Revolt of the Negro Lawn Jockeys
Keeping with the Eremite Records practice of releasing live concerts as CDs, the label has issued two great performances of the underappreciated alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc. Revolt of the Negro Lawn Jockeys and Spirit House each capture Moondoc's two main projects, his quintet and his Jus Grew Orchestra, respectively. Part of the reason that Moondoc isn't widely recognized is that he doesn't have many recordings-and the few he does have rarely show his true prowess. Neither of these outstanding bands has ever had any material released until now, but what is more shameful is that these records don't bolster the assertion that he one of the best saxophonists on the avant-garde jazz scene.
Of the two, it's hard to select which is the superior band or performance. Certainly though, Revolt is the much better recording. Taped live to DAT at the 2000 Vision Festival, Moondoc is surrounded by a stellar band that delivers an outstanding set of three 13- to 16-minute pieces plus a brief three-minute encore. Moondoc's band of trumpeter Nathan Breedlove, drummer Codaryl Moffett, bassist John Voigt and vibraphonist Khan Jamal are in sync throughout the set. The cathartic beauty of "You Let Me Into Your Life" features some of Moondoc's most potently languid and gripping playing, while the title track features some great interaction between him, Breedlove and Jamal. But for the sake of every Khan Jamal fan that will buy every record that he plays on, be forewarned that he is buried in the mix under the drums and the horns; only when he solos (as he does wonderfully on the title track) are there unstrained listening opportunities.
More unfortunate is the recorded debut of Moondoc's 10-piece band, the Jus Grew Orchestra. If anyone out there is a big fan of guitar player Bern Nix, this record is for you, as he is the only consistently audible player. Recorded live at the University of Massachusetts, Spirit House forces the listener to imagine how the music would sound if the instruments were equal participants. The brass players are too loud in the mix, covering the horn players, including Moondoc, who you have to strain to hear on his own record. The recording problem is most obvious when baritone saxophonist Michael Marcus takes a solo after trombonist Tyrone Hill on the opener, "Quick Pick": it sounds like Marcus is 10 yards away from a microphone. The loudness of the brass makes it easy for trumpeter Roy Campbell to steal the show. The band is handed great compositions and make the most of them by changing speeds adeptly, without making the music seem too hectic. The 26-minute title track is an excellent example of the agile band, which joins together for brief interludes and then passes the baton from soloist to soloist. The best track on Spirit House, though, is "In Walked Monk," not just for his catchy head, but also because it contains Moondoc's best solo.
Although it's easy to agree with Eremite's position that the music of Moondoc (and musicians of his ilk) is best encountered in a live setting, it doesn't mean that those recorded performances make great CDs. You have two choices for your money: buy these CDs, because Moondoc and his band are exceptional; or put your money in a fund to help pay for Moondoc to get some quality studio-recording time.