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Moran Takes Up Jazz 'Residence'

Jazz pianist Jason Moran's new album, Artist in Residence, is the result of music he created after he accepted commissions from three American art institutions. Moran has been described in Downbeat magazine as one of the most important figures of his generation. This interview originally aired on June 27, 2005.

39:17

Other segments from the episode on September 29, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 29, 2006: Interview with Jason Moran; Review of the television show "Dexter;"Review of the film "The science of sleep."

Transcript

DATE September 29, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Jason Moran discusses his new CD, "Same Mother," his
childhood and career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Today we feature an interview with jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran. Our
jazz critic Kevin Whitehead described him as, `One of those rare up-and-comers
who makes you optimistic for the future of jazz.' Moran turned 31 this year.
He first became known as a sideman with the saxophonist Greg Osby, and has
been leading his own band for about six years. His music is filled with what
jazz critic Ben Ratliff of The New York Times described as, quote, "the
curious juxtaposition of idioms, jostling jazz against opera, stride piano,
film music, pop, the music of human speech patterns," unquote. He's also
performed his own adaptations of hip-hop. Jason Moran was recently
commissioned by three American arts institutions to compose new work. His
latest album, "Artist in Residence," is a record of that result. Here's the
track "Break Down," featuring the voice of conceptual artist Adrian Piper. It
was first performed at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, which
commissioned it.

(Soundbite of "Break Down")

Ms. ADRIAN PIPER:
Break down the barriers,
break down the misunderstandings,
break down the art world,
break down the artist,
break down the general public,

break down the society,
break down procedures,
break down presuppositions,
break down contentions,
break down ideas,

break down the barriers,
break down misunderstanding,
break down the art world,
break down the artist,
break down the general public,

break down, break down,
break down, break down,
break down, break down,
break down, break down,
break down, break down,

break down the barriers,
break down misunderstanding,
break down the art world,
break down the artist,
break down the general public,

break down society,
break down procedures,
break down presuppositions,
break down contention,
break down ideas,

break down the barriers,
break down misunderstanding,
break down the art world,
break down the artist,
break down the general public,

break down, break down,
break down, break down...

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: That's Jason Moran from his new
CD, "Artist in Residence."

When he spoke with Terry last year, he told her about his second cousins who
played with the blues guitarist and singer Albert King.

Mr. JASON MORAN: They would come to Houston every once in a while; they
lived in
Chicago, so that's why they were playing with Albert. And when they were on
tour, they would come maybe once a year during my teens--or maybe that's when
I started to notice--maybe when I was like 12 or 11. And when they came to
town, they'd be playing at a club that I couldn't go hear the music, which was
unfortunate. But they would always come by the house. And so my--his name is
Tony Lorenz. He was the pianist and organist in the group. And the drummer
was
Mike Lorenz. And Tony would come by, and when he would sit at the piano--I
was playing Suzuki piano, and, you know, everybody...

TERRY GROSS, host:

Yeah, Suzuki...

Mr. MORAN: ...knows what that sounds like.

GROSS: ...is a very disciplined teaching method for children.

Mr. MORAN: Right, right, and hopefully some adults.

But I was learning that and didn't really feel too attached to it.
And then when Tony would sit at the piano and play, like, these blues pieces,
I just thought, `Wow. He actually is having fun while he's playing the
piano.' And he would teach me Weather Report songs and, you know, things
like that. And I never really forgot that kind of enthusiasm he had for the
instrument that I definitely did not have as, you know, as a young teenager.
And so that was--you know, after a while it was like what I learned from just
watching him those times when he would come to Houston and sit at the piano
and play and show me what he, you know, had learned or--what Albert King
called "the tickle," where you'd moved your hands real fast over the keys, you
know, in one position--after a while I just left classical piano and started
working on jazz and blues stuff.

GROSS: Whose idea was classical piano in the first place?

