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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Jason Moran's Fats Waller Dance Party

Just a couple of thoughts on last night's somewhat enjoyable, somewhat maddening performance of Jason Moran's Fats Waller Dance Party at the Berklee Performance Center.

First of all, as a performer, you don't always get the audience you want. That's the way it goes. It's your job as a professional, though, to find a way to engage the audience (without resorting to pandering) or failing that, perform for your own pleasure, and if the audience doesn't catch up, it's their loss. I, however, despise being implored by someone on stage to react to the performance other than how I am, especially when it's not the person whose name is on the ticket.

On the other hand, if you're in the audience and you're not enjoying it, just go. Find a way to discretely leave and be gone. Your negative energy is tangible to both the performers and the rest of audience who are either enjoying the show or trying to hang in there. I've experienced this from both sides of the stage, and I would much rather play to or be a part of a smaller engaged audience than a group of people folding their arms and scowling. You don't always get the performance you're expecting.

I think many of us were expecting Waller's music filtered through talents of one contemporary jazz' finest pianists and bandleaders, and much of the concert fit that bill. Moran is a highly skilled, technically accomplished pianist with a Jaki Bayard-like comprehension of, and ability to recreate the whole history of jazz piano, ideally suiting him to a project like this. Waller's pioneering style was filtered through various modern styles, including some funky Rhodes electric playing and the occasional loops of the laptop, played mostly while wearing an oversize (and by Moran's account very hot and smelly) likeness of Waller's head. The maddening part, and what lost a chunk of the audience, was the attempts to inject Waller into some sadly generic 80's-ish disco/R&B stylings, especially the opening freeze-dried version of Ain't Misbehaving. The two female vocalists were especially lacking in these numbers. (Honeysuckle Rose is apparently a very difficult song to sing.) The highlight of the evening vocal-wise was when trumpeter Laron Thomas stepped forward to delightfully sing a relatively straight-ahead version of Two Sleepy People.

Hopefully, when the promised recording comes out later this year, the right balance will be in place.

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