Jason Moran

Paisley Arts Centre

Keith Bruce

five stars

PIANIST and composer Jason Moran introduced this exclusive Scottish performance as a “meditation” on James Reese Europe, but what we heard amounted to nothing less than a concise education in the history of the music that he and his inspiration create, as well as an evocation of a brief but remarkable life set in the context of the history of his people.

That accomplishment accounts for the complex title of Moran’s programme, The Harlem Hellfighters: James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin. Jim Europe was a black bandleader whose entire outfit signed up with the US Army’s 369th Infantry (“The Harlem Hellfighters”) when American came into the First World War. Not only did the regiment distinguish itself in battle, but the band wowed Paris with the music that had not yet been dubbed “jazz”. “The absence of ruin” is the idea that African Americans lack the visible heritage of other sections of the US population, and in recovering this story, Moran is addressing that gap. In an irony horribly relevant to black lives today, James Reece Europe survived the conflict in France only to be murdered back home in a random act of mindless violence.

Moran’s through-composed suite interleaved radical arrangements of tunes The Harlem Hellfighters knew (this was a long way from Bing Crosby’s familiar version of Ballin’ the Jack) with his own compositions, his regular rhythm section of bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits joined by six young brass players from London’s Tomorrow’s Warriors and tuba player Andy Grappy, accompanied by evocative video by John Akomfrah and Bradford Young that culminated in in footage of the earlier band arriving back home after active service.

Moran and his trio are a superb unit, whose playing makes the freshest music from the oldest ingredients, but what was just as remarkable here was the cohesion and individual talent of the half dozen youngsters recruited on this side of the Atlantic, whose solos were successively thrilling and ensemble work consistently impressive.

This was yet another event created under banner of First World War centenary programme 14-18NOW that made the best of contemporary connections.