Time was musicians played jazz for dancing. The restless feet of black America found its groove in moving to the new music from the wellspring of the blues. While there’s no denying that the fledgling form found wider acceptance and evolved into something greater when it moved from the dance hall to the concert stage, it did maybe lose some of its joie de vivre when it left behind the days of feet-tapping gaiety. Many talented musicians have since the resurgent nineties tried to revive that forgotten breeziness. Pianist Jason Moran’s All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller (2014), which was nominated for this year’s Grammy awards, stands as a notable milestone in that attempt to infuse fresh vibes into the simpler pleasures of dancing to great music.

Fats Waller, virtuoso pianist, entertaining singer and a promoter of jazz in the first half of the last century represented in many ways the spirit of fun jazz brought to the dance floor. Generations of musicians have since trod the path he carved through his brilliant compositions, many of which are part of the standard jazz repertoire. But none tried bringing back Waller’s sheer exuberance that refused to sit still till Moran’s All Rise. Some tributes may make you want to run away but in this instance, doffing the hat to the genius of Waller in no way stood in the way of originality.

The centrepiece of All Rise, to my mind, is Jitterbug Waltz. Eschewing the usually frenetic rendering, Moran chose a completely different approach, playing to a much slower, funkier groove that showcases an alto sax solo by Steve Lehman in a remarkable reprise of a melodic number that has been played uncountable times. Electric bassist and singer MeShell Ndegeocello shares the honours with Moran in this album and justifiably so.

The modern renditions of Ain’t Misbehavin’, Honeysuckle Rose, The Joint is Jumpin and Handful of Keys successfully bring back the jauntiness that once defined jazz. It has been often said that awards are tricky in what they miss more than they bestow and All Rise not getting the Grammy for best jazz album is enough testimony to that.

But that should matter little to Moran, who has been in the middle of a creative streak that many artists can only dream of. A few years ago, he released Ten (2010), named after the tenth anniversary of Bandwagon, his trio band with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. Although Ten doesn’t have any unifying theme, Moran’s usual modus operandi, it blew away fans and critics alike by the powerful performances by the trio, who showed how songs based on the blues and gospel can be reinvented to edgy, groove-based rhythms that are at once disturbing and entirely pleasing to the ears.

One of the highlights of the album is Crepuscule with Nellie, where Moran playfully exaggerates Thelonious Monk’s unique stutter while also paying a tribute to Andrew Hill and Jaki Byard, under whom he had trained. The trio demonstrated an awesome range by playing numbers such as the one inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 Monterey performance (Feedback, Pt. 2). Ten was hailed as masterpiece by the emerging pianist and ruled the album of the year by almost all top jazz publications.

Shining as a leader hasn’t stopped Moran playing sideman with equally adept musicians. He has filled the piano chair in veteran saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s quartet since 2008, replacing Geri Allen, and has enriched the group in varied settings. Besides appearing in the group’s albums, Moran and Lloyd also collaborated in Hagar’s Song (2013), an intimate but musically rich duo offering.

Without being overtly political, jazz has often voiced the unremitting, torturous ways of slavery and the terrible burden of human cost that came with it. The five-part Hagar Suite is dedicated to Lloyd’s great-great grandmother, who was sold from one slave-owner to another when she was 10. The extraordinary narration of the mourning, anger and resilience of people treated so draws from a variety of musical traditions such as African-American spirituals, Native-American folk and Eastern mysticism, with Lloyd playing bass and alto flutes and Moran matching him every step of the way not only harmonically but filling a percussive role with dark, repeated bass notes.

Despite its dark undertones, it’s impossible not to like the give and take between Moran and Lloyd in Hagar’s Song that features numbers such as Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, Earl Hines’ Rosetta, George Gershwin’s Bess, You Is My Woman Now and Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo. It was an altogether inspired effort that Moran followed up next year with All Rise. Here is a pianist who will certainly travel much further. Watch this space.

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Jazzmatazz is a fortnightly column on stories from the world of jazz. For the music that it features, visit here.

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