Video | Interview with Jason Moran and the Bandwagon on past and progress

by Giovanni Russonello
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After a blazing set at the 20th Annual Rosslyn Jazz Festival this past Saturday, pianist and composer Jason Moran and his partners in the Bandwagon trio spoke with CapitalBop about their craft. As the Bad Plus played in the background, the Bandwagon had a lot to say about how they respond to each other while carrying on the legacies of earlier jazz musicians and African-American history.

Overstating Moran and the Bandwagon’s importance to jazz today is damn near impossible — as is finding a simple way to explain the group’s genius. So it already would have been a thrill to speak with Moran, bassist and D.C. resident Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, even if each of the musicians hadn’t been so thoughtful and cogent in their discussion. (Don’t take my word for it — watch the video!)

As in the Bandwagon’s music, each member offered a distinct perspective and insight during our conversation. That’s the thing: these guys’ ability to all be “on the same wavelength” while exploring entirely different artistic spaces is what makes the collective’s playing so breathtaking — and has constantly kept its music fresh over the past 10 years.

The band members are conscientious of the music’s history and the legacies of their forebears, but they’re most interested in how all that stuff functions as a tool for interpreting the present day. So many people lionize the golden ages of swing and bebop while deciding that today’s greatest jazz is only the dying roar of a once-mighty beast (or, worse, that it ought to be a stylistic facsimile of what came before). So it’s invigorating to hear the generation’s leading musicians reexamine the meaning of jazz’s past: They remind us that in an artistic form where every fleeting moment of creation gives way to another, newer one, the music of the past goes from simply being beautiful to being divine when we realize its potential to engender further growth.

This sensibility is evident in Moran’s treatment of the Leonard Bernstein-penned “Big Stuff.” When the Bandwagon play it live, they begin with Billie Holiday’s classic, original recording crackling through the loudspeaker. Then they start to play along to that, and eventually Lady Day fades away. In both studio and live renderings, when things heat up Moran (along with Mateen and Waits) will from time to time kick off the time signature like a pair of shoes, tumbling into frenzied flurries of notes that vaguely recall Cecil Taylor.

And the group’s appreciate-it-while-improving-on-it approach to history was obvious again at Rosslyn when Mateen teased as if he might break up Waits’ hammering, straight feel with a walking bass line (a bebop bassist’s staple, but rare during Bandwagon performances) and then happily slid away, taking the drummer with him.

All in all, the concert and the conversation were ear-openers that reminded me of just how immense the possibilities are for the future of this music called jazz. No doubt they’re at least as vast as the triumphs of the past.

  • Check out CapitalBop’s new YouTube channel.
  • Read the Jazz Times review of Ten, Jason Moran and the Bandwagon’s new album.

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