Jason Moran and Christian McBride perform at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Dec. 16, 2022. (Photo by Jati Lindsay)
It’s not every night that a couple of the leading artists in all of jazz team up for an intimate duo performance. When they do, the eager music listener would be wise to get a glimpse of whatever might result from two musicians of worldly talent making each other’s company on the stage.
The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater was the host of such an occasion on the night of Dec. 16 as pianist Jason Moran and bassist Christian McBride, two longtime friends and each a vital force with his respective instrument, met up for two special sets.
In serving up vastly gorgeous music accompanied by insight and inspirited commentary, Moran and McBride proved to be a treasure of a tandem and a compelling tribute to artists of the past who informed these men on their way to becoming the heralded musicians and major influences that they are today.
Moran, who is the Center’s Artistic Director for Jazz, took the stage from the opposite side and at the same moment as McBride, and they met at center stage welcomed by warm applause as three stationary cameras and one mobile manned unit were already documenting the evening for what will be a forthcoming feature in the NEXT at The Kennedy Center series.
“You’re in for a treat tonight,” Moran said. “I don’t know what kind of a treat it’s going to be; I just know it will be one because my respect for Christian is tremendous.”
Stream Let My People Go, a 2021 recorded release by Jason Moran and saxaphonist Archie Shepp:
Moran was stylish in sharp black suit and cream high-tops as he adjusted into the seat at the glossy Steinway & Sons grand piano. McBride stood before him in his own dapper get-up, with his dark, well-worn upright at his left side.
Christian’s an eight-time Grammy Award winner, hailing from Philly and considered one of the most virtuosic players to handle the large stringed instrument. Back in the 1990s, he was asked to join a crew led by legendary saxophonist Bobby Watson, and that began a trek that would see him play alongside some of the most respected musicians in jazz and beyond.
Moran grew up in Houston and was playing the piano at just six years old, and though he aspired to play other instruments and various forms of music, he eventually heard Thelonious Monk and was ultimately motivated to develop his own improvisational approach and unconventional style.
And so, it was appropriate that these two gentleman and marvelously accomplished players began their Friday night together with “Blue Monk,” a classic piece from Thelonious that allowed each to find a rhythm and explore it with zest. The moody colors and lighting of the Terrace Theater set a fanciful tone, and with these two professionals naturally weaving together carefully selected songs, it was a breathtaking presentation and a heartrending view into a fruitful relationship.
“The great Jason Moran,” McBride said to the audience, a compliment each performer would repeat throughout the set.
“It is indeed an honor and a great privilege to be back here at The Kennedy Center with my friend Jason Moran,” Christian said.
These two enduring figures have worked together in the past, including Moran’s appearance on McBride’s Live at Tonic album in 2006 and more recently for a tour last year.
The timing of this specific assembly appeared to lift the souls of both artists.
“It’s been almost 12 months to the date since our last performance together,” Christian said, leaning into his bass to make eye contact and emphasize the vibe. “This couldn’t have come soon enough, my man. So, I just think we should do this more often.”
The DC audience certainly agreed, and it would enjoy a tribute to storied jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, with McBride showing the dexterity and speed of his fingers all over the strings and Moran too standing up to touch the bowels of the piano to manipulate and tenderly fade the sound toward infinity.
They honored another of their “heroes,” Charles Mingus, with a piece that the late, great bassist inspired.
“I’ve talked to Christian about the idea that bass players lead the group,” Moran said. “They see everything happening on the stage, the good and the bad. They see the crowd. They know the drama in the music, and they can shift it by moving one note here or there.”
Stream Christian McBride & Inside Straight Live at the Village Vanguard, released in 2021:
The duo performed a piece by renowned saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, and the composition saw McBride make use of the bow to create affecting resonance and project a boundless, vivid image.
As anyone on hand without a previous understanding learned, McBride and Moran both have hands that astonish over the course of a set of music. And through these enrapturing compositions, some that most certainly transcended jazz, the men showed why they have each been asked to make music with so many respected creators.
