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Jason Moran Live With Theaster Gates - 5/30/2014

Alex Marianyi
Contributing Writer
alex.marianyi[at] / @alexmarianyi

Looks Of A Lot was theater. It may have been theater that starred Jason Moran’s expert and innovative piano playing and compositions, but it was theater nonetheless. Let’s set the stage.

Symphony Center, Chicago. The stage, which normally hosts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has four levels, with different setups on each level. Throughout the stage were creations of Theaster Gates, a Chicago artist and social activist. Since he is known for repurposing buildings on the South Side, it did not surprise that many of these creations, ranging from a giant music stand for a big band saxophone section to a miniature siege tower of sorts, all looked to be made from pieces of wood reclaimed from trash heaps and abandoned buildings.

For the opening scene, Moran played the part of a ghost. As Gates read his poetry under a single light at the front of the stage, the ghost played a pump organ located on the highest level of the stage. He then floated over to the upright piano located on the bottom level opposite the organ. Next, his destination was a grand piano located on the opposite side of the bottom level. As he began to play with more intent, Nasheet Waits on drums, Tarus Mateen on bass, and Katie Ernst, one of Chicago’s rising young jazz bassists, slowly joined him.

After that third song, Moran came to life and spoke to the audience. He talked of his memories playing an upright piano at a friend’s house on Chicago’s west side and joked with the audience about everyone having an upright in their living room.

The next scene introduced the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band and Drumline, under the direction of Gerald Powell. They came marching out on stage to their own beat and took their place across three levels next to the upright piano and opposite Moran’s organ and grand piano. Said bassist and vocalist Katie Ernst, "Kenwood gave 100% to Friday's performance, and they were treated like an integral part of the project from day 1." Ken Vandermark, an active woodwind player on Chicago’s free jazz scene and artist-in-residence at the Chicago Jazz Fest in 2012, joined the Kenwood Academy musicians.

The musical selections of the first act careened back and forth between modern and early jazz, avant garde and r&b. At no point did it feel that any of the core musicians, Moran, Mateen, Ernst, and Waits, were in any way out of their depth. Every time a new groove or section was established, Moran had some insightful bit of melody or improvisation to share with the audience.

There was no intermission, but if there was to be one, it was the moment when the rest of the stage went black with a spotlight on a small table on the second tier. Seated at the table were Moran and Gates, each had a microphone pointed at his face, but the conversation they were about to have was not with words. No, they were armed with noisemakers, you know, the kind you twirl around at New Year’s.

For the next few minutes, Gates and Moran entranced the audience with their noisemaker conversation, and just as it reached a climax, Waits interrupted with a drum solo. After a booming statement from Waits, the Kenwood Academy Drumline got their say. Then, all three groups -- the noisemakers, the drum set, and the drumline -- all joined in to give this song a proper send off. This was definitely the big musical number that welcomes you back from intermission.

Many excellent individual aspects highlighted the second act. Bassist-now-vocalist Katie Ernst took center stage and left the audience speechless and breathless with her clear yet low, bellying ballad. As her voice rang through the rafters of the Symphony Center, the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band provided subtle support at a maturity level that far exceeded their ages.

Ken Vandermark got to put his own artistic imprint on the second act when he began playing a low ostinato of sorts on his clarinet. He reiterated many times in the lowest part of his instrument, then distorted it in the extreme high register before returning to the lowest register to bring in the Kenwood Academy horn players. Lead by the trumpets, these fourteen high school students, some of whom were set to graduate within a week, did a funeral march around the bottom level of the stage to their own dirge, as Vandermark wrenched hearts with his poignant lines.

Certainly, the most unique and moving statement came from none other than Jason Moran and Theaster Gates. Moran climbed the aforementioned mini-siege tower and sat like a lifeguard atop the structure; Gates took his position lounging on one of the lower levels. Across the armrests of his perch, Moran delicately placed a plank of wood, which had attached a small metal contraption with a crank. As he began to turn the crank, a long strip of paper was fed through, and the notes of music box came ringing out.

The paper tumbled onto parts of the structure below, and as if also being fed by the paper, Gates began to musically orate over the top of the music box accompaniment. His mournful lines seemed in great contrast to the relatively light-hearted music box; however, Moran’s method of playing the music box was anything but light-hearted. As Gates shouted the climaxes of his lines, Moran vigorously cranked, at times greatly speeding up the music box and slamming the plank against the armrests. The three sounds -- music box, voice, and wood-on-wood -- rang throughout a silent hall. Muscles were paralyzed, thoughts were arrested, but emotions ran wild.

Noise Makers from Grammar on Vimeo.

The theatrical concert ended on a happy note with Moran composing a special piece as a congratulations to the soon-to-be high school graduates sitting on stage. As quotes from "Pomp and Circumstance" rang out from the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band, Moran took his seat on the bench with their pianist, a physical representation of Moran imparting his generation’s knowledge and approval onto a younger generation.

And that was the most beautiful part of this performance. It was a great coming together of people, many ages, many races, many artforms, and musicians and non-musicians alike. It was a celebration of what Chicago should be known for: schools like Kenwood Academy, artists and social activists like Theaster Gates, and diversity and collaboration on many levels.

Alex Marianyi does weird music stuff sitting in his living room and is DJ Analytics in the Chicago-based hip-hop group Bellum. You can follow him on Twitter, and he won’t even file a restraining order.