It didn’t feel like Houston’s Third Ward, and despite being in central Harlem, it didn’t feel much like the home of the Renaissance, either. This is how Jason Moran described his first few years at the Manhattan School of Music. But in his third year, he met someone who would change the course of his studies and his life. “I see Alicia come into the building with this short hair, these long arms, and just a very different rhythm,” said Jason. More than 20 years later, the two are still together. And on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 18 and Nov. 19, they will reflect on their art and personal lives in the world premiere of “Family Ball,” a musical performance they composed together for the ICA.
Alicia Hall Moran is a celebrated mezzo-soprano who works at the intersection of opera, jazz and theater. She has performed on Broadway and other stages across the country, has won a fellowship from the Ford Foundation and created work for institutions at the center of the art world like the Venice Biennale and Carnegie Hall. Jason is a Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist who teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music and is the musical advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center. Each have released critically acclaimed albums, equally soulful and historical but at once forward-facing.
To reach such heights as a couple and a family requires sacrifice and patience, which is a central facet of “Family Ball.” The two are similarly yoked. But personality-wise, Alicia and Jason deviate. They are opposite but interconnected forces—it’s a kind of power that’s palpable when in a room with them that’s sure to be felt by those who see them perform.
Alicia is undeniably outward. Her words spill out, sometimes clumsily, but more often like little revelations. “I’m in a face business. The mouth, eyeballs, nostrils, ears, cheekbone, tongue business. That’s neck business, breastbone business, shoulders business, torso, foot, leg business,” she said to describe the experience of singing in front of people. Jason is inward, introducing himself first as “a pianist” and on a second take, after a guffaw followed by a timeline of his accomplishments from his partner across the table, as “Alicia’s husband” with a mischievous glint. There’s a playful yet productive push and pull between the two, and they recognized it in the other right away.
“Jason and I started working together immediately. We just didn’t know that’s what it was,” said Alicia. The first week they met, they sat together at the Manhattan School of Music when Jason turned to her and asked her to spell “misspell.” Alicia was taken aback, first because it was charming and second because she wasn’t sure of the answer. His question began the musical couple’s journey of pushing one another and of problem-solving.
Long before Harlem, worldwide tours and fellowships, Alicia’s mother gave her sage advice, “Don’t get with anybody unless you like their problems.” This advice is at the center of their new production. With Jason, Alicia says she couldn’t have done better. “He’s the greatest man with the best problems I’ve ever met.” The couple’s problems, those that they like and those that they are still working through, take center stage in their upcoming performance.
The show is an intimate look at how artists work, live together and interact with their community. “For me, ‘Family Ball’ is a way that Jason and Alicia are grappling both with what’s happened to all of us over the past two years, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and how that pressure is realized artistically,” said John Andress, the curator of performing arts at the ICA.
Beyond that, the performance reaffirms why the two fell in love with one another. “It’s personal in a way that you generally don’t share with an outside audience,” said Jason. The idea that the audience is secondary is likely what will set this show apart. It’s a kind of midway assessment—a living, public document of the work the two have made together and separately. “I think Family Ball is Jason and I really pushing ourselves beyond what we know the other can do,” said Alicia.
The title “Family Ball” could have multiple meanings. The titular “ball” could be a grand party. It could also be a spherical mass that moves forward: a thing that you can roll and hold. For them, it seems to be both things at once. “We kind of now use ‘Family Ball’ as a catchphrase and a bit of humor to pull us out of getting frazzled by the issues that we live with as a couple, as lovers, as parents, as people who live uptown in New York City and as citizens of the art world,” said Jason.
Although the themes within the production are evident, many elements of the performance have been kept under wraps. “I’ve seen images, and it looks gorgeous, but I will say it’s still a bit of a mystery which is both terrifying as a presenter but also extraordinarily exciting,” said Andress, who entrusted the two with full creative freedom. What the couple has revealed is that it will begin at night, in a rendering of their apartment, and that the music will start slowly.
“It’s a presentation of the living room as the interior of our lives as a couple,” said Alicia. When the curtains go up, Jason will play a Steinway Spirio piano and Alicia will sing on the transformed stage of the ICA. They will act out an evening in their lives, providing context for the music as they go, with images and video of their living room projected behind them.
Around their kitchen table on a Friday a few weeks before the debut of “Family Ball,” it became clear that the slow start was not a hastily decided detail. Jason initially opted for a fiercer entrance and evoked the late, great saxophonist Jimmy Heath, quoting, “Don’t bore us. Get to the chorus.” Seconds later, Alicia chirped in: “I say chapter and verse. The whole thing is the chorus!”
“Family Ball” is a mix of genres, including jazz, opera and spoken word. It’s a creative feat that was composed during the pandemic. But more importantly, it’s a love note.
Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran perform “Family Ball” this Friday and Saturday, Nov. 18 and Nov. 19, at the ICA. From there, the performance will tour around the country.