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Friday, July 1, 2016

Moran and Denk

Jason Moran

Jeremy Denk

Last October, I saw a performance involving Jason Moran and Jeremy Denk, a dialog of sort, between a jazz pianist and a classical pianist of similar age and, I believe, similar sensibility. It was part of Jason+, a series organized by Moran, who is the director of jazz programs at Kennedy Center.

Neither pianist is confined within their respective genre. Moran was classically trained and has a modern bent on jazz. His idol / inspiration is Thelonious Monk, who was himself an experimenter. I first heard about Denk was on an NPR program, in which he discussed Bach's Goldberg Variations. His inspiration, besides Bach, is Gyorgy Ligeti.

It was a tense time for me, when half of my brain was always waiting for the phone to buzz with news about my mother's illness --- and indeed it buzzed during the performance that evening. Nevertheless I was engrossed by Moran and Denk. They pounded their pianos alternately, each running down a catalog of representative pieces they had selected. Denk went from Bach to Ligeti, and Moran went from James Johnson to Monk. Denk showed off a bit of improvisation. Moran stuck to a fairly traditional and crowd-pleasing approach, although from some of his recordings I knew he could be more modern if he wanted to.

I don't know enough about music to comment intelligently about their skills, which I assume superb, or the music itself. However, the chronological order of their selected pieces struck me with the parallel of two separately evolved genre of music. The lineage of Denk's catalog grew out of central Europe --- Austria, Germany, and Czech some 400 years ago --- and later spread to Russia and western Europe. Moran's genre is one and half centuries of American music rooted in transplanted African slaves. These two lines of music, invented by a small number of people, have formed the two dominant strands in the whole world.

Isn't it strange, I thought, that the music from other regions of the world and in the thousands of years of human history has not achieved nearly as much sophistication and universal appeal? Indian music may provide some competition, but other places not so much. China, for its massive number of people living through a space of a couple of thousand of years, has produced no music of any worth whatsoever.

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