February 24, 2024

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Jason Moran pays tribute to an early Jazz ancestor. He started that decade at the Clef Club in Harlem: Videos, Photos

The album “From the Dancehall to the Battlefield” puts the music of James Reese Europe through a contemporary prism.

He started that decade at the Clef Club in Harlem, an organization that fielded its own group and worked to improve labor conditions for Black musicians throughout New York. Not long after, Europe brought his 125-member Clef Club Orchestra — and the syncopated styles of Black American composers — to Carnegie Hall. In 1914, Europe provided new music for the star dancing couple Vernon and Irene Castle while also taking his group into the studio to record for the Victor Recording Company.

During World War I, he was Lieutenant Europe: Along with other members of the all-Black 369th Infantry, he pushed to be allowed to fight while also leading a regimental band — known as the Harlem Hellfighters — that amazed audiences abroad. After a triumphant return to New York, in early 1919, his war-drilled ensemble recorded material for the Pathe label, including a vivacious take on Carl Bethel and Sandy Coffin’s “That Moaning Trombone.” Later that year, one of Europe’s band members stabbed him with a knife during an intermission. (He thought Europe had disrespected him.) The bandleader died later that night.

Jason Moran and the Big Bandwagon | Celebrity Series of Boston

All this took place long before Louis Armstrong’s first recordings with King Oliver, which helped to codify and claim the “jazz age” for the Roaring Twenties. But a new, Europe-focused recording by the pianist and composer Jason Moran — titled “From the Dancehall to the Battlefield” — rewinds jazz’s history a bit and brings Europe’s sound into a relationship with successive waves of jazz and contemporary music.

“They talk about ‘jazz is dead,’ like it’s not everywhere or there’s something wrong with it,” Moran said in a recent interview. “But if you’re listening, the music is everywhere.”

Moran cited a riff — synthetically rendered yet clearly big band-derived — that powers the Harry Styles song “Music for a Sushi Restaurant.” “That swing is still associated as the rhythm of this country,” Moran added. And for him, that tradition is greatly indebted to James Reese Europe’s bands in the 1910s.

“It’s hitting the stage, and hitting the mass of our people in New York City. But it’s also tied up in the vaudeville era, you know — and blackface. It’s emerging right at that time, and it’s scary,” Moran said. “So, I think he’s having that push-pull with it. And I think he reaches the other side of the conversation by claiming: ‘This is a Black music that we have to cherish. And we should be looking at our own kind of ensembles to manage that.’”

On the new recording, Moran’s band channels some of that original Europe energy, and deploys herculean efforts during Moran’s own arrangement of “That Moaning Trombone.” That track, in its hard-charging refinement — and finely judged inflections of tempo and dynamics — proves a worthy modern testament to Europe’s handling of large ensembles.
“What isn’t mentioned enough about Europe’s band is, they are incredible technicians,” Moran said. “When I show this music to people and say, ‘Can we get it like they do on the record?,’ inevitably they are like, ‘No, we can’t.’” (Moran allows that his take on “Trombone” is his attempt to reach that summit: “Kudos to the horns for really working together on that.”)

Elsewhere, Moran deviates strategically from recorded history. During Europe’s “Ballin’ the Jack,” Moran fuses the song with motifs from the post-bop pianist Geri Allen’s “Feed the Fire,” before executing an elegant pivot back to “Jack.”

That mash-up format reflects Europe’s own taste in medleys, as well as the real-time remixing that Moran has long executed with his trio, the Bandwagon. (“Thank god for the Bronx, and figuring out that two turntables can work this way,” he said, when asked whether “Ballin’ the Jack / Feed the Fire” was indebted to turntablism.)

Jason Moran | American Academy in Rome

Elsewhere, Moran embellishes the up-tempo tune “Castle House Rag,” filling it with nervy rhythmic repetitions — and pianistic lines that are, by turns, soulful and avant-garde in nature (and sometimes both at once). “It’s very Threadgill, the way it opens up,” he said, referring to the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and performer Henry Threadgill, who is also a Europe aficionado. (The tuba player Jose Davila, a regular in Threadgill’s bands, lends a sense of drive to Moran’s new album.)

Other modern sounds show up for cameos on the recording: The breathing meditation “Zena’s Circle” comes from the composer and conceptualist Pauline Oliveros. Moran once invited her to lead a Deep Listening session during his first season of programming at the Park Avenue Armory. “Selfishly, I wanted to give it to the Bandwagon,” he said. “But I also wanted people to experience it.”

“Zena’s Circle” leads directly into “For James” — a collaged, multitake document of a Moran original. It is initially interpreted by his own group, as well as a German crowd singing it back to the players; then, in the final moments, Moran’s tribute is heard — in a majestic, impromptu take — as it was performed by members of Stephany Neal’s The 369th Experience. (That organization encourages bands at historically Black colleges and universities, or H.B.C.U.’s, to gather and study Europe’s music.)

“They not only scaled it up,” Moran said, “but they made it better.”

If the range of references on this album seems vast, that’s also a testament to Europe’s capaciousness, and his influence on Moran. Since departing from the Blue Note label to produce his own recordings, Moran has become a master of the unexpected feint. The sounds of “From the Dancehall to the Battlefield” consistently surprise and delight; backward-masked percussion on a performance of “St. Louis Blues” might send you reeling back in more ways than one. The studio effect suggesting time travel — heard prominently in the cymbals — feels like something out of a 1970s Funkadelic stew; the W.C. Handy tune is, itself, of even deeper vintage. (Connecting all this is playing that feels utterly contemporary.)

But Moran is being more than simply clever; he is an artist with an eye for connections among the past, present and future. On “All of No Man’s Land Is Ours,” Moran bends the end of one motif so that it ends in a less celebratory fashion than it does on Europe’s recording. (Moran’s version sounds like a phrase out of Thelonious Monk.)

“I imagine that when they talk about ‘No Man’s Land,’ it’s with mystery,” Moran said, thinking about Europe and his players. “What do enslaved people think about what ‘no man’s land’ means? I want to go forward and backward on the idea. Where do we feel our boundaries are?”

Jason Moran’s latest album is inspired by the pioneering, 1910s jazz of James Reese Europe.

A black-and-white portrait of Jason Moran shown in close-up. His hair is neatly trimmed, he has a short salt-and-pepper beard.
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