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Jason Moran Live at A Gathering of Tribes

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Thursday June 09, 2011

From The Paris Review

The Soloist: Jason Moran Live at A Gathering of Tribes
By: J. D. Mitchell

“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.

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