There is no doubt that Jason Moran is a virtuoso of many parts not the least of which is the piano; he was also the recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2010 and is currently artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center. Moran was also just voted Best Pianist in 2015 by Jazz Times magazine. Moran and the Bandwagon performed last week at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill as a part of the Carolina Performing Arts Series.

His modus operandi at this concert was generally to introduce a piece with a simple statement of the melody and then gradually expand/improvise in a freestyle mode, an approach he traced back to creative pioneers such as his mentor and teacher Jaki Byard, Thelonious Monk (1950s and 60s), and particularly Fats Waller (1930s). In fact, the opening piece was the Waller classic “Honeysuckle Rose” that began very gently with the trio ringing bells and gradually developing the tune on the piano where Moran demonstrated his extraordinary command of the keyboard; this involved carefully crafted runs of free-flight improvisations complemented by subtle and parallel interactions with the skillful drumming of Nasheet Waits and electric bassist Tarus Mateen.

The extrapolation of the improvisational component of the jazz “format” (i.e. melody, harmony, rhythm, improvisation) is the key to Moran’s approach and by and large was present for the entire concert. It was creatively augmented with the occasional electronic effects and recordings. At one point he used a recording of Monk doing a rhythmic tap dance as the basis of a piece acknowledging Monk’s influence on modern jazz. (Moran had skillfully demonstrated Monk’s influence by taking his place at the piano for a 90th birthday tribute to him at Duke in 2007.)

It is clear that the Modernists in the visual arts world such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock and many others have influenced Moran. He has a way of deconstructing the blues, as on “When I Leave You,” by playing a simple theme and constructing numerous variations that can sound “outside” but are actually part and parcel of the whole piece. This can be quite difficult to follow for an audience and even communication between pianist, drummer and bassist was not always obvious. Notwithstanding his preternatural talents as a drummer, Waits executed a remarkably rhythmical solo that artfully inferred to a melodic pattern set up by Moran on a piece entitled “RFK in the Land of Apartheid.”

However, the highlight of the concert was undoubtedly Moran’s tribute to Waller. For this he played a stride piano version of several tunes followed by a recording of an interview with Fats, probably made in the 1930s, expounding on the merits of “swing,” to wish that “…it would be here for ever…and a day.” At which point Moran vanished off the stage and returned wearing an oversized papier-mâché mask of Waller’s head complete with black fedora hat, grin and cigarette clenched between his teeth on one side. He then proceeded to expound on several of Waller’s tunes such as “Ain’t Misbehaving,” “Handful of Keys,” and more. At first it seemed that the effect might be a satirical take on the Swing genre, especially as the current trend in modern jazz tends to emphasize organized chaos and technical prowess over musical content. In this case, careful listening revealed that Moran never forgot that he was improvising upon the musical canvas of the late master.

So, is this the “future of jazz?” While the phrase is likely the result of a smart marketing ploy, it is always unwise to predict the future – it is usually wrong especially in the arts. However, Moran and his trio of skilled musicians are aptly named as “…a particular activity or cause that has suddenly become fashionable or popular.”