Here are eight words I thought I'd never write: Don't let the papier-måché head fool you. That's my tip when it comes to jazz pianist Jason Moran's tribute show to Fats Waller. Yes, his performance may involve a kitsch costume, but Moran takes the legend's music very seriously.
"He'd do these twirls of his eyes. He could bat his eyes ferociously and roll them around in his head with a big smile," Moran explains of his choice to wear a Fats Waller mask for two-thirds of the show. "At one instance, it's pure entertainment but in the other instance, it's a total holdover from minstrel performers. He's kind of at the end of that. He was the one maneuvering it out of style. He was the last one who wanted to do that publicly."
That's part of what makes Waller all the more fascinating — part pianist, part larger-than-life personality, Moran says he sometimes gets forgotten for the jazz titan he was.
"He was a mega entertainer. He falls out of the framework though sometimes to people like Duke Ellington," Moran explains. That was all the more reason he wanted to bring the jazz great back to life when Harlem Stage asked the musician if he'd consider making a concert around Fats' music, but with a twist. "I said I'd be more challenged by taking his music and trying to make it dance music. See if I can make people dance," says Moran. "I've played concerts all around the world and people generally sit down."
That will likely not be the case this week when Moran takes over the Cistern stage. The pianist worked with singer Michelle Ndegeocello to find isolated elements they could pull from Waller's work to get people on their feet. "Some pretty standard hits like 'Aint Misbehavin' have a rhythm framework that's a real precursor to house music," says Moran. "I'm tying together this historical narrative, like piano lines. We'll isolate and repeat them and make little grooves."
Moran fell in love with the jazz great at a young age. Thelonious Monk was his gateway drug. "That introduced me to who he was when I was in high school. My grandparents liked when I learned Fats Waller songs. I was always trying to please my grandparents to some degree," he says.
After Moran graduated from the prestigious School for the Performing and Visual Arts High School in Houston (the same school that produced Beyoncé), he landed in Harlem where he could feel the lingering presence of jazz at every turn.
"New York is such a jazz city. You understand why artists sound the way they sound when you're here," he says. "The jazz piano history is so deeply entrenched in Harlem. Fats Waller was born and raised there. Duke Ellington was from here. There are some great jazz clubs from that time with gorgeous ballrooms. The Harlem Renaissance represents the way America can function. It's in that landscape that I live and work and eat and raise my children. It continues to be a place that artists can make a living."
And it's that Harlem sound audiences will hear for one-night-only as Waller comes to life via a man from his same neighborhood, just seven decades removed. And, like I said, don't worry about the mask. "I can see through the mouth," Moran says.