“Jason+,” the Kennedy Center’s new series designed to place jazz pianist (and artistic adviser) Jason Moran into multidisciplinary contexts, may be a bit of a misnomer. That is, inasmuch as it suggests that Moran is the main event. But Saturday night’s affair, although hosted by Moran, nevertheless found him in the passenger’s seat. Mason Bates, the center’s composer-in-residence, was the driver.
Even that was a bit misleading, given the program that unfolded in the dimly lit, postmodern-hip “Crossroads Club,” which featured Bates for only 25 of its 80 minutes. Five of those were an overlap from his pre-show DJ set, during which Moran took the stage and played along on the Steinway with Bates’s loop-filled spinning and Svet Stoyanov’s live percussion. Moran’s improvisation was somewhat glitchy: a series of recycled motifs that then turned into unaccompanied solo, lovely and languid — then atonal and percussive.
Next, Moran gradually introduced the local musicians who constitute the Bohemian Caverns All-Stars, drawn from regular players at the U Street jazz club. First came drummer Savannah Harris, duetting with the pianist on the marching, Philip Glass-like “Reanimation”; ace D.C. bassist Michael Bowie joined them for “Monk’s Dream.” They were followed by trumpeter Donvonte McCoy and tenor saxophonist Brian Settles for what amounted to a club mix of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.”
Finally, all 12 members of the All-Stars took the stage — with Moran yielding to pianist Janelle Gill — for three numbers. Two were smart originals, by trumpeters McCoy (“Renewal of Our Joy”) and Kenny Rittenhouse (“Tiny’s Crib”). The highlight came in between, however, via tenor saxophonist Tedd Baker’s opulent, haunting arrangement of the standard “Autumn in New York.”
Yet, once Bates, Moran and Stoyanov retook the stage, it was instantly clear that all of the music thus far had been an appetizer. The entree was the premiere of Bates’s new work “Sideman” — which, he explained, put jazz and contemporary classical through “an avant-garde meat grinder.” The jazz part of “Sideman” was not apparent for quite some time, primarily because the focus was so heavily on Stoyanov; he divided his time between a diverse set of percussion instruments at the front of the stage and a vibraphone-xylophone rig behind it. (He was a bit less prominent on the latter because of physical placement and interactions with a mallet-wielding Harris.) The jazz part did find its way in, though, with an extended passage that put the saxophones of Baker and Robert Landham in the foreground, with trumpets and trombones behind.
The music was somewhat dissonant, but pleasingly so — and encroaching on progressive jazz not unlike the big-band music of composer Darcy James Argue. It didn’t swing, exactly, but the interaction within the reeds, and between the reeds and horns, was the stuff of big-band lore, although it paled in comparison with that between Stoyanov and Harris (especially when the former strapped on a bass drum and went into direct and glorious opposition to Harris). The evening was a triumph; if anything, though, it was Mason+.