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Alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc at the tail end of the comeback trail.

Music Before Architecture

Comebacks have a long and colorful history in jazz. The parable of the player who drops out at the peak of his powers, only to resurface months or years later, rejuvenated and ready to reclaim his place, is one often repeated in jazz lore. Take Sonny Rollins’ late-fifties hiatus ended by his mythical Williamsburg Bridge serenades or Miles Davis’ numerous reincarnations from Arbiter of Cool to Prince of Darkness. These self-imposed sabbaticals sometimes signal revolutions. Other times they simply mark intervals where life catches up with a musician and he or she succumbs to the need to take stock. Jemeel Moondoc’s case seems mainly a product of the latter circumstance. After the end of a short three album run on the Italian Soul Note label, Moondoc redirected his energies to a second career in architectural design. Music simmered on a side burner, not forgotten, until an offer from the Eremite label fostered a renaissance in recordings and readily available gigs. Moondoc found the resources to realize a number of projects, including his large ensemble Jus Grew Orchestra, and to tour Europe and the States. The latter boon provides the source of two recently released concert documents – the first from Cadence Jazz, the second available through Ayler Records.

Mirroring the all-star jam sessions of old, Moondoc shares the stage on Live In Paris with four fellow New Yorkers whose collective credentials proves their moniker is no idle boast. The band launches full speed into a raucous rendition of Moondoc’s “HiRise.” Slight problems with balance and volume mar the first few minutes as the engineer calibrates recording settings on the fly. Parker receives the short shrift through some muddied miking, but some scribbling melodic lines of Moondoc’s emotive alto make the balance issues easy to forget. Moffett’s cymbals spread a porous cover of rhythmic static as the other horns riff briefly and wildly from the wings. Campbell fires off a crisp series of flurries, skating the highest reaches of his trumpet’s upper register, and then it’s Massey’s turn in a tenor statement saturated in strident vibrato and pock marked by vulpine squeals. Parker’s strings take over next, and the bassist hunkers down into superlative vamp mode, worrying the same patterns of notes into a hypnotic stupor. One final rigorous leap through the theme by the ensemble and modest wave of applause quenches the ensuing silence.

The ironically titled “Not Quite Ready for Prime Time” follows, eating up twice as much space, but also involving twice as much activity. Trading driving momentum for at once serious and playful ensemble improv, the band takes a deep drink from the well of the blues. Slowly, a tempo takes shape on the thrum of Parker’s strings and Moffett's syncopated drumming. Campbell’s fluttering, aerial phrases contrast soothingly with the earthbound propulsion of the rhythm section. Massey follows with an insistently rendered solo that sounds as if it’s running on a perpetual supply of steam, punctuated by vocal outbursts that further stoke the fires of intensity. Moondoc’s statement is more measured, filled with veering shifts and disorienting juxtapositions. Parker and Moffett spar and each man solos mightily before another dizzyingly diffuse ensemble finish that drags on a bit too long.

The Aylerian overtones of “We Don’t” unfold over nearly a third of an hour, and the band sounds more focused without conceding a shred of emotional ebullience. Massey in particular raises the roof on this one, stating a passionate tenor treatise that chews up huge chunks of melody and spits them out in intensely ear-pleasing shapes. The set winds up with “One Down, One Up,” a favorite of saxophone summit masters Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Johnny Griffin, that serves as ideal finale and sprawls out over a fertile fifteen minutes. Moondoc plays Griff to Massey’s Jaws and the two negotiate the comparatively straightforward blues changes with clever subterfuge.

Roughly three years later, with several more Eremite albums under his belt, Moondoc embarked on brief tour of Nordic locales. Touching down in Stockholm in April of 2002 with William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake in tow, he set up shop for a stand Live at the Glenn Miller Café, a Swedish mainstay for traveling improvisers. Ayler Records had the tape machines rolling, and both sets from the gig unfold exactly as they transpired, blemishes and all. Each one stretches out over the span of a half hour, presenting two mammoth slabs of improvisation that sometimes falter, but largely retain their shape and focus over the duration. The fidelity is cleaner than on the Paris date, and Parker in particular is far better served in the mix this time out, his corpulent note clusters buoying the harmonic end to Drake’s relentless polyrhythms.

“Hi-Rise” begins the disc, expanded to three times its Parisian length, and from the onset, the players push the perimeters of the relatively simple melodic line upon which the piece is based. Moondoc shifts from stuttering bursts to rococo legato swoops, pausing periodically to add enthusiastic vocal shouts. Drake and Parker are a constant force at his flanks, propelling and supporting all at once through an undulating crosshatch of lines. Repetition becomes a necessary evil over the long haul, and Moondoc falls back on familiar phrases just as the rhythm team resorts to vamps. Ten minutes in, the altoist lays out and Parker struts his strings, tugging out an elaborate extemporaneous essay on the theme, rich with subterranean girth and resonance. Drake’s turn comes after a quick series of breaks, and the drummer puts all of his limbs into the enterprise, starting with a subtle volley of cymbal fire, before moving to a barrage of martial snare rolls. Showcasing the element of surprise, the three engage in a round robin of solo turns, and the unaccompanied snapshots deliver a fascinating distillation of each man’s artistry on his instrument. The trio reconverges for the final third of the piece, rhythm reconfigured under Drake’s versatile stick play and Parker’s pulsing bass figures.

Moondoc gives a short lecture in revisionist music history at the onset of second set, asserting that Adolph Sax may have invented the saxophone, but Coleman Hawkins reinvented it. Teeing off from that truism, “Blues From My People” finds the altoist traces a lush cerulean theme, backed by the steady push and pull of his partners. Legato phrases pour forth in lapping melodic waves from Moondoc’s sax, pregnant with vibrato and soul, and it’s a pleasure to hear the trio take their sweet time in sculpting the piece from the ground up. Space and pacing come more in to play on this second outing and Drake in particular makes all the difference, spreading sparse, but rhythmically-energized patterns across his skins. Parker deals in bulbous bass clusters, playing a loping, fractured line that never strays too far from a discernable tonal center. Things heat up half way through with Moondoc articulating more emphatically through his reed and Drake increasing the tempo with precisely placed cymbal shots. Suddenly Parker takes an unaccompanied solo, a slowly expanding improvisation that leaves a smoldering trail of notes across his fingerboard. Moondoc’s brief and bittersweet reentry paves a path for Drake’s delicate, disciplined solo, which incorporates virtually every surface on his kit from floor toms to snares to ride cymbal. Eventually the leader returns, slowing the tempo down to a leisurely crawl while spilling notes in wide swaggering swathes. Converging on a silently agreed upon exit point the three segue smoothly into silence and the audience quickly fills the gap with appreciative applause.

Heard together or separately these two aural tour diaries represent further bright feathers in Moondoc’s folio. The first has a slight edge in terms of intensity and complexity, but the second wins out on intimacy and sonic clarity. That old missive “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” attributed to minds as disparate as John Cage, Thelonious Monk and Frank Zappa, oddly springs to mind. Maybe it’s because Moondoc is that rare musician who’s probably done both to fine effect. Fortunately for fans, he seems to have swapped compass and slide rule for saxophone, at least for the time being. Here’s hoping the trade is a permanent one and many years of prolific music-making lay ahead.

By Derek Taylor

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