Mr. MORAN: It was my mother.
My mother was instrumental in putting my brothers and
I into music classes. She put my older brother into violin, and then my
younger brother and I started playing violin. And then for one summer, maybe
when we were six or seven, my older brother was going to be in a violin camp,
and my mother needed something for us to do, my younger brother and I. And so
she just stuck us in piano class. We hadn't played piano before, but she was
like, `Well, this should work, and this will keep them busy during the
summer.' And, lo and behold, it became an occupation for me. But it was my
mom.

GROSS: Do you like classical music any more now than you did when you were
12?

Mr. MORAN: Oh, you know, of course. I couldn't even get on the radio and say
no.

But...

GROSS: You'd be driven out of town, out of the industry.

Mr. MORAN: Right, exact...

GROSS: Off of public radio. Banished.

Mr. MORAN: But, no, it's--when I got to Manhattan School of Music up here in
New York, every musician was required to take Western classical music or
Western music history at the Manhattan School of Music. That's where I
create--you know, I found a new passion in listening to the music and
just--you know, it's a great world to study.

GROSS: Now you have a series of pieces that have "Gangsterism" in the title
on your new CD. You have a piece called "Gangsterism on the Rise." What is
the gangsterism series?

Mr. MORAN: Well, the gangsterism theory was born out of--it's part of the
hip-hop movement. I grew up in the '80s, so that was the time when everybody
was really sampling a lot of music. It's something that I still think is
pretty gangster that you just take somebody else's track and then, you know,
you put a beat on it and then you rap on it, then it's your track. You know,
you're just really kind of stealing in a lot of ways, which is mutual.

And so, in the same way, one time when I was visiting Houston, back home, I
was trying to remember an Andrew Hill piece entitled "Erato." Andrew Hill is
one of my mentors and great pianist of the world. And I couldn't remember the
entire thing, but I could remember certain phrases of it. And so eventually I
just formed my own composition based off of his composition, and then I
entitled it "Gangsterism on Canvas." And the title comes also from a
Jean-Michel Basquiat painting entitled "Hollywood Africans." And he has a lot
of words, you know, throughout this painting, but at the bottom there's this
word scribed, "gangsterism." And I used to have this poster on my wall, while
I was writing this piece--or working on this piece, and then I decided to work
on an entire series of pieces centered around gangsterism. And each
gangsterism is put into new clothes, and so I just take the theme--or a small
portion of the theme and rework it every time.

GROSS: So how have you reworked it for "Gangsterism on the Rise"?

Mr. MORAN: Well, "Gangsterism on the Rise" is--still maintains a portion of
the melody from "Gangsterism on Canvas," the original piece, and--but it's
mixed in with the sound and feeling of some of the field hollers from, like,
those Parchment Farms recordings that--oh, what's my man's name that worked
for you all?

GROSS: Oh, oh, yeah. Alan Lomax.

Mr. MORAN: Lomax, yes. So it has that feel and that vibe of people working
in the fields and the kind of chugalug of hammers falling, the rhythm that
feels like in some of the, you know, kind of--what later became
gospel-inflected melodies.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Gangsterism on the Rise"? This is pianist
and composer Jason Moran from his latest CD, "Same Mother."

(Soundbite of "Gangsterism on the Rise")

GROSS: That's "Gangsterism on the Rise"--Jason Moran, pianist and
composer--from his latest CD, "Same Mother."

Well, we've established that you draw on a lot of different kinds of musics.
You know, you've played classical music, jazz, of course. You're interested
in hip-hop. And my understanding is you grew up with a record collection in
your house that was, really, quite eclectic--your father's enormous record
collection. Can you describe what that record collection was or is like?

Mr. MORAN: Well, it--you know, there would be a Henry Threadgill record from
his old group entitled "Air" with Fred Hockinson--I forget who was playing
drums--right next to James Brown, right next to Andre Watts playing Beethoven,
right next to Cream, right next to Muhal Richard Abrams, right next to
Thelonious Monk, next to Jim Hall, next to Miles Davis, next to Weather
Report, next to The Beatles. He--my father had a pretty wide view of what he
thought good music was, and it's very in tune with what I think is good music
now. And he's still avid, `Hey, Jason, did you hear this new blah, blah,
blah?
Did you hear the new blah, blah, blah.' You know? `Oh, I got this whole
record collection from this old guy around the corner, blah, blah, blah.'
You
know? And it's hilarious because he's--you know, I never thought of him as
like an avid record collector, but now that you say that, I really think he's
really into it.

