Pianist Jason Moran walked onstage Saturday at the SFJazz Center, and then kept walking -- into the center of the half-pipe installed between his band and the sell-out crowd. "How many of you are skaters?" he shouted.
Hands shot into the air, and the audience gave its answer: "Whooaaaah!"
Moran -- a 38-year-old ex-skateboarder, originally from Houston-- laughed: "Meet each other!" he said. Then he sat down at his acoustic piano. His group, the Bandwagon, began to play a mysterious, droning wisp of a tune, quiet as a meditation. The house lights dimmed, and nine of the best skaters in San Francisco emerged: one by one, with a whoosh and a rumble, with rhythm and flow, sound and motion -- an improbable extension of the band.
An out-of-the-box jazz musician -- he's also a MacArthur "genius" award winner -- Moran had predicted this meeting would be a "joint jam session," a "two-way interaction" between skaters and instrumentalists. It worked. It was fresh, and it was fun. For 90 minutes, one could feel the band feeding off the skaters' energy, and vice versa. One also could sense a shared aesthetic: You improvise a statement, taking risks, failing, falling -- and then you build that setback into your next statement, expanding the vocabulary, advancing the form.
The Bandwagon -- Moran; electric bassist Tarus Mateen; and drummer Nasheet Waits -- has a way of flowing, suite-like, through a century's worth of touchstone sounds. Saturday, the group connected the dots between "93 to Infinity" (by Hieroglyphics, the Oakland hip-hop collective), "Evidence" (by Thelonious Monk) and "The Sheikh of Araby" (by Fats Waller), dressing up the latter as a rhumba. Joining the band for Saturday's half-pipe event (the first of two at the venue) was guitarist Jeff Parker, a skateboarding maven who can be heard (with the band Tortoise) on numerous skating videos.
Ten minutes into that meditative drone, Parker introduced long, stinging lines with his guitar, each line ending on a note of Santana-ish ecstasy. As he climbed to one of those notes, a skateboarder named Dave Abair approached an upper lip of the ramp, leaped into the air, spun 180 degrees, re-landed on the board -- and wiped out. He jumped to his feet, did a little hip-shake dance -- drummer Waits cracked up -- and the crowd roared.
The concert, which was filmed by a crew from Thrasher Magazine, the skateboarding publication, kept morphing. At one point, Moran altogether stopped playing, pulled out a camera and began shooting the skaters. At another point, skater Alex Wolslagel left the ramp, sat down at the acoustic piano and started improvising waterfall riffs. Moving to his Fender Rhodes, Moran elaborated, ebbing and flowing, coaxing the group toward a new groove, something West African -- which inspired six of the skaters to take off in a line, forming a whooshing necklace up and around the ramp.
This brought more cheers -- like one of those moments at a Fourth of July fireworks display when something unusually beautiful bursts into the sky, and the crowd goes nuts.
At the concert's midpoint, Moran asked everyone to "give it up" for FTC Skateboarding -- the shop in the Haight which helped coordinate the show -- and let the skaters introduce themselves.
"The way I see it," Abair said, skating "keeps growing and growing, just like jazz music."
"It's all our art," explained Jabari Pendleton. "We all do it from within.... You can see ourselves in what we do."
At this point, Moran introduced George Rocha, who designed the ramp. "Gorgeous," Moran called it.
Rocha talked about getting on a skateboard, cruising down the street and improvising a response. That in-the-moment process, he said, mirrors the musical process of Jason Moran, who sits down at his piano each day "and reacts to his environment. That's what skateboarders do."
Jason Moran and the Bandwagon
When: 7:30 p.m., May 5
Where: SFJazz Center, 201 Franklin St., San Francisco
Tickets: $20-$40 (sold out), www.sfjazz.org