Jason Moran has always been a bit of aesthete, from his art-film soundtrack covers to the stylish Danish chair in which he "exclusively performs." His music, however, has rarely felt too precious. His piano attack is informed but primal; and his improvisations can feel almost violent—disembowelments as much as deconstructions.
Ten, Moran's new album (out today on Blue Note), could use a little more of this vigor. It's probably Moran's most elegant album—consummately curated, masterfully realized, and more than a little dull. "Blue Blocks" and "RFK in the Land of Apartheid," the opening tracks, start as wispy sketches, and while Moran adds some shading, he doesn't stray very far from the original compositions. "Study No. 6" and Moran's original "Pas de Deux" would be wonderfully lyrical complements on a different album, but here they add to a growing feeling of suffocation by impeccably esoteric taste. On "Gangsterism Over 10 Years," the latest in Moran's signature "Gangsterism" series, the pianist brings back a heavy groove and pounds the keyboard into a rumble of fast-paced chords that recall his best performances. His take on Bernstein's "Big Stuff" is even better. You can almost hear a Broadway star belting over the strutting melody before Moran fractures time and sends the music careering toward joyful oblivion. Such liberations prove too few. Moran's sound is rich and wild, but on much of Ten, he suppresses his better instincts.
Bonus: Check out Ten, streaming on NPR for a very limited time only.