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Saturday, February 6, 2010

Jemeel Moondoc & Muntu (No Business, Reissues 2010) ****½

I will not say that I have all of alto saxophonist's Jemeel Moondoc's albums, but close enough, with the exception of his earlier albums, released on his own Muntu label. Now, these albums are available again in a great triple CD-box, and that's great news.The box comes with a great booklet of more than 100 pages, with a short overview of the "loft" scene in New York in the seventies, an essay by Jemeel Moondoc, a detailed overview of the music on the three albums, and a complete sessionography.

Despite its limited number of recordings, the band stayed together for quite a while, with different line-ups, but still with the same rhythm section of William Parker and Rachid Bakr. The band had also some later recordings (New York Live! (1980), The Intrepid Live In Poland (1981), The Athens Concert (1982)), with Roy Campbell Jr. on trumpet. Moondoc kept playing with William Parker until now, in various line-ups and bands.

Although Moondoc clearly is the leader of the band, his main focus seems to be the coherence of the band's sound, rather than just him playing with a rhythm section. The music consists of multi-layered improvisations in which anything could happen,

Muntu Ensemble - First Feeding (1977)

"First Feeding" is possibly the most interesting discovery, with Arthur Williams on trumpet and Mark Hennen on piano, because these two other musicians do not show up in any of the later recordings. The three pieces are anchored in recognizable themes, but are otherwise long improvisational work-outs. Williams' tone on trumpet is warm and wild, Hennen's piano playing is pounding and extravagant, in the Cecil Taylor style. Moondoc gives lots of space to the other musicians in the three pieces, but especially on the long "Theme For Milford (Mr. Body & Soul)", and although is playing is excellent, I really would have wanted to hear him more. But the whole thing would fall to pieces if it wasn't so tightly held together by Parker and Bakr, who conserve the unity of the pieces, even if they let go of the rhythm and tempo once in a while. Both also get their own moment in the spotlight in the second part of the last track. The great thing about the album is its wonderful taste of the seventies: you sense the joy and the enthusiasm of the new musical possibilities that are being opened through free playing. It lacks some of the instrumental discipline we have come to know nowadays even in free playing, but it is so full of expansiveness and musical liberation that it is fun.

Listen to "Flight (From The Yellow Dog)"

Jemeel Moondoc & Muntu - The Evening Of The Blue Men (1979)

This line-up is possibly the best of the Muntu line-ups, with Moondoc on alto, Roy Campbell Jr. on trumpet, William Parker on bass, and Rashid Bakr on drums. From the book you can learn that pianist Hennen and Moondoc drifted apart musically, that the alto saxophonist wanted more openness in his music. William Parker introduced Roy Campbell to the band, when Arthur Williams could no longer play and tour, like he had introduced Bakr to Moondoc many years before.

The sound quality of this live recording is a little less than on the first album, but the music is stellar. Starting with a long meandering theme, the pieces quickly folds into a free boppish mode, with Moondoc's playing full of confidence, and joy. The interaction with Campbell is fun. In Moondoc's own words about Campbell: "He's got these huge ears, he can hear shit, easily. He not only hears it right away, he can interpret it right away. He can put it right back at you. That was easy, so wonderful". And this chemistry is almost palpable on this album. Campbell goes deep in his ensuing solo, which is followed by a Bakr and a Parker solo, before re-uniting for the theme. The second piece, "Theme For Diane", is a slow and open-ended bluesy piece, which shows Moondoc's sensitive side, a great context for Campbell to let us hear his bell-clear moaning sounds in response: brilliant. Again, to Moondoc's credit, he gives ample space to the entire band, but he ends the piece is one of the saddest modes imagineable.

Listen to "Evening Of The Blue Men"

Muntu - Live At Ali's Alley (1975)

The third album brings a reduced line-up, with Moondoc on alto, Parker on bass, and Bakr on drums. The performance was recorded in Rashied Ali's loft : Ali's Alley, and was never released before. The great thing about the trio format is that we now get the chance to fully appreciate Moondoc's playing. Although free in spirit, you can hear his natural sense of melody and his boppish background. The most incredible thing is his sense of focus: the piece is thirty-six minutes long, but he can carry the entire improvisation without moving too far away from its original concept, which he keeps exploring with varying levels of intensity, sensitivity and power, without falling back on automatisms.

This is a lengthy review, but the CD box is worth it. The music itself is not always of the highest level, because Moondoc is not the great innovator in jazz nor the most incredible sax-player, but the nature of the music, the historical context, and the unbelievable quality and dedication with which No Business offered this music back to the world, make this already now one of the most recommended albums of the year.

Buy from Instantjazz.

Watch a recent performance of Muntu

© stef


Maciej Nowotny (Editor) said...

Awesome. My respect for your job and taste.

Guy said...

my wallet hates you, stef
(but i've said that before)

tony said...

My wallet loves stef !!!

Guy said...

tony, you're a BAD man! :)p