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Pianist Jason Moran’s new project honors legend

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    Posted: 20 Jan 2020 at 6:54am

Pianist Jason Moran’s new project honors forgotten musical legend


 

With a story marked by wartime heroism, sacrifice, show business savvy, artistic innovation, and an unspeakably tragic murder, James Reese Europe’s life contains every element required for a Hollywood epic.

The African-American bandleader, composer and arranger navigated the transition from ragtime to jazz in the first decades of the 20th century, laying down the conceptual and organizational foundations for the music that flowered in speakeasys, dance halls and Broadway theaters during the Harlem Renaissance. More than two decades before Benny Goodman’s landmark foray brought the swing era into Carnegie Hall, Europe presented his Clef Club Orchestra in the august venue for a program of proudly black music in 1912.

Despite his foundational role in modern American music, Europe is barely remembered today, a situation that pianist Jason Moran is determined to rectify. His Stanford Live residency kicks off Jan. 22 with his multimedia program “James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin,” a vivid reimagining of music recorded in France by the Harlem Hellfighters, the band Europe assembled from the African-American 369th regiment.

Performing across France, Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters introduced the continent to the latest innovation in African-American music, leaving a lasting impression on the nation’s cultural establishment. “I like to say, think of Kendrick Lamar volunteering to go fight in the war,” Moran says. “You’re at the top, the voice of the people, and now you’re going to go fight a war. He’s looking for a broadness and a scale that really does set off the big band era, introducing ideas that musicians can follow.” earned international acclaim amidst the devastation of World War I, Moran is referencing a different conflict. Borrowing from Jamaican-born historian Orlando Patterson’s 1967 novel “An Absence of Ruins,” the title refers to the lack of imposing architectural artifacts from which people in the African diaspora can draw inspiration. Moran’s reclamation project turns the forgotten bandleader into an American Acropolis.

Indeed, Europe was an institution builder, creating organizations that boosted job opportunities for black musicians. As the music director for the trend-setting dancing duo Vernon and Irene Castle he created moves like the foxtrot that continue to define ballroom dancing today. Europe was at the height of his career when he volunteered for military service, and he was greeted as a hero when he returned home with his Harlem Hellfighters.

Touring the United States in 1919 just as a wave of vicious anti-black riots greeted returning African-American veterans, Europe was stabbed to death by a member of his orchestra in May. Harlem Hellfighter Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake created the landmark hit 1921 Broadway show “Shuffle Along” partly as a tribute to Europe.

For “Absence of Ruin” Moran and his 10-piece band reinterpret pieces Europe recorded in France like “How You Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm” and “All of No Man’s Land is Ours,” a piece “that you can see as a metaphor for when they’re going to return home,” Moran says.

“But we change them, much as we’ve done with the music of Fats Waller and Thelonious Monk. Europe’s recordings are so rich, with so many layers. The singing, the precision of the percussion and the virtuosity of the brass is unbelievable.”

A MacArthur Fellow and Kennedy Center Artistic Director for jazz, Moran has presented a wider array of music in the Bay Area over the past two decades than just about any other jazz artist who doesn’t live here. He’s played for skateboarders and videogamers as an SFJazz resident artistic director, and collaborated with Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet.

For his last Stanford Live performance he reinvented Thelonious Monk’s epochal 1959 concert at New York City’s Town Hall. This residency includes a screening of Ava DuVernay’s 2014 Oscar-winning film “Selma” on Jan. 25 accompanied by Moran and guitarist Marvin Sewell performing the pianist’s score live with a full orchestra conducted by Sarah Hicks.

Longtime collaborators Moran and Sewell also perform duo at Kuumbwa on Jan. 27, a follow up to their first mano-a-mano encounter last year at the Smithsonian as part of the exhibition “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor.” They first met as member of vocalist Cassandra Wilson’s band in the late 1990s, and Moran describes Sewell as “my blues big brother.

“He showed me a bunch of music that filled in a large hole in my own playing. I think he’s one of the best guitarists in the world but he’s overlooked sometimes because his sensibility is too bluesy for the jazz players and too jazzy for the blues players.”

from www.mercurynews.com



Edited by snobb - 20 Jan 2020 at 6:55am
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