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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Steve Swell’s Fire Into Music - For Jemeel: Fire from the Road (Rogue Art, 2023)

By Martin Schray

There are many legends in US Free Jazz (Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Milford Graves, to mention some prominent ones), but there are many more unsung heroes. Jemeel Moondoc is one of them.

The saxophonist was a driving force in the New York loft jazz scene of the 1970s and then in the Lower East Side/East Village scene of the early to mid-1980s, and although he was part of Cecil Taylor’s band for some time (unfortunately undocumented), his work has received comparatively little recognition. Moondoc died in 2021 at the age of 76 after a life-long struggle with health problems, including sickle cell anemia. Hardly anybody seemed to notice his death, there were no obituaries in the major media. However, the Arts for Arts organization, which is responsible for the Vision Festival in New York, called him a “passionate, driven, unapologetic musician who was determined to make music on his terms“. They had brought the man with the characteristic hat to the stage several times. Among the people behind that organization is bassist William Parker, whose circle includes trombonist Steve Swell and percussionist Hamid Drake.

So, Steve Swell’s quartet Fire Into Music is a product of the New York improv scene. The trombonist says that he "was lucky to be invited to play in Jemeel’s ‘Jus Grew Orchestra" in the 1980s and that "it was an honor and inspiration to share the stage with him." He formed Fire Into Music for a three-and-a-half-week tour in late 2004, followed by a shorter tour in the fall of 2005. The quartet’s only studio recording, Swimming in a Galaxy of Goodwill, was released in 2007, also on Rogue Art. The four had originally planned to reunite in the summer of 2021, but Swell was stricken with throat cancer and Moondoc passed away shortly thereafter. Steve Swell has therefore decided to release previously unreleased material from performances by the band. For Jemeel - Fire from the Road presents two concerts from 2004 and 2005 in Texas plus an appearance at the Guelph Jazz Festival in Ontario, Canada. The music is a tribute to the late great saxophonist and, to cut a long story short, it’s a great one.

It already starts with the rhythm section. William Parker and Hamid Drake were the best one in Free Jazz 20 years ago (to this day their class is undisputed). Like no other, they manage to swing, even if they don’t merely play time. When they are in best shape, like in these three performances, you want to linger in the moment with them. What is more, the quartet’s lineup is also reminiscent of the great New York Art Quartet. As with the legendary band from the 1960s, everything comes out flowing, very tight and played with high self-confidence. Some of the music is completely free, as in the first concert, and yet very close to the tradition. As a saxophonist, Moondoc might not be the greatest technician, nor do classical harmonic forms seem to be important to him. Sound, gut feeling and improvisation are in the center of his playing. His main influence is definitely the blues, his style is very lyrical and explorative. Steve Swell ideally complements Moondoc, he’s an excellent musician, his earthy playing intertwines perfectly with the lines of the saxophone. The music in all three concerts is exciting (more modal on the first CD, more harmolodic on the second) and forward, both in the tradition of classical and early Free Jazz.

In detail, this means that you get to hear all kinds of playing, for example solos like the wild, super-intense 10-minute one by William Parker in the first concert at the El Dorado Ballroom in Houston, which sounds like a stream-of-consciousness monologue turned into music (including a recurring blues riff). Swell and Moondoc respond to Parker with highly expressive, unaccompanied short attacks. There are also duos like the bass/drums one in “Space Cowboys“ and in “Box Set“ and last but not least all kinds of trios, which always emerge from the heads in the composed pieces. But the four are at their best when they let it rip together. You can hear that well in Steve Swell’s aforementioned rolling blues “Space Cowboys“, which makes you want to snap your fingers, and in “Box Set“ with its angular funk riff. Another perfect example is Moondoc’s composition “Junka Nu“, which is represented in two versions on the three CDs. While the track starts rather hesitantly with Swell almost hiding behind Moondoc’s saxophone at the concert in Marfa/Texas, the head is presented much more crystalline and clear in the second version from the Guelph Festival. Here, too, the focus is on an extended solo by Parker, which is followed by a drum solo. It seems as if the quartet wants to strip the composition down to its bones to expose a core on which everything is based. Swell and Moondoc rejoin very late, and everything ends back with the head of the beginning. Behind the pure joy of playing, a meta-level of music making becomes visible.

Even though this music is almost twenty years old, it pays tribute in a touching way to what was once called Fire Music. Those who love this kind of almost traditional Free Jazz will be very happy about this treasure chest.

For Jemeel - Fire from the Road is available as a triple CD and as a download. You can listen to the music and buy it here:



* I want to thank my friend Christoph Mangelsdorf, who provided me with some very valuable information as to Moondoc’s saxophone style. 


Ken Blanchard said...

There are a handful of recordings that end up in my car cd player more than... three times. New World Pygmies (Moondoc and William Parker) are two of them. Now I have something else to plug in.