The last time jazz pianist Jason Moran’s trio, The Bandwagon, hit Detroit was 2011. The trio was set to headline a Saturday afternoon concert at the Detroit Jazz Festival. The show was rained out, and no makeup date was promised. Many festivalgoers were pissed because Moran doesn’t perform in Detroit often with The Bandwagon. In recent years, he’s come through Detroit with Joe Lovano, Charles Lloyd and Greg Osby.
At the Fillmore Detroit Sunday afternoon, Moran, a native of Houston and a Blue Note Records recording artist returned to Detroit as the centerpiece of the project Jazz Speaks for Life sponsored by the Detroit Jazz Festival Community Series. The concert was presented in two-parts.
The Bandwagon played the first half, sort of an opening act for an ambitious reworking of the late jazz pianist Dave Brubeck's spiritual work The Gates of Justice. Moran opened the project with a unique take of the hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing, known as the African-American national anthem. Moran, drummer Eric McPherson and bassist Tarus Mateen blued up the hymn, taking it through a smorgasbord of tempo changes.
The Bandwagon followed the hymn with Moran’s original RFK In The Land Of Apartheid. Then the trio dovetailed into pianist Jaki Byard’s Out Front. Moran likes using special effects. On one of his albums, he improvised to two women talking on the telephone, and on another cut, he tickled the ivories while someone scribbled on a notepad.
To close the first half of the concert, Moran played a cut of Billie Holiday singing. The Bandwagon played along as if a part of Holiday’s band. Moran warmed the audience up for the second half of the concert, which included Detroit the Brass and Percussion Ensemble, the Wayne State University Concert Choral Choir, the Detroit Choral Society, and the Bandwagon. Norah Duncan IV was the conductor, and Cantor Alberto Mizrahi and Emery Stephens were featured soloists.
That’s a lot of action on one stage. I was concerned if all the parts would mesh. The music Gods were smiling down because this reworking of Gates of Justice was exciting as if three mini-concerts were going on at once. Moran was the right hire to pull off this project. He isn’t afraid to take risk.
Like Brubeck had, Moran has a unique way of playing the piano. When Moran soloed on Lord, Lord and How Glorious is Thy Name, it seemed as if Brubeck's spirit was sitting next to Moran whispering instructions into his ear. And Moran obliged.