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Jemeel Moondoc & Muntu - Muntu Recordings

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Artist: Jemeel Moondoc & Muntu

Album: Muntu Recordings

Label: NoBusiness

Review date: Feb. 5, 2010

Christened with a name that communicates his endearing musical idiosyncrasy, altoist Jemeel Moondoc has followed a career in free jazz quite similar to his peers in its many ups, downs and detours. This revelatory box set tracks the early years of that trajectory and returns the saxophonist’s initial recordings to circulation, two LPs originally released on Moondoc’s Muntu label. A third disc captures the trio version of Muntu live at Ali’s Alley, drummer Rashied Ali’s loft space, and is actually the earliest music on the set.

Moondoc was a student of Cecil Taylor’s during the pianist’s early-’70s tenures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Antioch College, participating in numerous workshops and performing with various student ensembles. Upon moving to New York, he used those experiences and resulting contacts to quickly hook into the burgeoning loft jazz scene in the city. Among his early colleagues were bassist William Parker and drummer Rashid Bakr, who were making names for themselves in similar fashion.

The first disc in the box comprises the 1977 LP First Feeding and finds the three men in augmented quintet formation with the addition of enigmatic pianist Mark Hennen and the equally obscure Arthur Williams on trumpet. Recorded in a studio, the sound is sharp, though the presence of vinyl sourcing remains audible in places. The group investigates three pieces, cumulatively dedicated to mentors like Taylor, Sam Rivers, Bill Dixon and others.

The set’s three pieces range from the relative brevity of the opening title invocation to the closing sprawl of “Theme for Milford (Mr. Body and Soul).” The middle piece, “Flight (From the Yellow Dog),” takes flight on a soaring theme hauntingly similar to Moondoc’s much later-composed “You Let Me into Your Life.” What’s most striking is how the music mirrors what’s come after; there’s a “hear it here” first feel to how the four approach collective improvisation, assimilating the advances of Taylor and others like Ornette Coleman. Musicians in the idiom have been doing it ever since with varying degrees of originality and success.

Of the five players, it’s curiously Hennen who makes the strongest impression. His, by turns ruminative and forceful, suggests an oblique amalgam of Paul Bley and Taylor. Bakr works in both momentum and color, acting as co-conspirator in steering the ebb and flow. Williams makes for a spirited partner with Moondoc on the front line, the two sparring like dueling ptarmigans or wheeling off in airborne acrobatics. Parker’s shining moment comes with an extended bass solo in the final piece, where he practically turns his instrument into firewood with chopping fingers and bow. Together, the five whip quite a glorious controlled racket.

Roughly two years later, Moondoc booked a revamped Muntu crew for a gig at Saint Mark’s Church, the venue of numerous subsequent free jazz performances, including several incarnations of the venerated Vision Festival. Roy Campbell replaces Williams and the piano chair remains vacant. Titled Night of the Bluemen, the subsequent LP split the performance into two halves. The title piece carries the qualifier “Part 3” prompting the natural question, what of parts one and two?

Sound is a shade cavernous by comparison thanks to the vaulted ceilings of the venue, and Parker suffers most, his furious pizzicato frequently reduced to a muddy aural blur in the ensemble sections. He makes up for it in an arco solo clearly audible in its string-abrading ferocity, spurred by ebullient shouts of encouragement from his employer. The other players are relatively well-served; Moondoc and Campbell are in especially vociferous moods, dancing, darting and diving amidst the churning, surging waves of rhythm. Side B’s “Theme for Diane” traces contrastive ballad contours with comparable passion and cohesiveness.

Flipping the page back to Muntu in its relative infancy, the third disc’s live shot from Ali’s Alley comprises another rendering of “Theme for Milford” in a single 36 ½-minute slab of largely improvised interplay. Fidelity again is far from perfect, but more than passable. The thrill of hearing the three core members hold forth at one of the pillars of the loft jazz community effectively excuses the somewhat distant positioning of Parker and Bakr in the 35-year-old mix. Moondoc’s mercurial alto sings front and center, reeling off eliding melodic variations against the undulating accompaniment of his partners that occasionally slip in focus but largely stay on point for a full 15-plus minutes. Parker and Bakr occupy much of the remainder of the piece with statements of their own, the latter devising inventive things with what sounds like woodblocks and other ancillary percussion. The modest applause at the end illustrates that times were tough even back then when it came to audience size for these sorts of gigs.

Muntu suffered a crushing setback as an ensemble when Cecil Taylor ostensibly wooed Parker and Bakr away to fill slots in a new trio. With hindsight, its hard to blame the two men for jumping ship after weighing the prospect and Moondoc doesn’t appear to have harbored any lasting ire, having worked with both men, particularly Parker, in the intervening years. Results of their auspicious meetings are still readily available on labels like Eremite and Cadence Jazz, but Moondoc’s been mostly silent (at least on record) for some time. The arrival of this important and opportune box set will hopefully foster resurgence in attention toward his art and motivate new music-making in the process.

By Derek Taylor

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