Photo by Monica Garcia, courtesy of the artist.
There are high school buddies…and then there’s Robert Glasper, Kendrick Scott, and Jamire Williams. When guitarist Mike Moreno attended High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, the school was flush with talent, and these musicians hung out, listened to records, rehearsed and gigged together, and pushed each other creatively to new heights. “It was just a really influential time,” says Moreno.
Those high school bonds remain strong, as Moreno still tours with Kendrick Scott’s Oracle band. But Moreno’s also built up his own distinct crew and sound, namely with pianists Aaron Parks and Jon Cowherd. After playing at The Gallery with Cowherd just a couple months ago, he’ll be returning this Friday, May 15, with a quartet that includes Parks, Doug Weiss, and Adam Cruz. In anticipation of the gig, we caught up with Moreno by phone to discuss his high school days, molding his sound, and his future projects.
The Jazz Gallery: How does your role change from being in a sideman, with Kendrick Scott or Will Vinson, to performing your own work?
Mike Moreno: In Kendrick’s band, my role is more of a color. My band, that’s like being on vacation. I’m not struggling to remember any changes, and it’s much more of a free feeling. Also, the way I function in my band, the tunes are written in a way that the guitar and piano should sound like one instrument.
Really, the reason why I have piano is not because I’m not comfortable playing without piano—it’s because the music, the sound of it, is the sound of guitar and piano playing melodies together and comping together. In the last few years, I don’t hear any other way of bringing my tunes across except for piano and guitar. That’s the way me and Parks or Cowherd play together. There are only a few guys I can do that with, where the piano and guitar sounds like one instrument.
TJG: How did you develop that chemistry with Aaron Parks?
MM: It’s not very difficult. It’s the way that he plays and I play just work together. The way we played together has always been really natural. We talk about some things here and there, but for the most part they just happen naturally. It’s not like we sat there rehearsing tunes a lot. They sound the way they sounded the first time we ever played them together.
Jon Cowherd is another one. When I put a chart in front of him, the very first time he plays it, it’s almost like he wrote it. I feel a really strong kinship with those guys.
TJG: What did you listen to growing up?
MM: Straight up metal, like Metallica and Iron Maiden. That’s what I was into when I was a kid, when I got my first guitar. I was learning everything by ear without music theory or taking lessons. That was a really good start: I kind of learned to play the guitar playing with records, and I always attribute my rhythmic strengths to that.
A drummer I was playing with started going to college and studied jazz. He got me into Tony Williams and Miles Davis, I started looking into jazz and crossover stuff like Steely Dan and Larry Carlton. There was kind of a segue from rock slowly morphing into jazz, where I felt like I had a better chance of saying something original.
TJG: Tell me about your time in high school.
MM: That’s where everything just took off. There were people there that were very focused and knew what they wanted to do—Robert Glasper, Kendrick Scott, Mark Kelly, Jamire Williams. These guys, we joined together and just influenced each other. I was bringing in tons of music for us to play in school.
It was a time when people were still buying records—you would go out, buy records, bring them to school, sit in the practice room and listen to records together. The Young Lions movement was at its height at that period: Brad Mehldau, Josh Redman, Roy Hargrove, Nic Payton, were all at their height. That was super inspirational for us.