Nearly four years ago pianist Jason Moran descended on Chicago to debut Looks of a Lot, an ambitious multimedia commission from Symphony Center. It grew out of a loose collaboration with artist and activist Theaster Gates into a sweeping salute to the profundity and resilience of Chicago’s creative music tradition on the south side. Moran voraciously absorbs art in all forms, and as the project developed he began enlisting a diverse cast from Chicago: reedist Ken Vandermark, whom he’d recently started performing with; singer and bassist Katie Ernst, whom he first encountered in 2012 through the Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center, where he’s artistic adviser for jazz, in Washington, D.C.; and the high-caliber student band from Hyde Park’s Kenwood Academy, conducted by Gerald Powell and Bethany Pickens (Moran first heard them at the urging of Bethany’s late father, pianist Willie Pickens, when they performed at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2013). The piece premiered on May 30, 2014, in a tightly choreographed performance at Symphony Center with a set designed by Gates.
Moran—who performed the work with the essential involvement of bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, both members of his long-running trio the Bandwagon—reprised the piece last year for a performance at Kennedy Center, and a couple of weeks ago on his Bandcamp site he dropped a recording of the work made at WBEZ’s studios in June 2017. On that version Moran has expertly developed, chiseled, and reduced the original material into a succinct, highly effective 38-minute work that zooms through a dazzling numbers of moods, rhythmic settings, and shifting arrangements, concentrating the sprawl of the original work into a fat-free juggernaut. The recording opens with Gates reading an English translation of Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger” amid ambient street sounds, segueing into a mournful arrangement where the Kenwood brass brings funereal solemnity to Ernst’s crystalline, deeply burnished delivery of the original melody, steeped in bluesy atmosphere and spiked with longing.
Ten disparate and succinct pieces follow, all by Moran save for a spirited reading and deft, contemporary arrangement of swing-era trumpeter Roy Eldridge’s “Wabash Stomp,” one of numerous tracks seriously punched up by Kenwood’s percussive arsenal; there are even a couple of horn solos by students, understandably tentative yet impressively mature for high school kids. And then there are pieces that refract the pianist’s key influences like Jaki Byard, Andrew Hill, and Thelonious Monk with his own harmonic language, such as the lovely ballad “Easy” and the tightly coiled, poststride joyride “South Side Digging”—both played by the trio with Ernst on second bass. A couple of tunes focus on Kenwood’s powerful drum line, especially “Make Noise,” its euphoric march propulsion occasionally shot through with some nifty polyrhythmic asides.
“Face-Fade” is an effective showcase for Vandermark’s snaking clarinet lines, which thread a bed of sonorous long tones shaped by the brass section amid increasingly kinetic piano stabs and curlicues, viscous bowed bass, and rumbling, multidirectional drum splatter. Moran sometimes reframes an original melody with different settings and does here starting with “Big News,” a seductively lurching groove with chattering brass that prods a fantastic, blues-drenched piano solo. That melody resurfaces on a deliciously fragile and tender piece called “More Boxing News,” shaped with a music box, then gets elaborated upon by saxophone, the drum line, and finally a chorus of whistles in “More News,” which you can hear below. The album’s closer, the celebratory “Shoulder to Shoulder,” morphs from a martial theme replete with a quote of “Pomp and Circumstance” into a stuttering platform for a gorgeously lyric piano solo.
Moran’s always had an artistically curious and restless sound, and since he fulfilled his contract with Blue Note a few years ago it seems like he’s been engaging in more disparate projects than ever. Looks of a Lot will likely get many chances to be heard live, but I sure am happy there’s a solid document of it to engage with now.
Deborah Richards, Barbara Heller: Scharlachrote Buchstaben (Wergo)
Carmina Escobar, Tzatzi (A Wave Press)
Travis Laplante & Peter Evans, Secret Meeting (NNA Tapes)
Ars Combinatoria String Quartet, Milton Babbitt String Quartets (Bandcamp download)
Filip Augustson, Minsta Gemensamma Nämnaren (Found You Recordings)