Over the past century, African American scholars and theorists – from W.E.B. Du Bois to Fred Moten – have posited music, and especially its performance, as integral to Black Atlantic life. Some have pointed to forms such as blues, jazz and hip-hop as not only the subject matter or catalyst for much diaspora art, but as a basis for critique that ruptures formal boundaries and ushers in new ‘breaks’ and resonances. While this seems plainly true, it is rare that such connections are translated to the white cube without losing something along the way.
Not so for Jason Moran’s eponymous retrospective, which Whitney curator Adrienne Edwards originated in 2018 at the Walker Art Center. Edwards had already included Moran’s work to great effect in her landmark exhibition ‘Blackness in Abstraction’ (2016), and at the 2017 Performa Biennial, where he shared the stage with Julie Mehretu. This exhibition, limited in scope and thoughtfully hung, communicates the broad sweep of Moran’s sustained engagements as a pianist, composer, editor, visual artist and Artistic Director of Jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington. It is an elegant model for how performance can be curated.
This is no easy feat: performance is tricky to recreate without reverting to the outright spectacle of the artist being on hand, or else asking the viewer to sift through moribund archival material and lengthy rehearsals on video. To this difficulty, add the prolific rate of both Moran’s production and his zest for collaboration. He is like a solar mass at the centre of a host of luminaries, most of whom are household names in their own right. But the final result, what Edwards and Moran dub a ‘set’ – a set list, but also a theatrical space for activation – remains captivating and vivid through its run time, with its triangulated three-channel projections inviting repeat viewing. One does not so much move ‘through’ the dimly lit and richly hued space as around it, over and again.
The set plays out in the main gallery by way of brief but representative edits of Moran’s performances with Lorna Simpson, Adam Pendleton, Joan Jonas, Theaster Gates and others. The playback is physically and temporally interspersed with three freestanding installations, condensations of several defunct New York jazz clubs (the Savoy Ballroom, Three Deuces and Slugs’ Saloon) called STAGED (2015–18). These and their related ephemera stand as monuments in their own right, strange and inviting; they are also akin to what Robert Smithson called the ‘non-site’, creating an ineffable bridge to a charged terrain beyond the museum. Moran, long invested in the player-piano roll as medium, has set a baby grand to play virtuosic ‘interludes’ throughout, to mark the time between live performances in their sculptural frame.
All of this is immersive and seductive, and it is tempting to linger in the space. There are plenty of diversions, including an entry corridor fitted with vibrant works in black and blue on paper, the pigmented traces of Moran’s hands moving over his keyboard. A monochromatic film produced with Glenn Ligon (The Death of Tom, 2008) cascades along a nearby wall, and Kara Walker’s Katastwóf Karavan, a steam-powered calliope made for the 2018 Prospect triennial, greets audiences outside the museum. Yet one collaboration in particular stands out: Stan Douglas’s Luanda-Kinshasa (2013), a speculative music video that imagines a mid-1970s jam session. Moran is here in period garb, working the Fender Rhodes and leading an all-star band that includes squelchy bass and tabla drums. When it debuted at David Zwirner in 2014, it was surely the funkiest thing to grace Chelsea in long time. Luanda-Kinshasa alone is worth the price of admission. Bring your dancing shoes.
‘Jason Moran’ continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA, through 5 January 2020.
First published in Issue 207