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Jason Moran - Ten

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Artist: Jason Moran

Album: Ten

Label: Blue Note

Review date: Jan. 7, 2011

The archetype of the working band in jazz continues to approximate the story-arc of an endangered species. While it’s certainly true that creative sparks often seem better suited to the tinder of shifting line-ups and transitory associations, certain ensembles still run contrary to that popular line of practice. Jason Moran’s Bandwagon is one such notable exception. Ten is a direct testament to the pianist’s persistence of vision and to his working trio’s longevity. It’s also an aptly titled marker for the sturdy body of work they’ve built together at Blue Note over the past decade.

Moran’s shouldered some disparaging licks from critics over that time span for discriminating lick-appropriation and what might be argued as an overly-conceptual approach to album construction. A recurring crux of complaint also hinges on his penchant for playful pastiche. Mash-ups of eras and styles are a regular part of his repertoire and the early influence of teachers Andrew Hill and Jaki Byard, in particular, remains obliquely audible in his energetic and encompassing explorations at the ivories.

These 13 tracks rely less on grand designs and eclecticism and the program is all the better for it. Cascading opener “Blue Blocks” and the hoe-down worthy “Gangsterism Over 10 Years” illustrate the players’ ability to generate tremendous density without losing a whit of clarity or momentum through dime-turning shifts in tempo. Bassist Tarus Mateen’s tumescent bass ostinato anchors “RFK in the Land of Apartheid,” while it’s the sagacious brush play of Nasheet Waits that stands out on “Play to Life.” Moran’s rendering of “Crepuscule with Nellie” initially works off a riff fragment more reminiscent of “Autumn Leaves,” parsing it through various permutations before revealing it as a building brick in the expression of the familiar Monkian theme later in the piece.

Not everything comes off as smoothly. Squelching electronic flourishes on “Feedback Pt. 2,” purportedly sourced from samples of Jimi Hendrix’s feedback barrage circa Monterey ‘67 add color to Moran’s supple piano lines, but little substance. Two comparatively stolid versions of Colin Nancarrow’s “Study No. 6” also promise more on paper than they deliver in practice. Same goes for the strangely-segmented closer “Old Babies.” Moran’s tenacious Byard-isms are predictably most prominent in the jaunty swinging stride patterns of the deceased pianist’s “To Bob Vatel of Paris,” a tune that turns dramatically turbulent in its final minutes. Ballads somber (“Pas de Deux”) and effervescent (“Big Stuff”) do more than provide interstitial padding by heightening the album’s sense of symmetry and flow.

The days of critical nose-thumbing and nit-picking at Moran’s myriad projects seem to be well on the wane. A MacArthur Fellowship primed the stage back in September. Subsequently, Ten placed in the pole position on a ream of writer’s lists, earning Album of the Year at the Village Voice and a handful of other publications. Considering the breadth of the playing field, that kind of curious consensus is commonly, at least in part, the product of a well-oiled PR machine at work behind the scenes. Not that Moran should be bothered by any conjecture of a media snowball effect. Ten may not be the apogee in the Bandwagon output — that honor goes to Black Stars, the trio’s inspired mind meld with octogenarian icon Sam Rivers from early in the last decade — but it’s a damn fine disc and one that’s likely to age well in the company of its older siblings.

By Derek Taylor

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