At Home With The Morans

Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran, as photographd by Dawoud Bey

Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran, as photographd by Dawoud Bey

I got a chance to sit around the kitchen table at the Harlem home of pianist Jason Moran and singer Alicia Hall Moran, for this interview piece in The Wall Street Journal. The piece was ostensubly pegged to the release of Hall Moran’s debut CD, released on a new imprint the couple established together—a worthy release that celebrates the pure essence of Hall Moran’s voice as it blurs lines between genres and toys with aural textures

But the Journal piece really was a chance to check in on a remarkable couple who absorb and radiate cultural details with remarkable energy and insight, and whose presence in New York recalls a moment when Harlem was full of families that made art out of community and community out of art. I’ve known them both for more than a decade and it’s been inspiring and educational—about music and marriage–to see how husband and wife affect each other’s experience and expression.

When I asked Did you open musical doors for each other? Alicia said this:

Jason took me to hear Cecil Taylor and Henry Threadgill. Those doors needed opening for me. But on a deeper level, he helped me grasp how important each individual instrument and personality is in music.

And Jason told me:

Dating a girl who knew Western classical music inside and out—who felt it—was a new kind of education. She taught me that Alban Berg was as soulful as Duke Ellington. She helped me focus on narrative. As a jazz musician, living life with someone who always demands a story makes you check everything you’re going to play.

And Jason pointed out that Alicia helped him think more deeply about the idea of narrative in his own music. He said:

Jazz instrumentalists once played with a sense of narrative but now that’s mostly not true. And in school they weren’t teaching you how to play a story. Singers always have to tell a story—in English or German or whatever. We instrumentalists don’t, and though there was a generation that said you really have to learn the lyrics, it ain’t really a rule out here for success. So living life with someone who’s always trying to tell a story or who regularly asks ‘What do you mean by that,’ makes you rethink certain things.

That last part didn’t make it into the article, but here’s the complete text:

When Alicia Hall Moran made her debut as artist-in-residence at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust venue, she decided to tell the audience about her life with her husband—as she described it, “between the piano and the washing machine.”

She had sung in a gloriously trained voice, tinged with blues feeling, played some piano and collaborated in somewhat free-form fashion with two guitarists and a drummer. Then she begin to share.

Seated in the fifth row, her husband, the jazz pianist Jason Moran, chuckled aloud at an inside joke she told about composer Johannes Brahms. He nodded in vigorous assent when she sang along with a recording of “Believe Me,” a track from her new album, “Heavy Blue.” She will celebrate that release in performance at National Sawdust on Sunday.

As producer, Mr. Moran helped craft the unusual sonic textures that often frame her voice on that recording; he also plays on two tracks. The release announces the couple’s new joint venture, Yes Records, marking Mr. Moran’s departure from the estimable Blue Note label and Ms. Moran’s first foray into recording her own music.

Separately, each has achieved distinction. She recently starred in the nine-month national tour of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” He has been among jazz’s most invigorating forces for more than a decade and was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2010.

The two met at Manhattan School of Music in 1995, where she studied classical voice and he was in the jazz program. They married in 2003. Their careers have been marked by a desire to bridge disciplines—engaging with choreographers, theatrical directors and especially visual artists. Increasingly, these interests have merged their creative paths. For this year’s Venice Biennale, they co-designed a musical installation that explored work songs sung in prisons, fields and houses.

In the living room of their Harlem apartment, where they are raising twin 7-year-old sons, the Morans discussed how their life together has shaped their approaches to music.

WSJ: How would you each describe the person you met at a conservatory 20 years ago?

AM: He was this cute guy in dirty khakis.

JM: She was a long-legged, short-haired feminist. And that was not common at Manhattan School of Music.

Were you from separate worlds, aesthetically speaking?

JM: Yes, but one thing we had in common was good hip-hop of the late ’90s: A Tribe Called Quest, the early stuff from the Roots, Biggie Smalls.

AM: And we could create together. We’d sit in practice rooms that had two pianos and play together.

JM: And I’d think, “This girl can improvise in ways that are shocking.”

Did you open musical doors for each other?

AM: Jason took me to hear Cecil Taylor and Henry Threadgill. Those doors needed opening for me. But on a deeper level, he helped me grasp how important each individual instrument and personality is in music.

JM: Dating a girl who knew Western classical music inside and out—who felt it—was a new kind of education. She taught me that Alban Berg was as soulful as Duke Ellington. She helped me focus on narrative. As a jazz musician, living life with someone who always demands a story makes you check everything you’re going to play.

What inspired you to create this new label together?

AM: It’s a musical experiment, but it’s also an experiment in our relationship, as musicians and as a couple.

JM: In one way it’s like a family business, low-key and personal. But it’s also a way to address a new context for distributing what we create. Our model is simple: Prepare, record, release. That’s it. And somehow, the music will find its way to you.

The song “Open Door,” which was straightforward in live performance, takes very different form on the recording. How did that happen?

JM: “Open Door” is Alicia’s composition, but that track is also straight-up collaboration. She sang it and played piano for 45 minutes. A great song can retain its core no matter what you do. So I looped parts of it and processed it in ways that reflect where pop-music production has gone in the past decade, and that connects to the music we go to hear and talk about all the time. It’s sort of a remix, only it’s the original form. Alicia let me do that.

AM: No, I asked you to do that. Because I wanted it to be a fantasy—the kind of fantasy only we can dream up together.

Do you borrow ideas from each other?

AM: He just steals mine, left and right. When he composed the score for the film “Selma,” I told him there was also a wife there, and you can play her story. You can make that choice. When the reviewers praised him for doing that, I thought, “I told him to.” But I didn’t do it. He did it.

Are you always supportive of each other?

AM: No. Jason recorded one song, “Moran Tonk Circa 1936,” that I hate. I told him so. But I celebrate not liking it because it’s a real, living part of him.

JM: The test is when someone you love tells you, “That sucks,” and you decide to do it anyway.

 

Is Harlem an important element of the life you share?

 

AM: Absolutely—just the architecture, the pace, and the river. But also certain moments. We walked with our kids in the stroller outside the Apollo Theater after Michael Jackson died, and then we walked home. That scene was emotional. It meant something.

 

JM: I told myself that because of the piano history in Harlem, this is the only neighborhood I can live in in New York City. Just for that principle alone.

 

JASON: Narraative . Jaz isntrumentalists once played with asnse of narrative but now, that’smostly not ture. And in scholl they ain’t teaching you how to play a story. And singers always have to tlll a story. In english or german or whatever. And we instrumentalists don’t and though there was a genration that said, you really have to learn the lyrics, it ain’t really a rule out here for success. So all of a sudden living life with someone who’s always trying to tell a sotry or saying what od you eman by that all of a sudeen you have to recheck everytihgnin – everything. Oh shit! She showed me those popele

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