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Macedonian Maestro

Percussionist Matt Moran gets his groove on with Slavic Soul Party.

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Slavic Soul Party: Jazzed up about Balkan folk.
  • Slavic Soul Party: Jazzed up about Balkan folk.

Like a number of avant-garde musicians these days, vibist/ drummer Matt Moran has a working knowledge of several genres. He's among the best young jazz vibists and has also concentrated on the music of Charles Ives with his quartet, Sideshow. With his other group, Slavic Soul Party, he plays Balkan music, but he and his sidemen have other influences as well. Trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Chris Speed are far better known in jazz than in world music circles, and Bulgarian cornetist Rossen Zahariev also plays jazz, which he studied at the Berklee College of Music.

Moran, who hails from northeast Connecticut, learned many different styles of music by the time he was in high school, but devoted most of his attention to playing vibes when he attended Berklee as an undergraduate.

"I was still playing classical percussion, drums in a punk band, and starting to play jazz vibraphone," he recalls. "At Berklee, I dropped everything but jazz. I realized that jazz was going to be the most important thing I was ever going to do. I realized also that the vibraphone was such a limiting instrument that I didn't have time to do anything but get around its limitations."

At Berklee, Moran played both relatively traditional and free jazz. But while attending the school, Moran became aware of Balkan music and started listening to it with increased interest.

"In the early '90s, there were some tapes of Bulgarian bands, like the group of Ivo Papasov, and of choirs circulating around, that I got into because I was drawn, as a composer, to the melodic rhythms and forms," he explains. "I started hearing some Balkan music on tape, and some of my friends introduced me to people who knew a lot about it. A real turning point was when I learned of the Balkan folk dance community in America. I decided to find out about Balkan music from the inside, to make the music in a village sense. I took dance classes, which helped me understand some of the phrasing, especially in Macedonian music, and I went to a ton of folk dances to hear the bands play. Some of the people who were particularly helpful in my early development were truba player and dance teacher Michael Ginsburg, tapan player Jerry Kisslinger, and the Bulgarian Kolev family, plus clarinetist/accordionist Walt Mahovlich of Cleveland [who plays in the local group Harmonia and books concerts at the Inside gallery], whom I met through the Eastern European Folklife Summer Workshops."

After getting a degree at Berklee, Moran picked up a master's at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Joe Maneri, a brilliant klezmer and Greek clarinetist, as well as a great jazz improviser and modern classical composer. Moran picked up specific knowledge from Maneri, but also started thinking of some larger ideas.

"Joe's teaching and concepts, while being very rigorous, are incredibly open," he says. "Sometimes I ask myself, 'What am I doing playing folk music?' And I answer, 'Don't even question it.' Because Joe brought out a lot of me that was latent and not allowed to blossom under institutionalized jazz teaching programs. I saw there was room for me, that I could be a jazz musician and still work with other sounds that are part of me."

Moran has lived in New York for several years now, where he works "with a group of young, Brooklyn-based musicians who are on a path to expand the boundaries of jazz." Rather than do commercial work ("every lousy vibist gig," as he puts it) to support himself, he works a day job in the Internet industry.

Moran began Slavic Soul Party in January of 1999 because he "had been absorbing so much of the Balkan stuff" that he "wanted to have an outlet for expressing it, but with people of [similar] musical sensibility, jazz musicians [from] New York."

Slavic Soul Party has played a fair amount in the New York area and has done some touring. Prior to playing Cleveland on this trip, it will perform in Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and Chicago. Following this tour, it will appear at the Skopje Jazz Festival in Macedonia, where it will have a 10-day residency, sponsored by the Trust for Mutual Understanding, and work with Macedonian and Rom (Gypsy) musicians. Skopje, Macedonia's capital, is home to the Balkans' first jazz radio station.

With Slavic Soul Party, Moran will play mainly tapan, a double-headed bass drum. His stellar band will include Speed, who figures among today's finest young jazz reedmen, and who also has had extensive experience playing Balkan-influenced music, in his own group and the band Pachora. The other members have credentials that are just as impressive. Curtis Hasselbring, a superb all-around trombonist, has recorded with the Jazz Passengers, Bobby Previte, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Tom Harrell, Gunther Schuller, and Benny Carter; and accordionist Ted Reichman, who began as a pianist, has played with a diverse group of musicians including avant-garde jazzman Anthony Braxton as well as the brilliant klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer, Elliott Sharpe, and Eugene Chadbourne. Rossen Zahariev, born in 1971 in Bulgaria, was originally a classical trumpeter.

Slavic Soul Party's repertoire contains pieces from all over the Balkans. "Dafino Vino" is a Macedonian piece, "Tis Tzamalas" and the ballad "Pavlos Melas" are from Greece, and "Memede" is an Albanian tune. "Sviraj Srecko" was written by one of Macedonia's most celebrated composers, Stevo Teodosievski. Slavic Soul Party also plays Moran's original pieces, including "Agir Roman," a Rom-style selection, and "Lesno," a Macedonian-style dance tune. Also on the group's limited edition tour CD is a Moran arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Blue Pepper."

Following two sets by Slavic Soul Party, Moran, Mahovlich (on clarinet), and Macedonian accordionist Sasho Dukovski will host a dance party.

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