The stakes felt much higher last Friday night. A long line snaked down West Third Street thirty minutes before the show was set to begin. Inside, the Blue Note was packed with the “jazz famous”—musicians, critics, and devotees whose collective presence signifies a concert-of-note. This wasn’t going to be a hang-out. It was going to be an event.
The crowds had gathered for one big reason. And that reason wasn’t really to hear the explosive tenorman Tony Malaby, or the brilliant drummer Joey Baron, or the tuba dynamo Bob Stewart. That reason was to hear one of the jazz world’s bona-fide stars: a MacArthur “genius,” Blue Note recording artist, and badass pianist by the name of Jason Moran.
To be fair, I wasn’t there just because of Moran. I was there because the prospect of Moran, Malaby, and Baron playing a late-night free-jazz set for $10 sounded too good to pass up. I’m a sucker for a certain strain of high-brow culture that celebrates the casual work of serious artists. Sure, I’d love to have a dinner at celebrated chef Eric Ripert’s haute-seafood palace, Le Bernardin; but I’d probably be even more excited to have him fix me some fish-and-chips. Likewise, I’ve always enjoyed seeing Jason Moran play with his flagship group, The Bandwagon—the product of ten years of top-flight trio cooking; but when he leads one-off side-projects, there’s a freewheeling creativity that can be even more thrilling. With Malaby and Baron (and the late addition of Stewart), it felt like Moran had the perfect collaborators to create something really special.
He did. And he didn’t even have to show up. The gig was scheduled to start at 12:30. Joey Baron sat down at the drums shortly thereafter looking ready to go. Bob Stewart milled about the audience talking with friends. Tony Malaby ducked in and out of my view. I didn’t see Jason Moran. A little before 1 a.m., Malaby and Stewart stepped onto the stage and started to play. It was beyond casual. Malaby leaned against the piano with the rakish pose of a street-corner loiterer and blew softly through his horn. The audience continued to talk, unsure if this was the beginning of the show or just some live background-music. The club didn’t even dim the house lights.
After about three minutes, it became clear the Malaby-Stewart-Baron trio was performing. The lights went down. Malaby stepped forward. The music took off. The band: instant synergy. Malaby and Stewart engaged in a quick-fire call-and-response—like birds at sunset—and Joey Baron dictated the pace, slowing Malaby down to half-time with a couple hits on the snare, then speeding things up with a few strikes on the toms that soon echoed in Stewart’s tuba. The trio blasted through up-tempo improvisations and slowed gracefully to some wide-open abstractions. They never seemed lost. A middle-aged woman sitting in front of me turned and asked, “you said, they’ve never played together before?”
During all of this, Jason Moran haunted the proceedings—an open question. It quickly became apparent that the trio wasn’t going to leave anyone disappointed. Still, a thought lingered: if Moran walks in here halfway through, hops onto the bandstand mid-song, and lifts this music even higher, the audience is going to go absolutely nuts. It’s going to be as explosive as the moment when Ornette Coleman sauntered onto the Beacon stage at Sonny Rollins’s 80th-birthday concert. No, it’s going to be even more explosive. It’s going to be more like Sonny Rollins not showing up for his own 80th-birthday concert; his bandmates, Christian McBride and Roy Haynes, playing an incredible 45-minute duet alone on stage; and then—just as everyone in the audience is thinking, “well, Sonny didn’t come, but it was still a fucking incredible concert”—Sonny himself bounding into the theater, running through the audience, catching a tenor saxophone thrown to him from off-stage, and digging into the best solo of his career. It was going to be like that.
That didn’t happen. Jason Moran never showed up. He missed what could have been the greatest hero’s welcome of his career. It didn’t matter.
I’d be lying if I said, I wasn’t disappointed; but I’d be foolish to think Moran would have guaranteed a better concert. A sax trio is one of the music’s most flexible forms, a vessel with little harmonic mooring that can convert sheer energy into beauty. Tony Malaby plays the saxophone in torrents; Joey Baron hits the drums like a conductor directs an orchestra; Bob Stewart deploys the tuba’s oomph with warm charisma. Each of them has a big presence. Each of them knows how to listen and how to amplify the simple interplay of three instruments into rich drama. Moran knows this too, but I wonder if his long, percussive keyboard runs wouldn’t have been too much of a good thing. On this night, perhaps Moran’s absence was his best possible accompaniment.