A month ago, an email arrived in my inbox with the subject "Note from Jason Moran." My curiosity was piqued. I've met Jason a couple times, and I once fact-checked an NYMag story in which a technology expert advised him on how to streamline his gadgets, but suffice it to say, we're not in frequent correspondence. I clicked:
With the Fats Waller Dance Party i'm going for something new (to me).Loyal readers will know that I'm fascinated by the idea of jazz not only as art music but as social music. Quiet listening rooms like the Village Vanguard are perfect for some jazz, but there's no reason they need to be the music's only home. There's a certain kind of jazz performance—loud, boisterous, groove-heavy—that doesn't come fully to life unless the audience is standing, moving, jigging. A "Fats Waller Dance Party" with Jason Moran seemed like just such an occasion; and last night's premiere proved that assumption correct. The music worked as well as it did precisely because of its context.
I ONLY WANT TO MAKE YOU DANCE.
That's my only aim.
Meshell and I are reworking about 15 Fats Waller songs into new "club" versions (house, afrobeat, etc).
It's a 2 night party.
Tix are only $10, and are disappearing swiftly. I want to make sure most of the village is present.
Fats' Joint is Jumpin' becomes Our House is Housin'.
The performance started late and casually. The band shuffled onto the stage. Moran followed behind them and plopped down at the piano. Without announcement or warning, he hit a chord, and suddenly we were off. The audience, seated at club-style tables in back of a small dance floor, remained stationary. Wasn't this supposed to be a party?
Just as I was doubting that the evening would live up to Moran's cri de coeur, a troupe of professional dancers in neckties crept along the wings, slinking to Moran's jaunty strides. As the music picked up, the slinking broke into acrobatics, the dancers leapt onto the main floor, and—after a short choreographed piece—shot into the crowd to summon the audience to rise up. Almost everyone did. For the rest of the hour-long set, the vast majority of the crowd took to the dance floor—some bobbing up and down like melodic buoys, others flopping this way and that in slightly restrained breakdances.
The music itself was propulsive yet crude. The Harlem Stage's stereo system crackled on Moran's first chord and the band often sounded muddy—contours and dynamics flattened into a wall of sound. Meshell Ndegeocello's singing had attitude, but with the amped-up electric bass crashing behind her, it was nearly impossible to make out her words. Resonating through a cavernous stone hall on speakers that rattled the snares, the music careered through subtleties, but that mattered little. This wasn't the Vanguard, where a bad mix would have sent me home disappointed. This was a party, and movement—pure and expressive—was the thing.
Yet to my ears and feet, the night's most intoxicating moment came during one of its sharpest points of sonic clarity. In the middle of one of the set's last tunes, the band cut out leaving Moran playing alone. He was perched at the piano wearing a giant Fats Waller Mardi Gras mask, and his stride-stylings sent the audience into a tizzy. Here was that old-time music filtered through Moran's hands—knottier and funkier than anything that had broken out across the room so far. It wasn't the nostalgic aura that was so striking; it was the music's perfectly executed simplicity. Moran's solo didn't compel you to dance; it seduced you into dancing. Throughout the performance, the band had been bold and Ndegeocello brazen and brash, but it was this lonely piano—clever and cocky like Fats—that really got the joint jumpin'.