And when he listens to a piece of music, my goodness, he wears it out, you
know, like, maybe a hundred times a day. Like, he'll just put it on repeat
and just really, like, get into something. And a lot of that--growing up with
that type of enthusiasm surrounding music really had a great effect on me.
And having that record collection right there was, you know, monumental.

GROSS: Did he sit you down and play things that he wanted you to hear?

Mr. MORAN: Not really. It was just he had it there. And actually he had a
kind of a media room where he had all his records, and he had a sign on the
door. It says--you know, he had three sons who were pretty bad. It said,
`Keep your--beep--out.'

And so you really weren't supposed to go in there. And as we got
older, I think the sign came down, and he didn't mind us going in there and
checking out his records. But it was--but he would play the music, but it was
more every time we got into the car, they would always have it on the jazz
radio station in Houston, KTSU. And that was kind of how we, you know, really
kind of got our feet wet with listening to jazz as a form of music.

GROSS: Now you said it was your mother who got you to take piano lessons.
Was your father excited that you were studying music, since he was so into it
himself?

Mr. MORAN: You know, as a child, I wouldn't say I was studying. I'd say I
was doing. And as an adult or, you know, as a teenager, I think he got
excited when I started playing jazz...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORAN: ...and, you know, started playing a
Stanley
Turrentine piece or a Thelonious Monk piece or a Horace Silver piece. I mean,
you can't imagine the joy that our father feels when you play a Horace Silver
song for my father. You know, `Oh, that's great, and he's playing that for
me,' you know.

So it's--he's definitely extremely enthused now, and he's, you
know,
he's started to come see me play at different venues around the country, and
so it's a lot of fun. And, you know, he gets to meet some of his favorite
musicians, so I feel like, you know, all of his record collecting paid off.

BIANCULLI:
Terry Gross speaking with
pianist and composer Jason Moran. His latest CD is called
"Artist in Residence." We'll have more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI:
Let's get back to Terry's interview with pianist and composer
Jason Moran recorded last year. His latest CD is called "Artist in
Residence."

GROSS:
Now I've read--so correct me if I'm wrong here--that your father did very well
as an investment banker. So would you describe, like, the home and the
neighborhood you grew up in?

Mr. MORAN: Well, it was a black neighborhood called Third Ward. Third Ward
is also where the black university is in Houston, University of--I mean,
Texas
Southern University. And the neighborhood was really great. It was, you
know, kind of a maybe--I wouldn't say--maybe a lower-middle-class, black
neighborhood. And when we were growing up, there were a lot of kids in the
neighborhood that we played with, and so the feeling was really a lot of fun.
And they were--you know, everybody was into different things.

So I had one friend who lived around the corner who was really instrumental in
kind of introducing us to how hip-hop is made, meaning he became, you know, a
person who makes beats, a producer. And he was really into it way at an
early age. So while we'd be riding bicy--actually riding skateboards at that
time in his back yard on his, you know, on his quarter pipe--but then he
would take
us upstairs. And he had, like, you know, maybe the first generation Casio
keyboard, which is maybe like two octaves that had a sampler in it, which
would allow you to sample for, like, two seconds or three seconds. And, man,
we had so much fun with just that, you know, tiny instrument, though we tried
to make beats off of everything, and everybody was trying to rap. And it was
pretty funny. But it...

GROSS: Did you try to rap?

Mr. MORAN: Oh, of course. I mean, who wasn't trying to rap? This was in the
'80s, and you listened to hip-hop, I mean, you know, it became a pastime.
Like, while the teacher was blabbing about something that--you would say, `Oh,
let me just try to, you know, write a quick verse.' That's hilarious. But...

GROSS: Did you have a rap name?

Mr. MORAN: Oh, heaven--well, you know what? After a while, when I gave up
the rapping, I called myself "88 Keys."

