“Two Wings,” in this way, works as historical corrective, guided by a commitment to scrambling, reordering, and recontextualizing the history of bodies “in motion.” (The very act of bringing this cast of musicians into Carnegie Hall had an element of transgression. As Moran wrote in the concert’s program notes, “We’re ready to etch our mark in the walls.”) “Two Wings” includes Harlem Renaissance–era jazz tunes, gospel hymns, the Morans’ own compositions, and a piece by the oft-overlooked classical composer George Walker. The Morans hired Norful to deliver a sermon and sing “Dear God” (declaring melismatically, “Thank you for my life”), and they put him immediately after Lawrence Brownlee, a primo operatic tenor. Program order can connote seniority, Hall Moran noted in an interview, so putting Norful after an opera singer, in a setting where he normally might not be heard at all, felt significant.
Not that Brownlee was an easy act to follow. He sang “There’s a Man Going ’Round Taking Names,” a traditional piece best known for the version by the blues legend Leadbelly, with simple, repetitious lyrics that refer to a slaver, or an officer of the law, or perhaps the grim reaper. Brownlee’s voice stretched like leather toward his highest notes; as the song ended, he held a single word (“Death!”), and Moran pounded the keys with both hands. Spare, dissonant harmonies rang at either end of the keyboard—Moran was doing an Ellington thing, a Monk thing, something rebellious and foreboding.
“Two Wings” was conceived as part of Carnegie Hall’s Migrations festival, which was meant to highlight the importance of mass movements in shaping American history, and perhaps to tacitly rebuke the ethno-nationalism of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Moran told me that when Carnegie Hall first invited him to produce a concert for the festival, he made it clear that he wouldn’t perform without Hall Moran. “What you think I am is because of her,” he remembered telling the organizers. Besides, migration has long been a central theme of Hall Moran’s work, snaking through original songs such as “Open Door,” “Deep River,” and “Oklahoma Girl.” Her debut album’s title, Here Today, itself suggests constant transience.
But even songs of fugitivity and displacement can become a kind of home. Referring to three early-jazz pieces played in succession during “Two Wings,” each by a different soloist, Moran wrote in the program notes: “Each of these pieces reflects a place. They give us a sense of the hood and the air, the cause and the effect, effectively the call and the response.”
The Morans talked about the importance of place when I caught up with them last month at their home in Harlem. Over the past two decades, they have seen the faces in their building on Riverside Drive change as gentrification has forced many residents out. “None of the other black families are still here. Most of the Dominican families are not here,” Hall Moran told me. “It’s a white building now.” As Hartman outlines in her book, the couple’s famous neighborhood became primarily black only after white violence chased black people out of Lower Manhattan and Midtown in the early 20th century. By defining Harlem as a refuge not from the American South but from the white mob waiting just a few dozen blocks below, Hartman shows that black bodies have never been allowed to rest: Even in the earliest years of the migration, the idea that freedom might be found in the North was proving to be a fallacy.