Thursday, April 20, 2023

Next at the Kennedy Center: Jason Moran & Christian McBride

Following in the footsteps of the legendary Dr. Billy Taylor is an intimidating proposition, but Jason Moran’s musical career has always been bold. Who else has set a Turkish stock report to music? Yet, he has always respected the musical elders who came before him. Now serving as the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Director for Jazz (succeeding Dr. Taylor), Moran and prolifically-recorded bassist Christian McBride pay tribute to their mentors and inspirations in Continuum: Jason Moran & Christian McBride, the latest installment of Next at the Lincoln Center, premiering tomorrow night on PBS.

In between their duo performances, the jazz pianist and bassist talk about music and some of the greats who influenced them. It rather makes sense that Monk was one of the first jazz greats to really light Moran’s fire. Even today, it is nearly impossible to classify Monk’s distinctive rhythms and melodies. Labeling him “bebop” just does not do him justice. Likewise, Moran has existed in a space outside, but influenced by post-bop, the avant-garde, hip hop, and R&B. When he and McBride dig into “Blue Monk” it sounds very different than Monk’s recorded renditions, yet in a way, yet it is still completely Monk-like.

Moran and McBride later circle back to Monk with “Evidence,” in a dynamic arrangement that totally reflects Moran’s voice, but they start with Charles Mingus’s “Hobo Ho/Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” in acknowledgment of McBride’s influences. Again, there really wasn’t anyone else like Mingus.

Moran often draws inspiration from literature, as we can hear on “Toni Morrison Said Black is a Rainbow,” which has a subtle gospel flavor that gives space for McBride’s eloquent sermon-like feature spots. Quite surprisingly, their final performance (at least as edited for television) concludes with Bob Thiele’s “What a Wonderful World” (popularized by Louis Armstrong late in his career), but the stripped-down elegance of the arrangement and their heartfelt performance makes it feel fresh and vital.

In between Moran and McBride’s appearances, two of their proteges from the Kennedy Center’s educational programs, Seqoia “Redwood” Snyder on piano and Liany Mateo on bass, perform the late, great Geri Allen’s “Feed the Fire.” It is a swinging standard that ought to be better known, but it is really cool to hear and feel how much they enjoy playing it.

It is nice to see PBS actually programming real jazz on a semi-regular basis. We can give a lot of credit to the Kennedy center, which inaugurated their “
Next at showcase with the Mingus tribute, Let My Children Hear Mingus, featuring the mighty Charles McPherson. Like the Mingus show, Continuum: Jason Moran & Christian McBride is very highly recommended when it airs tomorrow night (4/21) on PBS.