At times, it was as though Moran was playing two different, unthinkably complex pieces with each hand, like a fashionable wizard so possessed by what he was conjuring and entrancing as he moved. McBride, who’s sense of humor comes through in his play, would wow the audience and even draw laughter with the most subtle expressions or hesitations before hitting explosive, funky bursts that strutted in their own pockets of the compositions or provided a foundation on top of which Moran could thrive or just float.
A pleasant smile on his face and calling out in joy as he went, Moran pointed out that he and McBride had no shame in swinging and moving to the music they were pumping out.
“It goes out into people’s bodies, so hopefully you were finding some way to move in your seats,” and look around indicated that most in the room had learned or remembered how to bop in place thanks to these meaningful songs.
How it all translates, Moran said, is part of the allure for musicians themselves. “It’s one of the great mysteries,” he said. “We look for translation.”
He spoke with deep admiration of the late Toni Morrison, the celebrated author and an eminent figure for Black artists of all forms, explaining how she beautifully described the perception of music and how it resonates, with a focus on the sound itself. And he shared her famous words about the notion of being Black: Morrison wrote Black “may as well be a rainbow.”
In performing the closing piece to his 2021 album “The Sound Will Tell You,” it was a moving homage to Morrison, who attended Howard University in DC before completing her graduate studies at Cornell University and becoming one of the most important writers of the last century.
Classy, smooth and witty, after the song’s completion Moran made light of a cell phone that during it had rang out loudly and unexpectedly, but in no way ruined the magic he and McBride concocted.
“Whenever I hear a phone … I like to think means we hit the spirit. I like to think that means Toni Morrison’s calling — ‘hey, they’re playing my tune!”
They celebrated the late Geri Allen, the Philly-born pianist Moran referred to as another “brilliant sister,” and his and McBride’s scorching take on “Feed the Fire” challenged many in the room to stay seated with its voluptuous bassline and adventure on the keys.
Of course, returning to where they began, these two supremely skilled individuals would again pay respects to Monk, but not before Moran added some entertaining commentary about what it was that drew him to the peculiar pianist, known not just for being a pioneer, but separately recognized for his mannerisms and unique outfit choices.
“He seized the opportunity to make it about himself,” Moran said, referring to Thelonious’ practice of putting his own name in composition or album titles and cracking: “Lest we forget who wrote the song.”
But this one in particular — Monk’s piece named “Evidence,” with a working title of “Justice” — was a ponderous selection, as it spoke to concerns at the time about Black composers’ music being outright robbed. This piece, Moran said, stands out because of the use of the melody’s negative space, and it closed the set to a standing ovation at The Kennedy Center last Friday night.
“Jason Moran,” McBride said in awe as the crowd cheered. “Have mercy.”
Watch Jason Moran perform the music of Thelonius Monk for Jazz Night in America on YouTube:
And while the world has had plenty to feel negative about these past few years, Moran shared that he’s as of late found solace in the music of Louis Armstrong.
“I am obsessed with Louis Armstrong and the way he tells his stories,” Jason said after he and Christian returned to the stage to encore.
While at home during these pandemic years, now hopefully waning in some way, Moran reworked the timeless “What a Wonderful World,” with the goal of making it reflect the significant amount of time we’ve found ourselves alone, isolated from others during this strange period.
But leave it to two of the most seasoned musicians of today to so masterfully rethink an already magnificent and emotionally abundant piece of music, one that seems to capture so much with such a simple observation, and to present it in the form of a contemporary masterpiece.
While they’ll likely continue to show much appreciation and love for those who came before them, Moran and McBride are two of the very best of their crafts today. And if their recent collaboration in DC turns out to be more than a reunion, say possibly leading to another tour down the line or maybe even a recording, expectant should be any listener or musician with an interest in piano or the upright bass.
Below are select images of Jason Moran and Christian McBride performing in the Terrace Theater at The Kennedy Center in Washington DC the night of Dec. 16, 2022. Photos courtesy of Jati Lindsay.