25-under-25: Ja Morant at No. 7

25-under-25, Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis has always been a city of music. Here are three songs that sum up the city’s newest young star, Ja Morant.

Great NBA players have a tell, some signature tic or stylistic element that makes them who they are. Observant viewers could see a silhouette of Kevin Durant’s jumper or of Chris Paul bringing the ball up the court and immediately recognize their distinct mannerisms. There is something ineffable about their patterns and manner that makes them so distinctly their own. This is also true of the Memphis Grizzlies young star, Ja Morant. Watching him, there is something so unique about the way he moves. Dribbling on the perimeter, waiting for the play to develop, he almost rocks his body back and forth. And then there’s the way he attacks. The gap between him ambling near the 3-point line and putting his head down and bursting towards the hoop is so minuscule as to be unrecognizable, were it not for its aftereffects.

The Grit-N-Grind Grizzlies are long gone, but Morant captures much of what made those teams so special. Talented as he is, nothing ever looks effortless to him and the passion and striving that undergird that effort are always visible. No team is ever going to beat Memphis because Morant took the night off and got outworked. His game is visceral, awe-inspiring and overpowering though rarely pretty. His dunks are so powerful, so daring that I instinctively fear for him sometimes.

If you want to understand Ja Morant, you need to listen to three songs

When thinking about Morant’s style of play, there are three elements worth focusing on. First, there’s the way he carries himself — the intensity of his play that stands alongside the cool, unbothered mannerisms that make his dribble and his gait specifically his. Second, the shift into attack, that moment when a dribble becomes a drive and a defender has to find a way to stay in front of this speeding man as he propels towards the hoop. Third, the dunk itself: emphatic, dispensing with grace in favor of power while still showcasing a beauty of its own. Here are three songs that, in their own way, capture these movements.

The Cool: Otis Redding- Hard to Handle

Memphis was the home of Stax Records, the most iconic and influential southern soul label of the genre’s golden age. And no artist epitomized the Stax sound more than Otis Redding. Those passionate, pleading vocals over the backing of Booker T. & the MG’s, with the Memphis Horns bursting in for punctuation were what Stax was all about. In addition to his studio prowess, Redding was a dynamic live performer, able to develop an intimate rapport with any audience no matter its size.

However, he was not the most mobile singer. His go-to move was to stand in place and march whenever the song intensified. Yet when you listen to “Hard to Handle,” it’s hard to imagine him, or anyone else performing it, staying in a single place for a lone moment. The song is one of the funkiest Otis ever recorded. The MG’s lay down an indelible groove with Redding’s voice almost functioning as an additional bit of percussion with the way his delivery pops. The sound of his voice matters more than the words he is delivering. It all lies right at the intersection of where disaffected hipness and emphatic insistence collide. Watching clips of him perform, the sweat pours off his body, yet he remains the coolest man in the room.

The Shift: J Dilla- Time: The Donut of the Heart

Built around a guitar lick from the Jackson 5’s “All I Do is Think of You,” the main sample of “Time: The Donut of the Heart” repeats itself over and over, but the groove is so lovely, so entrancing that it transfixes. It, like most tracks on Donuts, runs less than two minutes but I could listen to it forever. There’s a moment near the end where it slows down, as if the sample has to catch its breath, before returning to where it was before as wordless vocals and moans surround it. By the end, with the voices and the riff and the drums, it’s a meditative mix of pleasure and peace. The listener is lured into a comforting place, where tranquility and joy combine until the moment that this track ends and the next begins. There’s no fade out, no transition to the next track, just a sudden jarring shift. It’s the aural equivalent of a jumpcut as horns come in, propelled by a bass line that seems to be dancing alongside them, spurring them on. It all comes out of nowhere, catching the listener off guard. One may feel a brief desire to return, but the moment is gone. Something new has arrived.

The Power: John Coltrane- Afro Blue 

McCoy Tyner was left-handed. A matter of coincidence, it helped make him one of the most unique and influential pianists to ever live. The chords he would play with his left hand were thunderous. Usually considered secondary to the melody by most pianists, they rang out with such force that a weight was added to the song while also allowing it to rise higher than it would have otherwise. Combined with the unbelievable speed of his right hand, it sometimes sounded like multiple pianists playing together as a canopy of notes come down simultaneously, enveloping the listener. He pounds out chord after chord as he wraps up his solo on “Afro Blue” from John Coltrane’s Live at Birdland, a new storm every second. He is spurred on by drummer Elvin Jones, who matches him beat for beat, almost challenging Tyner to keep up with his torrents of rhythm. When Coltrane comes in, beauty and power collide. It’s overwhelming, impossible to ignore or forget.

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