Jason Moran Brings Live Skateboarders into the Fold at SFJAZZ, 5/5/13

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Jason Moran and skateboarders at SFJAZZ last night.
Jason Moran
Sunday, May 5, 2013
SFJAZZ Center

Better than: A skate video soundtrack, especially one that isn't jazzy.

Midway through the final night of his residency at SFJAZZ Center, pianist and composer Jason Moran stood before a crowd of well-heeled San Francisco and North Bay Boomers and waxed nostalgic about his introduction to skateboarding in the 1980s.

'"I'd watch these [guys], and I'd be like, 'Oh shit, oh-kay," he snickered, remembering a trip from his home in Houston, Texas to San Francisco, where he was bedazzled by the dudes gliding across park benches at Embarcadero Center, baggy pants billowing in the wind. Moran, who is 38 but looks like an overgrown teenager, says he watched from afar and then went home to practice piano. But he never got over that initial enchantment.

Neither did many of us in San Francisco, where skateboarding is as much a romance as cable cars, or the fog-soaked spire of the Transamerica Pyramid, or the tech gold-rush. There was a time when skateboarders flocked in from every suburb along the Pittsburg-Bay Point BART line, stopped off at Embarcadero Center to oil their wheels with WD-40, glided through Justin Herman Plaza and slid down each rail with the freeze-frame elegance of a ballerina executing a perfect pirouette. In a city that's become increasingly hostile to skateboarders -- a few years ago the benches that flank Justin Herman and Union Square were all reconstructed with anti-skateboard "clips" to prevent a smooth landing -- the scene still commands widespread reverence.

It's also persisted for generations: As Moran wrapped up his show with a crew of 10 professional skaters on Sunday, their amateur counterparts whipped by on Van Ness Avenue, probably unaware of the production going on inside. That only added to the mystique.

If there's one thing Moran and co-curator Kent Uyehara illustrated, it's that jazz and skateboarding aren't actually strange bedfellows. In fact, a talented skater might improvise in the style of a jazz artist, combining simple tricks into a fully fleshed-out spectacle. He might have a more limited toolbox and a harder time concealing a flubbed note, but at his most graceful, he's Charlie Parker soaring up the B flat minor scale. The 10 skaters at this show soared literally, grabbing the noses of their boards as they ollied up to two feet above the 36-by-20 foot ramp that SFJAZZ had swapped in for a proscenium stage.

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The audience gasped as they slid and twirled and occasionally fell, sometimes launching skateboards into the second row, often appearing to leave scrub marks on the stage floor. The whole show was a kind of bro ballet -- skateboarding transformed into high art. When Moran delivered his mid-set soliloquy, he pointed to the skate ramp and beamed, calling it a sculpture. The 10 dudes grinned as they passed a water bottle and dangled their scarecrow legs over the ramp's edges.

Moran and the other members of his Bandwagon quartet -- bassist Tarus Mateen, drummer Nasheet Waits, guest guitarist Jeff Parker -- seemed smugly content with the damage they may or may not have wrought on SFJAZZ Center's interior. They kicked the show off with a "meditation" -- really just a four-chord melody that gradually crescendoed as the skaters engaged in their own pas de deux. The set that followed ran the gamut from stride, to funk, to a Fats Waller tune with a Latin vamp, to a quartet version of "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force.

Moran bobbled quotes from the American Songbook and led the band in his own iteration of Hieroglyphics' "'93 to Infinity" -- which, to my ear, sounded like a remake of Ronnie Foster's "Mystic Brew," with some changes. At one point, the band broke off so that Mateen could do a looped bass ostinato, just a little more ornate than the ones that underpin hip-hop songs. It sounded like an attempt to emulate a skate video soundtrack.

Few artists could pull this off as nimbly as Moran. In fact, few could do it without looking, well, a little douchey. Or at least a little self-consciously cool. Jason Moran is the exception to the rule.

Still young for an A-list jazz artist, but old enough to be honing in on middle age, Moran is at that perfect sweet spot for a jazz scene that seems obsessed with recruiting younger audiences. He's one of those polyglot performers who sit astride multiple traditions, capable of reinterpreting Monk or overlaying whole tunes with Jimi Hendrix guitar reverb (he did both on Ten, his last album as a leader). When he sees any kind of limitation in the jazz world -- people don't dance, it's not quite jelling with the hip-hop generation, the audience is too old -- he'll address it head on. His five-day SFJAZZ residency kicked off with a solo piano concert, followed by a Fats Waller dance party co-created by R&B singer Meshell Ndegeocello. By following that up with the skateboard production, Moran didn't just show that he's conversant in both straight-ahead and avant-garde jazz idioms -- he also proved he'll do anything to stretch the genre.

That's critical for a brand-new jazz center in a city that's always been abstractly interested in jazz, but hasn't really supported it for some time. If SJAZZ can initiate the new crop of twenty-and-thirty-somethings with disposable income, and get an audience to spill in from Twitter's Central Market headquarters on Friday nights, then it will never go the way of Yoshi's. It's artists like Moran who keep old institutions from crumbling, and persuade their highbrow patrons to embrace modern counterculture. Skateboarding is a kind of jazz, indeed.

Critic's Notebook

One huge curatorial faux paux that I left out: What was up with the wack gender politics in this production? I mean, really. Ten dudes? Ten? Even a scene bedeviled by gender inequality can do better, particularly in San Francisco. It's absolutely mystifying that the curators at FTC and SFJAZZ couldn't get it together to showcase at least one female skateboarder. I mean, come on guys. Vanessa Torres and Jessie Van Roechoudt both got their major star turns here. Take note.

-- @rachelswan





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