Alicia Hall Moran, the mezzo-soprano, and Jason Moran, the jazz pianist, have been jumping out of windows for a couple of decades now. When they perform over the next few days in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, they may jump through a few more.
That’s Jason’s image, originally: When he’s improvising with a band, he once said, he looks for an open window and jumps through it — takes the risk and free-falls, looking for some totally new musical challenge or territory. Married for 15 years and a couple for seven years before that, he and Alicia have been collaborating so consistently and for so long — as musicians, as parents — that it’s become second nature for them to roll the dice. Alicia did it several years ago when she decided to create a performance piece honoring her father, Ira D. Hall, a Wall Street banker. She went online and Googled “Wall Street, black,” she recalled, figuring she’d turn up pertinent information on African-American bankers in New York, like her dad. But no, she instead found herself landing in some weird new place where personal history ran up against something much bigger. Her father was originally from Oklahoma, and, as a girl, she had spent summers there with her grandparents, Ira and Rubye Mae Hall, who had been active in the civil rights struggle in Oklahoma City. But never before — not until Google told her — had she ever heard of the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, an affluent African-American neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street” that was razed in a race riot in 1921. White mobs massacred hundreds of the district’s black residents.
“I literally knew nothing about this ... nothing,” said Alicia Hall Moran, who grew up comfortably in suburban Stamford, Connecticut, where during high school, she was the only African-American member of a synchronized figure skating team called The Shadows. “But suddenly there I am: Bam! Now I was smack in the middle of it — my father’s history, polite society, as well as murder, mayhem, and segregation.” It didn’t intimidate her, running into this unruly cache of information. No, she grabbed onto the whole deal and, hoping for the best, composed a batch of songs reflecting on race and racism, her father’s life, her own life, and the lost lives in Tulsa. She recorded them for her album Here Today and made them the centerpiece of her performance piece titled “Black Wall Street.” She performs it Sunday, July 29, in Albuquerque and Monday, July 30, in Santa Fe with a band that will include her husband. “When Jason plays,” she said, “that rips open parts of my life and puts them on view for me in a way that I can’t otherwise access.”
The songs include one titled “Metal” — on the album, the percussion part is created with a set of chains once worn by slaves — and another called “2 Train to Wall Street,” an edgy ode to her father’s daily commute.
There’s also a song called “I Am the Fire.”
I am the fire
You are the smoke.
It’s a fine line
Her songs tend to operate on a number of levels. Perhaps she is singing here about the fire that consumed the Greenwood district, or about the fiery anger of the riot’s survivors, thousands of whom were left homeless in Greenwood. Or maybe she is putting herself in her father’s shoes, becoming the black banker who won’t back down and tells off the Wall Street racists who tried to smoke him out of his just rewards.
Speaking by phone from Paris, where he was on tour with his trio the Bandwagon, Jason talked about the yin and the yang of their relationship, the blurring of boundaries, and the merging of their personalities and creative processes. “Alicia and I have been in each other’s ears for a long time, and a lot of what I’ve been able to accomplish has been because Alicia counseled me through the red tape on stage and behind the scenes.” She is his toughest critic — she “puts a knife” to his music, Jason has said. A prominent pianist and bandleader, and a 2010 MacArthur “Genius” Grant awardee, he is the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. But his wife won’t let him repeat musical formulas or get spoiled by the accolades. Likewise, she said — on the same phone call, though she was patched through from their apartment in Harlem — that her husband’s early counsel to her “remains a banner over my entire aesthetic,” going back to their courtship at the Manhattan School of Music. “He said early on — I mean when we were students — he said, ‘All these kids want to have records, but they ain’t got nothing to say.’ Oh! That haunts me. So maybe if I hadn’t met him, I would’ve had more records, sooner, but I don’t know if I would have had anything to say. I think I just wanted to be heard. But heard doing what?”
Now in their forties, they have become a power couple, collaborating at the 2012 Whitney Biennial in New York and at the 2015 La Biennale di Venzia in Italy. They partner with art galleries and arts centers, with visual artists and filmmakers ( Jason scored Ava DuVernay’s Selma), as well as with jazz musicians and opera singers.
Trained operatically, Alicia has toured with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and was Audra McDonald’s understudy on Broadway for the role of Bess in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess; she then starred as Bess in a 20-city tour. Looking back through her “bloodlines,” as she put it, her great-great uncle Francis Hall Johnson was one of Marian Anderson’s teachers and among the most prominent arrangers of African-American spirituals. When you hear Jessye Norman or Kathleen Battle sing a spiritual, often you are hearing an arrangement by Johnson.
When Alicia Hall Moran sings a spiritual, she takes in all this history and information — and then remakes the spiritual, stretching it this way and that way, applying her crushed-velvet, art-song voice, but blowing smoke and fire across the words. She makes you listen. As does her husband, who began recording as a leader for Blue Note Records when he was just twenty-three, in 1998. (He and his wife now have their own label, Yes Records.) He is one of the most arresting improvisers out there — and he doesn’t sound one iota like Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, or other widely copied piano stylists. He studied with Jaki Byard and Andrew Hill, lesser-known geniuses with singular languages. Byard would play Chopin or stride piano, then blast off into the avant-garde stratosphere. Jason Moran is of that ilk. He absorbs traditional materials and scrambles them up, a unique player who grew up obsessing on Thelonious Monk and hip-hop. He often locks in on a bar or two of a particular tune and turns it into his own loop, repeating it over and over with his band, getting super-focused and mesmerizing the audience — and then he jumps through a window.
He and his wife share a fascination with “cultural DNA,” as Jason phrases it, building their personal histories and broader historical concerns into their art, casting a wide and unpredictable collaborative net. They aren’t afraid to break with musical decorum or to just plain blow it. Their backgrounds are similar, too: Jason grew up middle-class in Houston, where his father also was a banker, while his mother ran her own bakery and then taught English to deaf students. Asked what each might be doing — or might not be doing had they not met in music school — Jason answered, “I would have found Alicia anyway. There were just too many signs — I really trust in the stars, I really do. And all stars point to her.”
“Ohhhhh,” Alicia sighed into the phone.
Her career has had a slower ascent. After the birth of identical twin sons, Malcolm and Jonas — they were preemies, weighing about two pounds each — she was often at home while Jason was on the road. Now the boys are ten. Enrolled at one of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s preparatory programs, they are intuitively musical, she said: “They can do things with their voices that took me years of conservatory training to figure out. They understand registration. They understand energy, the push and pull in the rhythmic phrasing. They understand melody. As identical twins, they understand the purpose of harmony in a way that is magical.”
For years, she fought to find 30 minutes here and 30 minutes there to advance her art: “I was pushing out my career,” she said, making it sound like a birth.
“But these past couple of years, now people can see what she’s done,” her husband said.
“As a woman, and especially as the lesser-known partner, I’ve had to figure it out,” Alicia went on. “But Jason was quick to tell me things: ‘You were in a Broadway show, eight shows a week, with audiences that range from 1,500 people to 7,000 people every night. So doing that, you played for more people in two years than I’ve played for in my life.’ That really gave me an edge, hearing that — the feeling that we’re equals. My husband gave me equal keys.
“How many partners would give you the keys to their kingdom?” she asked. “We live in each other’s kingdoms.” ◀
For performance details, see the schedule on page 37.