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Modern Misbehavin': Jason Moran Gets Into The Mind Of Fats Waller

Jason Moran's new album is titled All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller. (Courtesy of the artist)

Legend has it that pianist Fats Waller used to say, "If you don't know what it is, don't mess with it." That's a challenge that fellow pianist Jason Moran has been eager to take up lately.

Moran's latest album is called All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller. On it, he's taken some of Waller's biggest crowd-pleasers and reworked them to reveal just how timeless these songs are. Moran was originally commissioned by the Harlem Stage to perform a concert of Waller's music — but at that same time, he says, his wife was prodding him to try something new.

"My wife was like, 'You need to do something for some people to come dance!' " Moran says. "And as much as I love traditional concerts and traditional celebrations of great artists, that has not been my forte. I've always chosen to try to do something else with the form and the format."

Waller, Moran says, turned out to be the perfect vehicle for that kind of experimentation: an aggressively modern figure for his time, filled with contradictions.

"All this insane piano technique, but also this freedom with his lips to say the things that he says, to think the things that he thinks. The son of a preacher, the man who likes to drink, the man who finds his sorrow but expresses it through comedy," Moran says. "And these songs, they don't just seem funny; they don't just seem sad. There's always this duality."

Hear more of the conversation at the audio link.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE JOINT IS JUMPIN'")

FATS WALLER: (Singing) To say that things are jumpin' leaves not a single doubt that everything is in full swing when you hear someone shout. Here 'tis. The joint is jumpin'. It's really jumpin'. Come in, cats, and check your hats. I mean, this joint is jumpin'.

RATH: Legend has it that pianist Fats Waller used to say if you don't know what it is, don't mess with it. Well, fellow pianist Jason Moran knows what it is and he is messing with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE JOINT IS JUMPIN'")

JASON MORAN: (Singing) This joint is jumpin'. It's really jumpin'. Come in, cats, and check your hats. I mean, this joint is jumpin'.

RATH: Jason Moran's latest album is called "All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller" he's taken some of Waller's biggest crowd pleasers and reworked them to reveal just how timeless these songs are. Moran was originally commissioned by the Harlem Stage to perform a concert of Waller's music, but at that same time his wife was prodding him to try something new.

MORAN: And my wife was like, Jason you need to do something for some people to come dance and I followed her lead and thought Fats Waller was the perfect vehicle for this kind of investigation of his sound related to dance. And so that led us all the way from that commission three years ago to this recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

RATH: A lot of people might expect well you're a pianist, you know, you'll just do a straight piano tribute, but...

MORAN: Right.

RATH: There's a different philosophy with this album.

MORAN: Yeah. I mean, I love collaborators and collaborating and the first person I called was the beautiful and genius Meshell Ndegeocello. She and I really kind of put our heads together and started to look at this music and as much as I love traditional concerts and traditional celebrations of great artists, that has not been my forte. I've always chosen to try to something else with the form and the format.

RATH: You know, we had Meshell Ndegeocello on the show here a few months back. What - we spoke to her in front of a live audience and knew that you were doing this work with her. I asked her about working with you. Here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: My process with Jason is to love him and let him be free. You know, I hire people to surround him, like, I just want to be this kind of person that just creates an environment where the artist can do what they do best, you know, and that might mean just bringing the coffee.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: Does that sound about right?

MORAN: That is her. That is her. Oh, I love her so much. Yeah, she's amazing at that, you know, way of kind of giving me the bedrock to walk around on and then to just also as a fan watch her manipulate these songs with, you know, such beautiful minimalism. So it's a really great way to approach good music.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

RATH: You know, clearly she was doing a lot more than just bringing the coffee. Listening to, you know, probably the song most associated with Fats Waller, "Ain't Misbehavin'".

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T MISBEHAVIN'")

NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) No one to talk with, all by myself. No one to walk with, but I'm happy here all by myself. Ain't misbehavin', I'm savin' my love for you, for you, for you.

MORAN: "Ain't Misbehavin'" is such an iconic American piece of music. A guy professing his love for his partner and in reality, like, Fats Waller he says in an interview that he wrote the song while he was an alimony jail. You know, like, wow. You know, write your hit in the jail, wow. Go ahead Fats Waller, but in one of his recordings, the recording I have, at the very end of it he says, for you, for you, for you, for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T MISBEHAVIN'")

NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) For you, for you.

MORAN: And it more felt like kind of like a prayer, like a mantra, to give yourself confidence and convince yourself and convince those around you with these words. And I just took him uttering those words for you over and over again and made that the new landscape for us to perform the song on top of.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T MISBEHAVIN'")

NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) For you, for you, for you, for you. It's for you, it's for you.

RATH: I'm speaking with pianist and composer Jason Moran about his new album "All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller." You know, I'd always thought that Fats Waller sounded so modern. And now I feel like I can hold this album up to people as proof.

MORAN: I mean, he is modern, especially in that timeframe. You have to think about African-American performers and the trajectory that they've gone. Fats Waller with all this insane piano technique, but also this freedom with his lips to say the things that he says, you know, to think the things that he thinks. The son of a preacher, the man who likes to drink, you know, the man who finds his sorrow but it expresses it through comedy. And these songs, they don't just seem funny, they don't just seem sad, you know, like, there's always, like, this duality of them. And what we try to look at is part of that duality, that probably comes mostly into light when Meshell performs "Ain't Nobodies Business." It's a haunting rendition of that song. And it's quite wonderful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Ain't Nobody's Business")

NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) If I should take the notion to jump in the ocean, ain't nobody's business if I do. Ain't nobody's business if I, if I do.

RATH: There's sadness there, but a dear friend of mine once said that whenever she needed something to give her a lift, Fats Waller was the most reliable thing in the world. There is this joy in this music that comes across in that.

MORAN: Right. You know, when we do these performances live, I have this enormous paper mache Fats Waller mask that I wear for the performance.

RATH: I've seen a picture of that. What's that about?

MORAN: Yeah. Well, you know, because people want joy. And a good mask can bring that because I wanted to embody Fats in a way literally, but also like a spiritual reviving, you know. But I want Fats to know that I'm really trying to maintain and uphold his legacy with the highest honor.

RATH: Isn't wearing a mask on stage - I've seen this, it's a big mask. Doesn't that make it hard to play?

MORAN: You know, this is like a Mardi Gras mask and you actually can see through the nostrils. And there's something about being in - well, OK, you're in Fats Waller's head, that's little bit odd already. But sonically, everything changes in there. So you're in kind of like this cocoon, and also nobody in the band can see any kind of eye cues from you. There's no queues being given unless they're by hand. But there's a difference space that you set up inside there. And I've actually found myself psychologically, like, retreating into the mask and wearing it more and more because it was almost - I felt like - a way of hiding even more and more. And I'm still kind of working through this issue with the mask.

RATH: I think it's when you start wearing it when you're not on stage. That's when you need to maybe get a professional to help you out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "ALL RISE: A JOYFUL ELEGY FOR FATS WALLER")

RATH: That's pianist Jason Moran. His new album is "All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller." That comes out on Tuesday. But until then, you can sample every track at our exclusive First Listen. That's at nprmusic.org. Jason Moran, I've so enjoyed speaking with you. Thank you so much.

MORAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "ALL RISE: A JOYFUL ELEGY FOR FATS WALLER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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