Terribly corny, but, you know--but...

GROSS: Was that K-E-E-Z or K-E-Y-S?

Mr. MORAN: Oh, wow. I wasn't even thinking that deep.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. MORAN: Yeah, that was K-E-Y-S. My goodness. Yeah. Well, you're
bringing up things that I never thought I'd talk about. But that's great.

GROSS: So do you remember any of your rhymes?

Mr. MORAN: No. And if I did, I definitely wouldn't share them.

GROSS: I understand.

Now I read--so tell me if this is wrong--I read that you grew up in a
compound with a tennis court in back. What...

Mr. MORAN: Right, that's kind of correct. We lived in a neighborhood with,
you know, fairly modest-sized houses, meaning, you know, one-story, maybe
two-bedroom, three-bedroom. And we enjoyed the neighborhood so much that my
father saw a house across the street where we were actually living and decided
to renovate it and totally redo it in this really kind of modern
architecture.
And so then it looked almost liked, this, you know, this mansion that took up
maybe
three or four--or maybe six or seven plots that a normal house would take
up
in this neighborhood. And my parents put a gate in front of it. And we also
had a tennis court in the back yard and a basketball court and a nice pool.

My parents really gave us everything that we could have asked for but nothing
more, if that makes any sense. I mean, they didn't spoil us, but they did
give us everything that could supply us for actually a healthy future. They
didn't deprive us of anything.

GROSS: It must have been kind of odd to be living in what you describe as a
lower-middle-class neighborhood but to have an almost mansionlike place with a
tennis court in back within that neighborhood.

Mr. MORAN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did it make you, like,
different from everybody else? Did it make your house almost like the
amusement park in the neighborhood?

Mr. MORAN: Well, yeah, that's kind of true. We did have a lot of friends
over when my parents were out of town. I guess that categorizes--I'm sure
they knew that anyway.

But, you know, I mean, we would--if we broke anything, it was
while they were actually at home. Like, oh, man, we would play tennis in the
house and, like, break, like, expensive champagne flutes, and, oh, we were
ridiculous. But I think a lot of the kids, because they were--it wasn't an
open-door policy, but we had a lot of friends all over the neighborhood. And
so there wasn't, I don't think a--I'm speaking from the inside, of course--I
don't think there was a--I mean, we had a strong representation in the
neighborhood. They were on--my parents were on the Civic Council. So it was
not like we were just in the neighborhood just kind of sectioned off from
everybody. Everybody knew each other in the neighborhood, and it was--that
made it quite comfortable.

GROSS: I think it's interesting that your parents decided to, you know, build
their place within the neighborhood as opposed to moving out to a different
neighborhood.

Mr. MORAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And, I mean, of course, that seems like an easy
way to go. I mean, you know, lots of people move to the suburbs and build
their nice house on a golf course, but there's something about being at home
with your folks; when I say "your folks" being around, other
African-Americans, that feeling of coming home. I mean, when we travel
through the world with the bandwagon, we were on the road and you're in
Zagreb,
you're in, you know, Prague, then you're in, you know, Brussels, and then you
go up to Copenhagen. And when I come home, you know, and drive across 125th
Street, my goodness, you know--the joy I feel, you know, of being back home
with your people. And I think that's a lot of what my parents were--you know,
this--enough people abandon each other, and I don't think we have to be a part
of that crowd that abandons one another.

BIANCULLI: Jason Moran. His latest CD is called "Artist in Residence." In
the next half of the show he'll tell us about studying with pianist Jackie
Bayard. Here Moran is playing Jackie Bayard's composition "Out Front," which
Bayard dedicated to the pianist and composer Herbie Nichols.

I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Out Front")

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, filling in for Terry
Gross.

We're back with pianist and composer Jason Moran. Last year he won
the Pianist of the Year Award from the Jazz Journalists Association. Moran is
31 and has been leading his own band for six years. His music draws from
stride piano, the avant-garde, film music, and hip-hop. His latest CD is
called "Artist in Residence."

