Pianist-composer-bandleader and Kennedy Center Jazz curator Jason Moran became one of the true lead voices in the music largely on the combination of his restless artistry and a strong recording relationship with Blue Note Records. His wife, the striking contralto Alicia Hall Moran – whose cameos in the exceptional Charles Lloyd documentary film “Arrows Into Infinity” were so powerful – has entered the recording arena as well. Jason and Alicia are the parents of twin sons (who once memorably joined their Dad onstage at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club in a hilarious dance bit to cap off a killin’ set by the old man’s Bandwagon trio), and proud Harlemites. Together they are collaborating on a true family affair, the launch of their own recordings imprint Yes Records. Jason has been featured in the Independent Ear on several previous occasions, so obviously some questions about this new venture were in order, only this time for both he and Alicia.
There are countless artists out here who would kill to record for Blue Note; yet despite his successful run there you and Jason have chosen to embark on the brave world of independent recording labels. What was behind your decision to launch this new venture Yes Records?
Alicia Hall Moran:I believe that Jason’s tremendous ride with Blue Note Records was due entirely to the brilliance and muscle of the legendary visionary, the late Bruce Lundvall. Bruce passed away in 2015 and with that, so did the era of beautiful, raging music that represented Jason so well. It’s not a sad time, it’s a time to celebrate all these outrageously artistic accomplishments Bruce single-handedly helped make possible for Jason, and continue on in that tradition. Bruce was a direct link to the jazz greats Jason cut his teeth transcribing, yet he gave Jason all the freedom in the world. The question was always, “What are we going to do next?” He adored Jason. It was a singular sort of love and respect. And he extended that grace to my entire family. He was a King of sorts and so importantly, he had style: handwritten notes and pinstripe suits. His respect for the music Jason loves was so immense, you felt it and saw it when he walked into any room. He had what I call backbone. It was beautiful to behold. But he left us so now Jason just has to rise to the occasion. YES RECORDS is our response to Life, in celebration of The Good Life. You got to say YES to opportunities like this and go with it and have fun!
Will you both record projects for Yes Records, and do you feel a greater sense of freedom to explore various projects on your own imprint?
A.M.: We’ll both do projects on YES. I have a classical background and Jason’s firmly rooted in the jazz tradition so the discipline is there but to me, the chord is only as interesting as the thought behind it. Singing is Thinking to me. I’ve been singing my entire life. But the act of recording my music is relatively new to me. It’s such a privilege to make a sound and then capture it in that way, if you think about it. In human history that’s been impossible to do for almost the entire life of our species. It’s only relatively recently that technology even allows us to do this. It’s amazing, really. The fact we can hear someone’s voice from last week, or last year, or now even 100 years ago. That is amazing! I feel like we shouldn’t forget that. So to me it’s magical. Yes, that I feel so strongly about some sound I’m making that I feel you should want to hear it even after the moment, those sound waves, have passed and that breath is spent. To me, or maybe I’m spoiled, but I just feel like that’s what I want to be dealing with day in and day out. Magic. Nothing less. Otherwise, why bother. Suffice it to say I naturally feel pretty free in my music. It’s the privilege of getting to capture that freedom. It’s an oxymoron, right?
Please tell us about your new recording “Heavy Blue”, in terms of the scope of your project and your goals for this record.
A.M. HEAVY BLUE is an atmosphere. I really wanted HEAVY BLUE to sound like me. And it does! HEAVY BLUE blends the classical music I love with the jazz environment I live inside as the wife of Jason Moran. It embraces Soul music and 80s pop. It has a femininity and a sensuality but also a forthrightness. HEAVY BLUE needed to sound like the past that I am descended from, my ancestry, the wide-open spaces and the pure night sky, while being honest to the ways I feel my culture now as a Harlem, New York resident. The pavement, the sophistication. I love this record, how it turned out. HEAVY BLUE is such an emotionally honest record. It’s my first album and YES gave me complete control so there was no pressure to fit into a niche or even define one. I’m playing every song I love to it’s truest core for me as a singer and that takes my voice through a dozen different colors and lot of range. HEAVY BLUE speaks to my point of view. It’s about the human voice, the trained human singing voice, but with not too many bells and whistles beyond that. Besides Jason on Rhodes and piano, and besides accompanying myself on piano, I chose guitars, cello and bass because those instruments intuitively love my voice in the right ways. They have the soft touch no matter how hard they hit. Mary Halvorson, who has a wildly creative sonic palette, recorded the American folk lullaby “The Little Horses” with me, and I do love that little song but we plow into it because my lullaby, being true to my life, isn’t about a sweet baby that falls asleep lovingly in your arms. It’s about a sweet baby who isn’t falling asleep. My baby is a brilliantly alive, self-determined person demanding the world of me in the middle of the night. That’s reality. So we play into that. Parenting isn’t for the meek and neither is music-making.
“Deep River” was recorded with and arranged by guitarist Brandon Ross. I derive my melody from the classic transcription of the slave song by the legendary composer Hall Johnson, actually my great-great maternal uncle. When voice becomes the water itself, and all the ripples in the water are there, all the bends, all the power, the responsiveness to the terrain. I want to be the water in that song, the muddiness AND the clarity. Nothing static. Nothing for technique’s sake alone. Same for “I Like The Sunrise,” which features Jason on Fender Rhodes, Brandon on guitar, and Tony Scherr on bass. I sing it from the idea of the cosmos, the view of the sun rising up from behind planet earth, as well as the Liberian sunrise on the horizon, as Duke Ellington wrote. But he’s talking about God and his music envelopes everything. So we go there big.
The HEAVY BLUE content–the love songs, lullabies, spirituals, standards–will feel familiar but the point of view is altered. A lot of my inspiration comes from being on the other side of things. YES records is all about orientation. Which way you’re facing.
Will this new Yes Records venue give you more opportunities to collaborate across the genres for which you both are most closely identified, and was that part of the motivation for building your own imprint?
Jason: Definitely. I kind of hint at this in some of my earlier recordings, most notably with Artist in Residence, which included artists Adrian Piper and Joan Jonas. To include their names with some relation to catalog was the goal, but also, I consider them as important to my development as Monk or [Jaki] Byard. I think the larger issue is about the type of scale and timeline we’d like to work in. Meaning, I can make a recording in 2 days, and release it a week later. For us, YES Records is essentially about insuring that Alicia and I document our work as we make it. I’m about 5 recordings behind right now, and i want to get squared up and also make new music as it gets completed. A way to build an archive, because we have shown no signs of slowing down. I’ll record a live solo piano recording in March and release it by April. The Bandwagon will get back into the studio in the Fall, and Alicia will record her Black Wall Street work in the Spring… slowly & quietly, but surely.
To hear Alicia Hall Moran’s new release – and the launch recording of Yes Records go to