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Modern Misbehavin': Jason Moran Gets Into The Mind Of Fats Waller

Clay Patrick McBride / Courtesy of the artist

Jason Moran's new album is titled All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller.

Clay Patrick McBride / Courtesy of the artist

NPR Music | Staff

Legend has it that pianist Fats Waller used to say, "If you don't know what it is, don't mess with it." That's a challenge that fellow pianist Jason Moran has been eager to take up lately.

Moran's latest album is called All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller. On it, he's taken some of Waller's biggest crowd-pleasers and reworked them to reveal just how timeless these songs are. Moran was originally commissioned by the Harlem Stage to perform a concert of Waller's music — but at that same time, he says, his wife was prodding him to try something new.

"My wife was like, 'You need to do something for some people to come dance!' " Moran says. "And as much as I love traditional concerts and traditional celebrations of great artists, that has not been my forte. I've always chosen to try to do something else with the form and the format."

Waller, Moran says, turned out to be the perfect vehicle for that kind of experimentation: an aggressively modern figure for his time, filled with contradictions.

"All this insane piano technique, but also this freedom with his lips to say the things that he says, to think the things that he thinks. The son of a preacher, the man who likes to drink, the man who finds his sorrow but expresses it through comedy," Moran says. "And these songs, they don't just seem funny; they don't just seem sad. There's always this duality."

Hear more of the conversation at the audio link.