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February 15, 2005

Same Mother bears two sides of the same soul

If one were to study the tastes of jazz critics across the country and then attempt to use that information to create the ideal musician, that musician would probably be a lot like pianist Jason Moran. Moran has reached a point in his young career where laudatory reviews from the mainstream and jazz press are a foregone conclusion. He just seems to do everything right. He reveres nearly-forgotten greats like Jaki Byard, Mal Waldron and Sam Rivers, providing them with fresh notoriety and accolades. He celebrates the new, improvising over spoken word tracks, covering artists from Björk to Afrika Bambaataa, and starting off his sets with a pre-recorded hip-hop influenced introduction. He moves effortlessly between disparate genres, playing the theme from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo one moment and an obscure Duke Ellington piece like "Wig Wise" the next. He even has his own signature piano chair, a sleek Danish-designed accoutrement that is waiting for him wherever he goes. For the smitten world of jazz music, this cat is it, exuding a sense of cool that is so in vogue it seems like it's beyond fashion.

Yet Moran's high style comes with the service of some serious and restless musicianship. Six albums into his career as a leader for Blue Note, Moran has self-consciously tried to avoid repetition while working with the same trio—the Bandwagon, a partnership between Moran, bassist Tarus Mateen, and drummer Nasheet Waits. One way Moran has achieved this freshness is by enlisting guest artists to stimulate and challenge the Bandwagon's swaggering energy. On Black Stars, the redoubtable tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers plunged into the depths of each tune, carrying the Bandwagon to a new level of sensitivity and sophistication. Now, with the release of Same Mother, Moran is showing off a very different sort of muse. Marvin Sewell, a Chicago-born guitarist, joins the group without the gravitas of Rivers, but embodies his role as resident bluesman with gusto.

Same Mother is not only a guest-artist album, it's Moran's first concept album. Officially, it's a tribute to the blues, but, being a hipster, Moran gleefully manipulates this idea to his own ends. The album begins with "Gangsterism on the Rise," a trio-only piece that establishes what we've come to expect from the Bandwagon: percussive piano attacks from Moran, funky bass riffs from Mateen, and deftly agile drumming from Waits. Yet Moran gleefully shatters these expectations on the next four tracks, adding Sewell to a series of compositions both experimental and earthy. Unsurprisingly, Sewell's participation helps some tunes and detracts from others. On "Jump Up," Sewell sounds disconnected from the group, his guitar lines weakly accenting the Bandwagon's percussive earthiness. More often, though, Sewell is a boon to the bluesy, textural ambitions of the album. "Aubade," a composition co-written by Moran and the great Andrew Hill, is a shimmering duet between Sewell and Moran that is as lyrical as most of Moran's music is rhythmic. On the Albert King blues guitar anthem "I'll Play the Blues for You," Sewell drives the action with his wailing electric guitar, navigating in and out of Moran's crashing vamps. "I'll Play the Blues for You" is Moran's most earnest homage to the genre; he wisely lets the song's defiant energy shout and moan without too much stylish ornamentation. If it's not the album's best track, then it is certainly the most compulsively enjoyable.

After the powerful intoxication of "I'll Play the Blues for You," Same Mother takes a decidedly different turn. Most jazz albums are constructed like live sets, alternating ballads with more up-tempo fare and covers with originals, to achieve a balance of material. Same Mother was produced with a very different objective in mind. The first half of the album, ending with "I'll Play the Blues for You," is vintage Moran—intellectually rigorous eclectic fare that I often find more admirable than moving. Moran is certainly one of our most interesting performers, but he has consistently eschewed stark emotion for a more detached musical inventiveness.

On the second half of Same Mother, however, Moran delves into the darkness that haunts the soul of the blues. This journey begins with the wistful poise of Mal Waldron's "Fire Waltz," segues into the bleak meditation of Sergei Prokofiev's "Field of the Dead," and culminates with Moran alone at the piano on an emotionally naked solo piano exploration entitled "The Field." The four tracks on this half of the album are perhaps the most direct of Moran's recorded career, each tune taking us farther from the pulsing exuberance of "I'll Play the Blues for You." It is on this half of the album that Moran's decision to enlist Sewell pays real dividends. With his slide guitar quietly weeping over the Bandwagon's somber lyricism, we realize that Sewell has brought an emotional daring that the Bandwagon might otherwise have lacked.

Same Mother closes with "Gangsterism on the Set," returning the album to more familiar territory. Yet this "Gangsterism" feels more melancholy than the first, as if the musical journey has added a depth of experience that was not there at the beginning. Same Mother is not a perfect album, but it is a brave one. On his sixth album, Moran has finally shown that he is willing to risk some of his stylish cool for the sad beauty of his tears.