a fast, oddly disconnected bass solo. While Moran (and the trio, overall) successfully jumped from one thing to the next at a moment's notice, I had trouble understanding where Mateen's solo interventions were coming from, especially during the first part of the concert.

A drum solo anchored by the middle tom (for some inexplicable reason, every element of Waits' kit was miked, making him far too loud) opened the following number. A bouncy theme slowed down to a much sparser midtempo swing/blues. Moran gave a piano cue to go into a more aggressive, funky groove, but by this time it was obvious that no one atmosphere would survive intact very long. Indeed, in the time it took me to jot down what was going on, they had changed direction. Throughout the concert, there were times where you could have danced, but only for a few steps before the groove had dissipated into something else. The piece ended with a fragment of a ballad that first sounded like Grieg's "At Dawn" from Peer Gynt, then went into jazz chords.

Henry Threadgill's "Too Much Sugar for a Dime" was announced, and led to a very nice intermingling of free playing and a motif drawn from the theme. A quite opposite method was chosen for the next number, as free playing over a fast ostinato vamp gave way to the pretty, Brazilian melody of "Estate" (I think), like the sea withdrawing at low tide to reveal a completely unexpected landscape underneath. At the end, Moran amused himself by playing a simplified version of the melody in the very low register of the piano.

Moran's "Out Front" was a complete joy, a marvelously rhythmic combination of stride in the left hand and free lines in the right. Later, Mateen introduced a slow, chugging blues shuffle which was taken up by the rest of the band, only to be accelerated into an almost-boogaloo.

Then came "Straight Outta Istanbul", which has been an attention-grabber in most articles I've read. For those who don't know, they play over the recording of a telephone call in Turkish. It's highly impressive how they follow the "melody" of the female voice. After traditionally-notated scores, graphic scores, here comes the audio score? They played through the recording a number of times, breaking away when it went into a 20-second loop. Interest was renewed when the recording went into a one bar loop, because it took on a rhythmic, hip hop-ish character, rather than a melodic one. In fact, Moran's playing was peppered with wide-ranging almost-quotes, which again abstractly alluded to hip-hop cut'n'pasting.

The quiet solo piano that followed clearly displayed Moran's (perhaps too heavy) attraction for sudden sforzandos and quick dissonances, all the while sustaining a sweet melody. The last performance was notable for its hard hip-hop beat, which was intermittently deepened by the piano's lower register, leading into an amusingly over-the-top drum-bashing climax. As Moran announced the end of the concert, I was surprised: time had flown by, the music had not dragged once.