Jason Moran reimagines the music of Charles Mingus; guitarist Bern Nix dead at 69 | Bleader

Friday, June 2, 2017

Jason Moran reimagines the music of Charles Mingus; guitarist Bern Nix dead at 69

Posted By on 06.02.17 at 02:00 PM

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click to enlarge A New Fables performance from January, with Georgia Anne Muldrow (center) and Jason Moran (right) - JATI LINDSAY
  • Jati Lindsay
  • A New Fables performance from January, with Georgia Anne Muldrow (center) and Jason Moran (right)

Pianist, bandleader, and composer Jason Moran is in town tonight, bringing an ambitious new project to Symphony Center. He's developed a practice of saluting key influences in a fashion that eschews predictable tributes: his celebration of the great Fats Waller turned the subject's music upside down with infusions of hip-hop and R&B, while his project built around the famous 1959 Town Hall concert by pianist Thelonious Monk is enhanced with audio recordings, photographs, and videos inspired by contemporaneous work done by photographer Eugene Smith at a New York loft space. Tonight Moran presents New Fables, a collaboration with the hip-hop and R&B vocalist Georgia Anne Muldrow that pays homage to the music of Charles Mingus.

Moran and Muldrow debuted the project in January at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C., where Moran is artistic director of jazz. In it, indelible Mingus classics like "Fables of Faubus," "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," and "Better Git It in Your Soul" are freely arranged in new settings by a knockout band that also includes the stellar front line of trombonist Frank Lacy, tuba player Marcus Rojas, and saxophonist Darius Jones, along with drummer Nasheet Waits and Daru Jones, bassist Tarus Mateen, and percussionist Daniel Moreno. You can check out a feature about the project that includes extensive excerpts from the initial performance on this episode of NPR's Jazz Night in America. Below, you can also check out an interview with Moran about the project in which he discusses pianist Jaki Byard, a longtime Mingus sideman who was one of Moran's teachers and most important influences, thus providing him a link to the legend. 
Last year Moran parted ways with Blue Note, his label since 1999, and in the last few months he's dropped a couple of superb digital albums through his Bandcamp site, most notably Thanksgiving at the Village Vanguard, a live set from last November with his long-running trio the Bandwagon, which includes both Waits and Mateen. The opening track is a solo piece written for Byard called "For Jaki" (check it out below), and the whole album provides a powerful indication of where the trio stand of late—they're one of the most elastic, intuitive working bands in jazz, a group that always shift gears as one and can collapse or expand time at whim. A track like the episodic "South Side Digging" imaginatively transposes bits of stride piano with playful percussion that seems inspired by Baby Dodds over a needling postfunk bass line, then launches into a modern blues that reflects state-of-the-art rhythmic refraction. A version of Monk's "Thelonious" accelerates wildly without surrendering any precision, while the latest version of the pianist's "Gangsterism" series, "Gangsterism at the Vanguard," is so packed with rapidly shifting ideas, rhythms, and attacks it feels like the basis for an entire set even though it clocks in at just over ten minutes.
Last week Moran dropped another new album, Bangs, a chamberish set with guitarist Mary Halvorson and trumpeter Ron Miles that shows this trio interacting with a degree of impulse and intimacy remarkable for players who don't work together frequently. All three musicians contributed material to the record, and while it doesn't display the stop-on-a-dime propulsion and redirection of the Bandwagon, there's no missing how well these folks listen and respond to one another, each regularly shape-shifting and altering sound from tune t0 tune, and sometimes within a single piece. Below you can listen to the brief, electronics-kissed opener, "Crops."
The singular jazz guitarist Bern Nix died at his New York home on Wednesday at the age of 69. He was a tragically overlooked figure who remained on the fringes of the scene despite his outsize talent, but his sound was so gentle and restrained I suppose it's not that surprising he was ignored. Still, anyone who really listened to his playing could tell he had something extraordinary to offer. He was known best as a member of Ornette Coleman's jazz-rock fusion combo Prime Time, where he unspooled lines of sublime lyricism within the funk-oriented, multilinear assault of melody and groove his bandmates plied, favoring a tonally pure sound distinguished by extreme patience and beauty.

Nix worked off and on with saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc and James Chance, but on his own he made only a few records, though they were true dazzlers. I retain deep feelings for his 1993 trio album Alarms and Excursions (New World), a set of introspective originals that showcased Nix's instantly recognizable tunefulness and wiry phrasing in a typically gentle setting with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Newman Baker. I'll never forget catching Nix play that music live at the original HotHouse that same year.

His final recording was made in 2006 for the Tompkins Square imprint—one of the earliest titles on the label, and one that existed only in the digital format, which meant that it didn't get the hearing it deserved. These days people aren't so allergic to digital release, so let's hope you're willing to hie thee over to the label's Bandcamp page to dig into Low Barometer, a stunning collection of acoustic solo pieces on which Nix's melodic gifts collide with wonderfully dense and thorny harmonic explorations, all unfolding at a leisurely pace. There's no missing the brambly sound of Derek Bailey in these pieces, which, according to an obit published today by Nate Chinen, "were based on Harmolodic études [Nix] had devised while working with Coleman in the '70s." Below you can hear one of these extraordinary tracks, the wryly titled "Generic Ballad."

Sadly, Nix had been in rehearsals of late for a Prime Time reunion designed to pay homage to Coleman—part of an Ornette Coleman festival taking place over the summer at New York's Lincoln Center. Now it appears that July 14 concert will need to give some salutary space to Nix too.
Today's playlist:

John Butcher/Thomas Lehn/Matthew Shipp, Tangle (Fataka)
Darrell Banks, I'm the One Who Loves You: The Volt Recordings (Kent)
Arditti String Quartet, Klaus Lang: Sei-Jaku für Streichquartett (Edition RZ)
Abdel Halim Hafez, Mashi El Tariek (EMI Arabia)
Mara Rosenbloom Trio, Prairie Burn (Fresh Sound New Talent)

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