Twenty-five minutes into pianist and composer Jason Moran’s “Fats Waller Dance Party” at Berklee Performance Center Friday night, singer Meshell Ndegeocello explained that this was beautiful music meant to be taken into the body, a physical thing, urging the audience (in vain) to get up and dance.
In fact, the show worked on a number of levels, both physical and intellectual. Fats Waller (1904-1943) was a popular singer, hit songwriter, and jazz pianist. Moran, 39 (as he pointed out, Waller’s age when he died) first presented this show in 2011 in New York as a commission from Harlem Stage. It featured dancers and singers as well as a giant Fats Waller mask worn by Moran.
At the Celebrity Series show at Berklee, the band was joined by three dancers who emerged from time to time to work gamely across the cramped stage. And Moran did wear that mask.
Moran established his method with the first song. The band (with vocalists Ndegeocello and Lisa E. Harris) picked up the last phrase of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” — “For you” —repeating it, as Waller did in his original recording. It became a vamp, a rhythmic germ for the band’s hip-hop beat (laid down beautifully all night by Tarus Mateen on electric bass and drummer Charles Haynes.)
Throughout the night, the band (completed by trumpeter Leron Thomas) continued to build rhythmic vamps from snippets of melody and lyrics.
You could say that Moran and his group were turning Waller into hip-hop. Well, they were and they weren’t. The music easily segued from hip-hop (and trip-hop) to jazz swing, to Afro-Latin to African.
In fact, when the dancers broke into West African style music and dance, it was easy to see the big mask as a part of that tradition.
Moran, meanwhile, moved back and forth between acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes (sometimes playing them both at once).
In his way, Moran was reclaiming Waller the pop musician — as part of the history of American song and rhythm, and as African-American history.
I hope this show returns to Boston, to a club next time, where Ndegeceocello will have an easier time getting the audience to join the dance.