Review: Jason Moran – MASS {Howl, eon}

coverFor the last, year pianist Jason Moran has eschewed more traditional publishing routes, releasing new albums with little warning directly through his Bandcamp page. In the first half of 2017, he released two such surprise albums, first a live recording of his main trio, The Bandwagon, recorded at the Village Vanguard, followed a few months later by an album with cornetist Ron Miles and guitarist Mary Halvorson. Last week, Moran suddenly released a third album, entitled MASS {Howl, eon}, with trumpeter Graham Haynes and drummer Jamire Williams.

The album is a collaboration with visual artist Julie Mehretu, a winner of a McArthur Foundation “genius” grant, who was commissioned to create two paintings by SF MoMA. Over the course of a year she worked in a Harlem church, which was one of the only places large enough to accommodate the size of the paintings, titled “Howl, eon I, II”, monumental, abstract reinterpretations of American landscapes measuring 27×32 feet. As she worked on the paintings, Jason Moran frequently set up shop in the balcony playing piano and Rhodes, taking inspiration both from Mehretu’s work and the acoustics of the space. In June, Moran recorded the resulting work with Williams and Haynes in the church.

Moran’s work reflects the setting as well as the paintings: it is the accompanying church service for the Howl, eon paintings, with a Benediction, Confession and Invocation. Mehretu’s work invokes the violent legacies of the American landscapes and Moran responds with movements that are times somber and reflective and at others explosive and violent in their own way. Mehretu used digitally altered paintings and photographs, classic Hudson River school landscape paintings and modern pictures of riots, in the conception of her piece, which Moran echoes with electronics of his own controlled by Graham Haynes. For those who can’t see the paintings themselves, which were recently installed in the main atrium at the San Francisco MoMA, the album suggests something of their grandeur and abstraction.

Between the Rhodes and Graham Haynes’ expressive trumpet work and electronics, MASS {Howl, eon} sometimes calls to mind Miles Davis’ early electric music, particularly in the album’s more driving moments. On the early track “Creed”, Haynes soars above a rolling vamp ably supported by Jamire Williams (showing off the effortless mastery of groove he also demonstrated on albums with Christian Scott). The trumpet comes at the listener in two ways; mainly it’s heard through a sheet of heavy, ringing and distorted electronic manipulation, but the clean sound of the trumpet can be heard as well, reverberating through the hollow space of the church. “Creed” also demonstrates just how beautifully recorded and mixed the album is, with the sounds bouncing and echoing while remaining clear.

While MASS {Howl, eon} grooves sometimes, it is frequently a reflective affair. Probably the most affective track is “Invocation”, again showcasing Graham Haynes’ trumpet, this time mostly unadulterated. Haynes’ plays plaintive lines above looping piano figures and drums that start sparse and grow in intensity. (Graham Haynes has been criminally under-appreciated in the past but may be having something of a moment if the inspired turns here and on Vijay Iyer’s recent sextet release Far From Over are any indication.) The album culminates in “Summon”, a turbulent, free, spiritual track of just over 18 minutes in length. Moran has always excelled at this sort of earthy avant-garde, highly abstract but filled with soul. He appears to have found worthy inspiration in the work of Julie Mehretu. Five Stars