“It’s actually nice to play on this piano because it’s got the funk,” said the virtuoso jazz pianist Jason Moran. He was seated at an old Kurtzman upright piano and had just finished playing a lush, hard-swinging solo version of “The Sheik of Araby,” a tune he recently learned for his Fats Waller dance party at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. His comment elicited nervous laughter from the crowd of fans who’d crammed themselves into the main room of a suffocatingly hot Lower East Side apartment late last month—some of us seated on fold-out chairs, others on the floor—to hear him play two unaccompanied sets. Moran, one of the most celebrated young jazz artists of the last ten years, seemed right at home in this intimate, makeshift performance space, aptly named A Gathering of Tribes. Although he has been justly praised for his sometimes cerebral approach to jazz, the no-frills atmosphere of the venue, which attracts players of every school and listeners of every stripe, accentuated the earthier side of his style.
A Gathering of Tribes is the home of author and educator Steve Cannon, a man the writer Paul Beatty, who dropped by for Moran’s second set, once referred to as “professor emeritus of the Lower East Side.” For the past twenty years Cannon has used his apartment to stage public readings, concerts, and art exhibitions. The venture reflects his devotion to the local community and his desire to preserve its vanishing bohemian character, which he came to know firsthand upon moving there from New Orleans in the 1960s. Cannon has made Tribes a particularly important site for contemporary jazz music. It boasts an impressive roster of past performers, including Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Butch Morris, and Matthew Shipp.
It comes as no surprise that when asked about what drew him to Tribes, Moran mentions his piano-playing predecessors. “I knew that Matthew Shipp had played there, and Cecil Taylor had played there, and there was that history,” he explains. “I wanted to add my two cents.” There is of course a tradition in jazz, particularly among pianists, of viewing unaccompanied performance as a platform for demonstrating one’s technical prowess. In the old days Harlem stride pianists used to have cutting contests, testing each other’s ability to hammer out complex, jolting rhythms with the left hand while at the same time soloing nimbly with the right. To some extent, every individual performance in modern jazz is freighted with this history of good-natured rivalry and showmanship.
It has been clear since the 2002 release of his solo album Modernistic that Moran is in the tradition of jazz pianists who perform best in an unconstrained setting. But that album does not even begin to prepare one for the singular experience of seeing him live. At Tribes he seemed to cover, among other things, the entire history of African-American pianism. He began by playing stride in what he later described as “an open improvisation based on the setting,” before moving on to a bluesy Butch Morris piece and then the aforementioned “Sheikh of Araby.” Switching gears again, he closed the first set with his gospel-inflected version of “Body and Soul,” the result of a live collaboration years ago with the soul singer Bilal. Moran stretched his idiosyncratic interpretation of the jazz standard into a breathtaking sermon that recalled the sanctified sounds of the great sixties pianist Bobby Timmons.
The next set wasn’t any less soulful. Turning to offer a conspiratorial grin at performance artist Joan Jonas, seated in the audience, he launched into “Arizona Landscape,” a boogie-woogie tune he wrote for one of her shows. He played some more stride, plus a medley built ostensibly around the Negro spiritual “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child.” At one point during his rendition of “Gangsterism on the Rise” Moran even seemed to channel the spirit of hip-hop, abruptly isolating a short percussive phrase and repeating it over and over again almost as if he were scratching. Such musical expansiveness, to Moran, has a certain political edge to it. “I’m a free black man,” he says proudly. “[Musically] everything is on the table for me.”
Moran, whose concerts, such as the one he’s performing with Roy Hargrove and The Bad Plus in a couple weeks at Prospect Park, are often interesting mash-ups, ended the show by saying that places like Tribes, which allows musicians to stage more personal performances, are one of the reasons he continues to reside in New York City. Yet, not unlike the music Moran plays, Tribes belongs to an endangered species. Recently the owner of Cannon’s building put it on the market for 2.9 million dollars. Once it changes hands, Cannon, who is blind and in his seventies, might not be able to afford the new rent. Moran’s show, I later learned, was part of a fundraising effort to keep Cannon in his home—and his door open. Needless to say, the fifteen bucks I shelled out was money well spent.
J. D. Mitchell is a freelance writer living in New York City.