Pianist Jason Moran knows how to set the scene. His June 26th show at the Horseshoe Tavern, featuring Meshell Ndegeocello, was a vibrant night dedicated to the music of Fats Waller.
Waller’s songs “Lulu’s Back in Town” and “I’m Crazy about My Baby” played alongside Robert Glasper’s take on “Afro Blue” and Sam & Dave’s “Hold on I’m Comin,” creating an excellent contrast between Waller’s original tunes and the remixed Waller-inspired-sound Moran would go on to play that night. And on top of his piano sat an enormous Fats Waller head with a huge grin, arched eyebrows, hat and cigar. Moran later wore the mask like a Mardi Gras costume as he played.
By 10:30 the venue’s crowd was smaller than one would expect for a show co-headlining Ndegeocello. But while the crowd was small, it was hyped. Once the band took the stage people rose from their seats – without encouragement – to move closer and join those standing on the floor.
Ndegeocello was the director of the night and she was very keen on setting the right mood, requesting the lights be turned down “real low” so that people’s inhibitions didn’t stop them from moving.
She dedicated the show to the spirit of Waller, referring to him as the “Prince of his time.” It’s an interesting reference that may have enticed a larger crowd to show up – particularly those that might have been scared off by the idea of listening to music from the early 20th century. In fact, unless you were very familiar with Waller’s body of work you could mistake much of the sound for contemporary music. Moran’s remix of Waller was inventive and dazzling. His experimental energy, funk and soul combined with Ndegeocello’s voice transformed the past into the NOW.
Ndegeocello and her famous husky voice can read a pharmaceutical list and sound sexy. Her spoken word-infused vocals paired with Lisa Harris’s enthusiastic voice beautifully flowed on top of the band’s sexy sounds. But the main standout moment was the fabulous vocal and trumpet performance of “Two Sleepy People” by Leron Thomas. It was also a treat to see Casey Benjamin, from the Robert Glasper Experiment, join the band on stage. (Glasper was also in attendance.) The music was fantastic and merited a bigger audience. (I expect that the next time Moran visits Toronto that’s exactly what he’ll get.)
There were some awkward moments. Harris has a distracting and exaggerated performance style that did not serve the music. And Ndegeocello had a tendency to give preachy instructions to the crowd: “Jason is not here to be stared at. We’re here to help you have an experience. Try to make you feel good,” or “Fats Waller was a very interesting man and lived a very colorful life. He lived in a place where people wanted to get together and act, dance, move their bodies. Not over intellectualize the evening. Get back to the heart of music, which is to be experienced.” Ironically, it seemed to be Ndegeocello who was over analyzing the evening. No matter how well intended, artists cannot instruct an audience on how to enjoy a musical experience nor is it their place to do so. Just put the music out there and let everyone experience it on their own terms.
Ultimately, Moran’s exciting and imaginative treatment of Waller’s musical legacy is another important step in introducing jazz, and its history, to a growing audience.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chaka V. is a writer, journalist and the creator of The Winehouse Mag.
Originally written for the TD Toronto Jazz Festival Updated: 07/10/2013