When it comes to sales and media attention, count on Lady Gaga’s collaboration with Tony Bennett to win the race of albums of vintage American tunes out this month. And yet it’s this particular evocation (and occasional revision) of Fats Waller’s music, from pianist Jason Moran and vocalist/bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, that seems more engaged with the pop-jazz tradition.
“Songbook” albums of old standards can often carry a cornball air, with all the dress-up-play involved. And that’s true on this album, too, from time to time. But the sense that you’re also in for something satisfactorily bold comes early on, when you realize that Moran and Ndegeocello have dispensed almost entirely with vintage performance styles. On “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Moran supports Ndegeocello with abstracted, fusion-y comping — presenting the iconic melody most cleanly during his own brief solo. And the duo’s version of “Yacht Club Swing” pushes the BPM up to the point where you could actually envision this take being used amid some debauched rager on the contemporary high seas.
And why not? Waller was as much a pop stylist and party-mover as he was a jazz innovator. And as the nature of swingin’ at the yacht club evolves, so should the way players engage with Waller’s music. It’s not as though it’s in anyone’s interest to have contemporary musicians attempt to out-play the composer’s immortal recordings, on their original terms.
The up-to-date sound of Moran’s album was presaged on some other recent, pop-wise jazz records. On the whole, All Rise is indebted a bit to the example of fellow Blue Note artist Robert Glasper’s Black Radio series — even if this album makes some smarter production choices (and adds additional room for soloing). Elsewhere, Ndegeocello employs a convincing, quiet-storm approach in slower numbers — a nice contrast with the breakbeat-ish improv in the more frenetic tunes. And Moran’s “Lulu’s Back in Town” feels, in its adapted approach, a bit like Vijay Iyer’s famous take on M.I.A.’s “Galang” (that is, “We’re hip, we know how drum parts should sound in the 21st century”).
In that spirit, the rest of the band here — which includes Charles Haynes, a tour drummer for both Gaga and Kanye West — sounds as though directed to play Waller’s compositions like they were currently being churned out for the adult R&B marketplace. With its mix of reverence and reinvention, All Rise is easily one of the best songbook style albums in recent memory — in part because it revives a conception of pop-jazz that cares less about the nostalgia-marketing imperative than it does about inspiring a dance party.