The New England Conservatory continues to expand its roster of "geniuses" among its jazz faculty. In 2008, saxophonist Miguel Zenon was awarded a so-called genius grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; a few months later he began teaching at NEC. Past recipients include Ran Blake and Gunther Schuller, as well as the late George Russell and Steve Lacy. Now it is Jason Moran's turn.
The 35-year-old pianist, who joined the NEC faculty last spring, was awarded a prestigious MacArthur grant yesterday. The prize comes with $500,000 paid over five years, and there are no strings attached to the money. Recipients -- artists, scientists, historians, etc. -- can do with it as they please.
Moran, who has honed a distinctively jagged style over the past decade, has been called the Thelonious Monk of his generation. His playing is immediately recognizable as his own, whether he's performing his own colorful compositions or his offbeat arrangements of jazz classics. He burst out of the gate in 1999 with his Blue Note debut, "Soundtrack to Human Motion," announcing himself as a remarkably original voice. His albums, the most recent of which is this year's "Ten" (my review is here), are often cited among jazz's most essential recordings -- not just of the 21st century but of any era.
In an interview with NPR, the Houston native said he plans to use the MacArthur grant money to tour the United States more, especially in the South. As good as Moran's recordings are, he must be seen and heard in concert. His regular band, a trio called Bandwagon that includes bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, has become a regular at the Newport Jazz Festival. This summer's fest saw him dig deeper into his fascination with Thelonious Monk as he patiently explored every nook and cranny of "Crepuscule With Nellie," unearthing new harmonic and rhythmic delights in the beautiful ballad. In doing so, he accomplished an impossible feat: making a Monk tune sound like his own.
Here's a look at Moran talking about -- and performing -- "Crepuscule With Nellie" with his band.