GROSS: Let's hear some more of your music. On your previous CD,
"Modernistic," you did a version of James P. Johnson's "You've Got to Be
Modernistic." And this was, I think, composed in the 1920s...

Mr. MORAN: Right.

GROSS: ...by the great, you know, Harlem stride piano player James P.
Johnson. Why did you want to reinterpret his composition which, I must say
as a listener, sounds like his composition would be really hard to play,
very tricky rhythms and fingering?

Mr. MORAN: Well, James P. Johnson represents a lot for me, and the title also
represented, you know, what I thought I should be constantly striving for as a
musician, that you've got to maintain kind of your ear to the floor of what's
happening right now. And so James P. Johnson also represents, you know, this
titan of stride piano that was happening in Harlem in the 1920s and '30s and
this kind of impeccable technique that is impossible to copy. And so
therefore, you know, you can't actually touch it because it's so sacred that
nobody else can really imitate it.

And so on a solo piano record, I thought the way to kind of set the tone of
where the record would go would be with a great title like "You've Got to Be
Modernistic" and then with a great piece by a great pianist, but then not
trying to totally re-create the many elements that James P. Johnson had going
within his piece. And there's a whole section that I didn't even play that
comes after what you hear. But it was, you know, it was to challenge myself.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear Jason Moran's interpretation of James P.
Johnson's "You've Got to Be Modernistic" from Jason Moran's CD "Modernistic."

(Soundbite of "You've Got to Be Modernistic")

GROSS: That's pianist and composer Jason Moran's interpretation of James P.
Johnson's "You've Got to Be Modernistic," and it comes from Jason Moran's CD
"Modernistic." He has a newer CD that recently came out called "Same Mother."

When you went to New York to study jazz, you studied with the great pianist
and composer Jackie Bayard. And one of the things I've always loved about
Jackie Bayard's playing is the way he managed to combine harmonies and rhythms
of the avant-garde with just, like, the fun of stride piano...

Mr. MORAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and all the things that were really fun about early jazz. So you
had this complete package of, you know, avant-garde, contemporary and, you
know, earlier eras. What was his approach to teaching? I imagine it was real
different from the Suzuki Method that you had grown up with.

Mr. MORAN: Well, we sat--we had two pianos in the room, so first of all, it
was basically for--I mean, dual piano most of the time while we were in there.
And I remember my first lesson, going in, and we played a piece together and
he quickly stopped me and told me that I was playing entirely too loud. And
so he would have this way of telling me things, you know, in a very blunt way,
which was--you know, is what a student needs, actually, or what I needed. And
I knew that I shouldn't cross him twice or I shouldn't make the
mistake again. So that was the first way.

The other way was that he wrote out everything that he played, and so all
these stride piano pieces that seem--when you're listening to them just on a
record seem so extremely complicated, which they are. He would take the time
to write them out by hand. And so every week he would give you a new piece
almost. And so I have, you know, a book of his music, maybe, you know, 150 or
200 pieces, you know, of what he wrote out by hand. And so therefore you
could see the science behind the stride.

But, you know, that was only the science; you could only see what was on the
page and you could only play that. After a certain point, you have to then
put the feeling into the music. And so Jackie was about, you know, showing
you how to relax your hands, how to make your hands reach the tenth on the
left hand--that's a little over an octave--and then by showing you techniques
on
the piano that would allow you to be more fluid while you played rather than
wasting energy. And so, he, you know, he was like the Zen master of piano.

GROSS:
One of the things I always loved about Jackie Bayard is that his interests
were so diverse. You know, he liked, like, Henry Cowell...

Mr. MORAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and Burt Bacharach
and Frankie Carle.

Mr. MORAN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You just never knew--his tastes ranged from, like, kitsch
to classical avant-garde and all jazz. And it strikes me, I mean, like, one
of
the things you have in common with Jackie Bayard is you have really diverse
musical interests and you're able to draw on all of them in your own music.
Let's hear some more of your music, and as we've talked about, like, you know,
you came of age in the '80s, you grew up in the '80s and you loved hip-hop.
And, you know, you can hear that in some of the music that you've composed or
recomposed.

