NEW YORK (AP) — Pianist Jason Moran made it his mission on his latest album to bring a Harlem jazz legend "back into the conversation" in the 21st century. He's exceeded expectations by garnering his first Grammy nomination for his unorthodox tribute to singer-pianist-songwriter Fats Waller.
Moran says he was "shocked and so elated" when his ninth Blue Note album, "All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller," was nominated for best jazz instrumental album, putting him in the same company with pianists Chick Corea and Fred Hersch, among others.
"I wanted to look at his music with the spirit that I thought he played from," Moran said in a phone interview from his Harlem apartment. "He played for the people, and he was also a commentator on the nation, especially during the Great Depression."
While respecting the tradition, Moran deconstructed and reshaped such Waller classics as "Ain't Misbehavin" and "Honeysuckle Rose," adding hip-hop, R&B, Afrobeat, funk and other modern influences. He enjoyed the support of singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello, who co-produced the album and freely interpreted Waller's lyrics on several tracks.
The album sprung from a 2011 commission from the performing arts venue Harlem Stage Gatehouse to do a concert honoring Waller. Moran's wife, singer Alicia Hall Moran, suggested he do an updated version of the Harlem dance parties where Waller got the joint jumpin'.
The 39-year-old Moran — a 2010 MacArthur "genius" fellow who recently composed the score to the film "Selma" — felt something was missing from the modern jazz scene where audiences listen intently without leaving their seats.
"For me as a professional musician who claims to play jazz, I had never played for a dancing audience. ... That was my goal. Could I make music where people would want to dance?"
Moran enlisted the genre-bending Ndegeocello who brought a high-energy level and ability to move the music in different directions.
For "All Rise," she brought in drummer Charles Haynes (Lady Gaga, Kanye West) to lay down powerful grooves and engineer Bob Power, who worked on seminal hip-hop and R&B recordings by A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots and De La Soul.
"I thought it would have been definitely a detriment to this project if it just sounded like a jazz record," Ndegeocello said. "It was great to work with such an accomplished, virtuosic pianist as Jason ... who took these great songs and created something different with them."
On "Ain't Misbehavin'" Ndegeocello's whispery, sultry vocals float over a funky groove from Moran's Fender Rhodes, while "Ain't Nobody's Business" is turned into a slow jam.
Two tracks feature Moran's trio Bandwagon with drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen, who have a special chemistry after playing together for 15 years. Moran displays his virtuosity on "Handful of Keys," a solo homage to Waller's piano legacy with a modern take on his Harlem stride piano style.
"I'm always giving praise to Fats Waller," said Moran. "Waller is already in the Grammy Hall of Fame, so maybe he is pinching off a piece for me."
The 57th annual Grammy Awards will air live Feb. 8 from the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The awards show will air on CBS.
Follow Charles J. Gans at www.twitter.com/chjgans