by Dan Lehner
The first notes from pianists Robert Glasper and Jason Moran Wednesday night at Town Hall—part of the 10th annual Winter Jazzfest—transported the audience back 75 years, to the inaugural Blue Note recording from boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade "Lux" Lewis. It was both a commemoration of the label's incredible longevity and a reminder of its brief pre-bop origins.
Jazz fans would no doubt know this is an area of expertise for Moran, whose tributes to stride masters like James P. Johnson shone through on his rollicking shuffles, peppered with historically sound flourishes, but Glasper also gave his country roots a bit of dusting off with some soul-searing and seriously dug-in blues passages. Not to be contained, the pas de deux pushed further and further into the present day as Moran mixed in some Schoenberg with his Pete Johnson, and Glasper pulled the blues into dense, affirming hip-hop territory.
It seemed that the two Steinway pilots wouldn't be getting into a cutting contest—until they did. Glasper and Moran took some time playfully trading back free improv indicative of their own personal sounds, with Moran expositing his famous pluralism and Glasper eliciting "woo's" from the audience with even just a few of his signature neo-soul chords (condemn him all you want for "going R&B," the man has a sound).
In a playful but musically serious quoting contest, each pianist played a snippet from their favorite Blue Note recordings (like "Song For My Father" and "Sidewinder"), wherein one pianist would "gong" the other one out using a cartoonish diminished run. Again, not to be restrained by the obvious, the duo traded some anachronisms, Moran with Scarface's "My Block" (a nod to their mutual hometown of Houston) and Glasper firing back with some suspiciously J Dilla-sounding chord progressions.
The second half brought on some diverse heavyweights to the stage, like fellow Houstonians Alan Hampton on bass, Eric Harland on drums, Ravi Coltrane on saxophones, and vocalist Bilal Oliver. Their take on Ornette Coleman's "Toy Dance" was a non-stop ride of mighty swing and percussive melody making. Harland was the one to watch during this set; his spooky cymbal drag painted a dark shade over his gently thumping intro to the aforementioned free-bop piece, and flipped the script on drum soloing during the Moran/Oliver arranged "Body and Soul" by keeping his cymbals steady while soloing wildly on the bass drum.
Oliver, known best perhaps for his Philly-brand neo-soul, had a remarkably fine-tuned ear for dissonance, covering the John-Coltrane-meets-Erykah-Badu-type reharmonizations with ease. Ravi Coltrane soloed with harmonic voraciousness and Hampton put forth a half pizzicato/half arco bass solo straight out of Bach. It was an impressive night of musicianship, both of innovation and adherence to history.