If you stay still and listen to the various soundtracks playing in Jason Moran’s new exhibition at Walker Art Center, you’ll hear a moment that’s like the perfectly harmonious vibing frenzy of an improvised jazz concert.
It happened for me while watching Glenn Ligon’s “The Death of Tom” (2008), abstracted and blurry black-and-white film footage that reflects on America’s history of racism. It is set to the 1905 song “Nobody,” the signature theme of Bert Williams, vaudeville blackface performer and Broadway’s first black star, as performed by Moran.
This is just one of many films screening in Moran’s refreshingly interdisciplinary solo show, which proves that no artist is confined to one medium — if they don’t want to be, that is.
Better known as a jazz pianist, Moran has released eight albums with his trio the Bandwagon, scored the film “Selma,” and worked on more than 30 albums as a sideman. Contemporary art entered the picture in 2005, when the Walker and two other arts institutions invited him to create music through residencies. That experience, and the resulting album “Artist in Residence,” began his foray into the art world, and other jazz musicians have followed his lead.
Now here we are, with Moran’s first museum show at the Walker. As part of the live-ness of this exhibition, he will perform two multimedia concerts May 18 and 19 with the Bandwagon (bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits), DJ Ashland Mines and visual artists Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin. Moran is calling it “The Last Jazz Fest.” When I asked why, he simply said: “It’s time.”
Everything about this project is surprising, from the setup to the work to the live performances. It begins with a dimly lit main room. Visitors will feel they’re walking into a warehouse-space jazz club at 1 a.m., an hour when the night is over for some and just beginning for others.
It contains three sculptures by Moran, part of his “Staged” series paying homage to historic New York jazz venues. An arched ceiling, covered in cloth with yellow-and-maroon circular designs and lit from below, represents Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, a mecca for big band and swing in the 1920s and ’30s. The cramped, cream-colored padded walls of the Three Deuces contain an upright bass, drums and a piano to suggest the basement club in Midtown where bebop hit its stride in the ’40s. And sawdust covers the floor of Slugs’ Saloon, where an old jukebox awaits visitors to the jazz joint of the ’60s and ’70s, way out East in Alphabet City, where free jazz reigned and trumpeter Lee Morgan was famously shot (yes, there is a Netflix film about it).
Between these sets, Moran screens a loop of video collaborations with artists Lorna Simpson, Theaster Gates, Kara Walker, Adam Pendleton, Carrie Mae Weems, Julie Mehretu, Alicia Hall Moran (his wife and collaborator) and the Bandwagon. Separate smaller rooms show the Ligon film and Stan Douglas’ “Luanda-Kinshasa” (2013), a fictional recording cast of 10 musicians set in a reconstruction of CBS’ 30th Street Studio.
There are also ephemera under glass — an old magazine documenting Slugs’ Saloon; a handwritten note from filmmaker Ava DuVernay; a photograph with conceptual artist Adrian Piper — that give the show a historical feel. On a facing wall are charcoal drawings from a series called “Run.” Moran tapes a long piece of paper over the piano and plays, his fingertips covered in charcoal. The artwork is performative, abstract, alive, although a little boringly planned out. Its texture echoes the shadows of the Ligon film.
Synchronicities like these make this show more than a stand-alone retrospective of Moran’s art-infused jazz and jazz-infused art. At one point, the piano in the Three Deuces set starts playing a song called “Hammer,” syncing up with the sounds emanating from the Savoy Ballroom’s arched ceiling. The pounding keyboard reverberates with an intensity that makes this feel like the kind of immersive installation that could only happen at a major museum.
Organized by Adrienne Edwards, the Walker’s curator-at-large (and soon-to-be the Whitney Museum’s curator of performance), this is an ambitious show, one that feels labored over. The staging is spectacular, although you might ask: Who is going to sit and watch eight hours of art film? That doesn’t seem to be the point of this footage, which serves as a collaborative element in Moran’s practice.
The meanings of the entire space shift depending on which film is playing when you walk in. Walker’s shadow puppets in “Six Miles From Springfield,” recalling a story about violence against African-Americans during the Reconstruction era (and scored by Moran and his wife), contextualize the show against the history of white supremacy, slavery and the post-Civil War emancipation of slaves. But walk in during Adam Pendleton’s film “The Revival” (2007), a staged religious revival that includes commentary on black and gay life, and it becomes about the hypocrisies of the black church.
Fascinated by black history and jazz history, Moran’s exhibition is not just a walk through his artistic career — it is also a dynamic walk through American history.
Exhibition: April 26-Aug 26. $7.50-$15; free for 17 & under, and for all Thursday evenings.
Performance: 8 p.m. May 18-19, McGuire Theater. $35.
Where: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.
Info: walkerart.org or 612-375-7600.