Mr. MORAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS:
And so I want to play your reworking of Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock,"
which was, you know, a classic of very early hip-hop.

Mr. MORAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And before we hear it,
I want you to talk about what you're doing on this, because one of the things
you've done on this is take a technique that comes from the classical
avant-garde...

Mr. MORAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and applied it to your piano. Would you describe how you're
using prepared piano technique on this track?

Mr. MORAN: Well, yeah, this is, you know, this is John Cage meets, you know,
the Bronx. And so I listened to a lot of Cage's music and made sure I
understood how he was preparing some of his piano work. And so when I
started working on "Planet Rock," it's impossible to play this song or, I
think, you know, many of the hip-hop standards in the world, without having
something that mimics the bass or the drums, because that is such a, you
know, extremely important element to hip-hop music. And so I decided to have
the bass region of the piano prepared in a way that made it sound like the
drums. So this is John Cage playing, you know, the bass line and the drum
track on Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock." But--and then I also...

GROSS: You know, well, let's just explain a little bit more what John Cage
did for prepared piano is, like, put things into the piano on top of the
strings so that, instead of the strings vibrating in a pianolike sound, they
would be altered in some way.

Mr. MORAN: Right.

GROSS: And what you did is you put objects on the lower notes of the piano so
that it would sound more like percussion than piano. What did you stick in
there?

Mr. MORAN: There are erasers.

GROSS: Like blackboard erasers?

Mr. MORAN: There are butterfly clips. Yeah--no, no, no, like pencil erasers.
Pencil erasers, butterfly
clips. There's clothespins, and then there's paper. And that's something
that's--that's about everything that's in the piano. But I also did overdubs,
so I, you know, recorded just the drums and the bass, and then I recorded the
melody.

The other part of the song is that I took--you know, in most hip-hop
re-creations, that people just play the actual music and they never play the
lyrics. And so I transcribed the lyrics of the first two verses of this
piece and I played it, you know, exactly what, you know, I pitched--related
every
pitch with every word that the Soulsonic Force said on this track, so that you
also, get, like you get to hear the first two verses of the track, and then
it moves
into the following section. And so what seems like to be a random
melody
is actually, you know, `It's time to break your dreams up out your seat, make
your body shake'; you know, it's just a guy rapping. And so I overdubbed it,
and I was really scared when I recorded it. I was like, `Is this gonna work?
'Cause it works in my brain, but is it going to really work in the studio?'
And it came out--you know, I was more than pleased with it.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. So this is Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" as
reinterpreted by pianist and composer Jason Moran from his--from two CDs ago.
This is from the CD "Modernistic."

(Soundbite of "Planet Rock")

GROSS: That's Jason Moran reworking Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," and
that's featured on Jason Moran's CD "Modernistic." He has a newer CD that
recently came out called "Same Mother."

So do you do this kind of thing a lot of reworking, like, hip-hop pieces or
doing prepared piano a lot?

Mr. MORAN: I do, and most of the time it's in the privacy of me listening to
the radio and then just sitting at the piano and playing along to the
radio. And
so like just yesterday I was playing along to this song which I think is just
one of the greatest songs, one of the greatest summer hits of 2005, Amerie,
and she has a song called "1 Thing." My goodness, it's great. But, yes, it's
a constant hobby of mine to play along to old hip-hop tracks or new hip-hop
tracks.

I think the first solo I actually learned was from this group Digital
Underground from California, and they had a song called "Doowutchyalike,"
and in the middle of the song they had a piano solo and, you know, it quoted,
like, all the hip-hop hits from, you know, back in the mid-'80s. And so I was
like, `Wow, this is a great thing for me to learn, you know.' And so that's
where I started, you know.

GROSS: Is it one of your ambitions to someday have one of your records
sampled by a hip-hop group you really like?

Mr. MORAN: Yeah, I'm looking forward to the check that is associated with
that, too.

We'll see.

BIANCULLI:
Jason Moran speaking with Terry Gross last year.
His latest CD is called "Artist in
Residence."

