We already know that Jason Moran is stunningly and profoundly original, even in his treatment of existing material. (His 2007 multimedia reimagining of Thelonious Monk’s Town Hall concert made it unstintingly clear.) Knowing it doesn’t prepare one for the stark, sublime beauty of “James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters: The Absence of Ruin,” Moran’s latest multimedia work, which received its U.S. premiere at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on Saturday night.
Moran’s work is a tribute to ragtime pioneer and World War I hero James Reese Europe — co-commissioned by the Kennedy Center as part of its marking of the WWI armistice’s centennial — and, like his Monk tribute, it recasts the Europe repertoire. Often it does so in Moran’s image; Saturday night’s program began with a moving, mournful and thoroughly contemporary solo piano version of Europe’s 1918 rejoice “All of No Man’s Land Is Ours,” soon bringing in a seven-piece horn section as well as Moran’s standard rhythm section (bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits) to fill out the sound. A few minutes later came a deeply soulful, full-band arrangement of “Ballin’ the Jack,” announced with a title projected onto the onstage screen above them.
Not everything was quite so Moranified, however. Shortly after “Ballin’ the Jack,” the pianist moved into the classic, rollicking two-step rhythm of ragtime to play “Darktown Strutter’s Ball” (which Europe didn’t write but did perform and record), complete with tuba bass lines from Jose Davila and woodblock drums from Waits. When the horns came in to carry the melody (with furious improvisations by trombonist Reginald Cyntje and clarinetist Darryl Harper leading the pack), Moran pulled out a slide whistle and used it to play fills (as was popular in the ragtime bands of Europe’s day). Later in the program, the rhythm section laid out so that the trio could lay down gleeful takes (with Moran conducting) on Carl Bethel’s “That Moanin’ Trombone” and W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” that sounded very much like the Europe band’s vintage recordings.
Nor was everything about Europe or ragtime. Moran interwove his tribute with meditations on the ruins of Weeksville — the first, long-forgotten settlement of Brooklyn by African American freedmen — and the relative absence of other African American historical structures. Much of this meditation took place on the aforementioned video screen, with stark video of Weeksville’s crumbling houses and abandoned theater, with Moran, Mateen and Waits sitting among them. But about halfway through the program, tenor saxophonist Brian Settles led the ensemble on a slow, haunting rendition of Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” that highlighted the meditation and abstractly connected it to Europe (via Ayler’s love and use of ragtime and military marches).
The information packed into the music was dense and nuanced, including electronic pulses, a recurring use of disjointed horn notes that sounded remarkably like backward recordings, and a stridently (and appropriately) military sound from Waits’s snare drum. It was a rich offering — and a beautiful, poignant, reverent one.