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI:
Coming up, "Dexter," the serial killer who targets his own kind.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

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Review: TV critic David Bianculli recommends "Dexter" on Showtime
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

At this point in the show, I'd like once again to shift from host duties to my
regular job as TV critic.

The past few weeks I've been pointing out the best new shows presented by the
broadcast networks on their new fall schedules. But today I'd like to focus
attention to cable because there's a new series starting this Sunday on
Showtime that's about as daring, different, and twisted as TV gets.

It's called "Dexter." It's based on the creepy novels by Jeff Lindsay and
stars Michael C. Hall as Miami forensics expert Dexter Morgan. Dexter's
specialty is deciphering blood spatter patterns, but he has a secret as well
as a gift. When he's on the clock, he interprets crime scenes and helps to
pursue criminals, but in his spare time he pursues the most reprehensible
criminals much more aggressively. He identifies them, stalks them, abducts
them, and eventually, after extracting both a confession and some pain,
murders them. In other words, Dexter investigates serial killers by day and
is one by night.

Uncomfortable premise? You bet. But Lindsay's bloody protagonist is a
perfect fit for what's happening in cable lately. On "The Sopranos," Tony
strangled a stoolie in an early episode but we still didn't reject him. On
"The Shield," Vic Mackey shot a fellow cop, and that was in the opening
episode. Several seasons later, after all sorts of moral lapses, he's still
got us on his side. So Dexter, as a killer character, isn't really that
cutting edge, even though in his case, his cutting edge is on the end of a
scalpel or a saw.

What makes "Dexter" great instead of merely grisly? It's got a darkly comic
tone, which makes the subject easier to take, sort of like the Coen brothers'
movie "Fargo," which made you laugh even as a body was being run through a
wood chipper. And while the series has strong support from Julie Benz and
other actors, the reason "Dexter" works so well has almost everything to do
with the amazing star turn by Hall in the title role. If you knew and loved
him as David Fisher, the uptight gay funeral service director in HBO's "Six
Feet Under," you may be astounded at his metamorphosis here. Once again, he's
around a lot of dead bodies, but the two portrayals couldn't be more
different. For the role of functioning sociopath Dexter Morgan, Michael C.
Hall sports long hair and stubble, and carries himself with an attitude that

wavers between chatty good guy and hard-to-read silent type. But it's all an
act, requiring Hall to play layer upon layer.

For reasons that are explained in flashbacks, Dexter was traumatized as a
child. He was raised by his foster father, a veteran cop with a vigilante
streak, to channel his deadly impulses rather than suppress them. So while
learning to hunt and kill really bad guys, Dexter trains for a job that puts
him where the action is and joins the police force himself. He tries to blend
in with people at work, even though every emotion he projects is calculated
and false. What is he really thinking? That's what's fascinating and unique
about this series. We get inside Dexter's head the same way we do in Jeff
Lindsay's original books, thanks to some often unsettling first-person
narration.

(Soundbite from "Dexter")

Mr. MICHAEL C. HALL: (As Dexter Morgan) Friday night, date night in Miami.
Every night is date night in Miami and everyone's having sex. But for me sex
never enters into it. I don't understand sex. Not that I have anything
against women and I certainly have an appropriate sensibility about men, but
when it comes to the actual act of sex, it's always just seemed so
undignified. But I have to play the game. And after years of trying to look
normal, I think I've met the right woman for me. Deb saved her life on a
domestic dispute call, introduced us and we've been dating for six months now.
She's perfect because Rita is, in her own way, as damaged as me.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Viewers who are drawn to such forensic series as "CSI" and its
various spin-offs, and the audiences for those shows are among the biggest on
television, really ought to give "Dexter" a chance. But even if you don't
like those programs, "Dexter" is so unusual and Hall's performance so dynamic
it deserves to be seen. One of the biggest surprises of the fall TV season,
it turns out, is getting inside Dexter Morgan's head. I wouldn't want to live
there, but it's an intriguing place to visit.

Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "The Science of Sleep." This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

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Review: New York Magazine's David Edelstein on Michel Gondry's
"The Science of Sleep"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

After 43-year-old French director Michel Gondry left art school, he became a
drummer in a rock band called Oui Oui and began directing music videos for the
group. Bjork saw one of them and new career was launched. Gondry has
directed two feature films written by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. His new
film, which he wrote and directed himself, is called "The Science of Sleep."
Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: In the '80s, when hotshot young music video directors
landed plum jobs in Hollywood movies, the results were predictably terrible.
A lot of chop-chop editing, shoehorned in pop tunes, and surrealism that
wouldn't pass muster in an art school correspondence course. But the door had
been opened for something more. For unfettered montage, fractured yet fluid,
with imagery that had only seemed possible in the avant-garde. That's where
Michel Gondry comes in. The director of stunning videos by Bjork and the
White Stripes among others, Gondry brought an emotional intensity to his work
that was almost preverbal.

Like many critics, I reviewed the great sci-fi screwball romance "Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," which Gondry directed, as if it were a film by
its screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman. But the idea for "Eternal Sunshine" came
from Gondry. And now with "The Science of Sleep," an ambitious dream romance
he wrote himself, we can fully take the measure of this extraordinary film
maker. The movie tells the autobiographical story of a young artist,
Stephane, who hovers on the border between his conscious and unconscious
lives. He's played by the Mexican dreamboat, Gael Garcia Bernal. The movie's
set in Paris and the explanation for his bad French is that he's been living
with his father in Mexico. Stephane has his own TV show, at least in his
dreams, where he's a Beatle-banged host who presides over a set that's partly
composed of splattery spin art, where people from his waking life pop up in
windows that double as TV screens, and where he makes soup to illustrate his
interpretation of dreams.

(Soundbite of "The Science of Sleep")

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. GAEL GARCIA BERNAL: (As Stephane) Welcome back to another episode of
"Television Educative." Tonight I'll show you how dreams are prepared. People
think it's a very simple and easy process but it's a bit more complicated than
that. As you can see, a very delicate combination of complex ingredients is
the key. First, we put in some random thoughts, and then we add a little bit
of reminiscences of the day, mixed with some memories of the past. This is
for two people. Love, friendships, relationships and all those ships together
with songs you heard during the day, things you saw, and also personal--OK.

(Whispering) I think it's worked. There it goes. Yes. OK. We have to run.

(Soundbite of boiling mixture)

I'm talking quietly to not wake myself up.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: In his dreams, Stephane leaps out of windows. He doesn't
fly, he swims enchanted over vast paper cityscapes. And sometimes he passes
into the real world, where he blurts things out that most of us keep to
ourselves. For Stephane, the external world is too disheartening, the
internal world too lonely. Like many an alienated artists, he tries to merge
the two. He might even have found, in a flat across the hall, a soulmate,
Stephanie, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. He can't quite make up his
conscious mind about Stephanie, but something about her gets him where he
lives, wherever that is. In the most magical sections of "The Science of
Sleep," Stephane fumbles to build a bridge from his world to Stephanie's. He
assembles a childishly primitive time machine that can transport you one
second back or ahead. Going back, he underlines his hesitation to make the
first move. Leaping ahead, he's in a liplock with her.

Soon it becomes difficult to know whether Stephane's asleep, awake, or in some
kind of fugue state. To enjoy the movie you have to throw away your inner
clock and compass and embrace narcolepsy as the new existentialism. That
dream state has its perils though. At heart, this is a tale of isolation,
many scenes circling the drain that is the hero's solipsism. I don't love
where the movie goes, not towards communion, but helpless estrangement, the
hero revealed as just another jealous, self-pitying jerk.

In the great, madcap love stories, among them "Eternal Sunshine," the magic
carpet flies over the abyss. You get a good view but you don't get stuck
there. I suspect Gondry, out of misplaced fidelity to the details of his lost
relationship with the real woman who inspired Stephanie, loses faith in his
magic carpet, which is to say in his own artistry. He shouldn't have. If
"The Science of Sleep" proves anything, it's that solipsism plus art can equal
connection, at least between a movie couple. Even with his downbeat ending,
this music video guy restores your faith in film making.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

(Credits)

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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