02/13/11 By Lee Mergner
Tom Moon: In the Lounge
Longtime music writer returns to saxophone for new instrumental release from his Moon Hotel Lounge Project
Tom Moon, a jazz and popular music critic and author of 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, has crossed an invisible and unspoken line. He’s now a recording artist, saxophonist and composer, whose debut album Into the Ojala from his group, the Moon Hotel Lounge Project, has just been released on his own Frosty Cordial Records. Now it’s his turn to hope for reviews, airplay and gigs, but he says he didn’t do it for all that. “At the root of what I’m doing is simple curiosity of music,” explains Moon. “The notion of being able to draw on having heard and covered so much stuff over the years is its own reward.”
His album features a band of notable rock and jazz players from the Philadelphia area, which Moon has called home for almost 30 years. The music is instrumental, but not straight-ahead jazz or even the left-of-center improvisational music that jazz critics seem to favor most. Moon is very clear that he was headed in a different direction. “When I described what we were doing to Vic Stevens, the engineer [also a noted fusion drummer], I said, ‘We’re not making a jazz record…we’re making a record you’d hear in the background in a lounge.’ I’ve been worshipping at the altar of Jobim. All I wanted was something that was sexy. I didn’t care if it was challenging harmonically. I didn’t want anything super brainy. All I wanted was to take these simple melodies and pass them around this ensemble of seven and build some conversations. It is informed by improvisational music, but it is not in and of the world that people like Joe Lovano inhabit at all.”
Moon says that the title itself is an apt description for the music. “We are now in a place where people are bombarded with music. I quite like the notion of not wanting to bombard people and in fact expecting to be background, expecting to be ignored. Letting things seep into the consciousness, rather than using a baseball bat to knock it into them.”
A longtime contributor to publications such as Rolling Stone, GQ, Blender, Spin, Vibe and this magazine, Moon isn’t too worried about the response from his peers in the journalism community. He knows that some critics may even say that he can’t play or that his music sucks. “I say bring it,” he says, chuckling. “Let them say it. And back it up. Let’s really have a discussion. I come into this knowing that there’s a huge target I’ve put on my back and that’s fine. I’m proud of what we did. As far as a sound, there’s something here that’s a little different. If we had done this and the record sounded too much like anything I knew, I don’t think I would have shared it. It meets that test for me. That doesn’t mean that anyone else will get that. I can live with whatever comes my way. I want to have people criticize it and take it on conceptually.”
What most people don’t realize is that Moon’s life as a musician far precedes his career as a writer. A saxophonist, who studied music at University of Miami and toured with Maynard Ferguson, Moon has been playing music for over 30 years. Moon went to Langley High School in McLean, Virginia in the suburbs of Washington, DC and it was there that he was first exposed to the rigors of playing music. “My father died when I was two,” Moon recalls. “The next father figure I had was the high school band director there, a trumpeter George Horan. I had intense rehearsals in college and in various professional gigs, but never had a more intense rehearsal than I did for that Langley jazz lab. He really kind of saved my life because I had no active role model. I was sort of a lost kid. He showed me the discipline of music. We would come into the band room and it wouldn’t matter what time of the school day—he’d be playing. He always made the distinction: ‘I am not a music teacher…I’m a musician who teaches.’ I loved that. Later, as I got into writing, if ever asked, I would say basically the same thing: ‘I’m not a music writer…I’m a musician who writes.’ That was a formative experience for me.”
The young saxophonist would go to One Step Down, a local DC jazz club, for its weekend daytime jam sessions led by Lawrence Wheatley. And he continued his education formally at the University of Miami in Florida beginning in the fall of 1979. “I went to the University of Miami thinking that I would play forever,” says Moon. “It never occurred to me to do any writing. As a freshman some of the guys at the music school were contributing record reviews to the student paper because they gave you free records. I got hooked into that. When you were a freshman in college, the notion of someone giving you a stack of music free seemed like the best thing ever.”
However Moon’s main focus remained on the music. After all, the music program at Miami had become famous for producing top-flight contemporary jazz players, such as the members of the Pat Metheny Group, the Dixie Dregs, Will Lee and Hirma Bullock. Among the musicians in school with Moon were saxophonist Rick Margitza, guitarist John Hart and trumpeter (and later noted A&R man and producer) Matt Pierson. “At that time in the early 80s there was a lot of music to be had in the Miami area,” remembers Moon. “Ira Sullivan was playing a lot. There was a little bit of a jazz scene. As a player, there was a lot of Latin music. In fact, some of my first professional experience was playing in Latin bands.”
Moon has fond memories of those halcyon days at college. “For a kid just starting out, I couldn’t have asked for a better situation. It seemed like every day someone was throwing something new at you. I played a lot of baritone. I came to tenor and got my tenor thing together while I was there. I was very lucky to have Ron Miller teaching composition there. He really workshopped me into thinking about writing [music] on a serious level. I probably wrote about 10-11 things during the last few years there and they were all a direct result of Ron. Ron had been there during the Dregs time and taught Steve Morse.”
After graduating from Miami in 1983, Moon stayed around the area and performed with Latin gigs. He even did time on cruise ships. Eventually he fell in with a rock band called Freeze Warning, playing covers throughout the Southeast region. “When I got back to Miami after that, I had a period of year or so when I was doing weddings, the circus, Century Village gigs. I started to think about whether I wanted to do this all the time, scrambling for gigs. I was in no way thinking that I would be a jazz star or anything. That’s was led me to writing as a career. I was already thinking about that when I got the job with Maynard.” Saxophonist Denny DiBlasio had tipped Moon off about an opening in Ferguson’s band and after auditioning and getting the job, Moon became a road warrior again. But after a year of that, Moon was looking to writing as a profession which would counter-balance to his life as a working musician.
He began contributing reviews and stories about music to the Miami Herald, which didn’t have a problem with a writer who was also working around town as a musician. “When I was hired full-time, their only thing was that I needed to clear what I was doing with an editor just so there weren’t conflicts and there wasn’t the appearance of conflict of interest. For example, I would sometimes perform with the Jaco Pastorius big band and so I couldn’t write about Jaco then.”
Things soon changed for the man with feet in two camps and he was forced to choose his second career as his primary occupation. In 1988, Moon was offered a job as music writer for the Inquirer in Philadelphia, but it came with a catch. “When I came to the Inquirer, I had all this music performance experience stuff on my resume, which I thought was a good thing, but they looked at it and it was a huge red flag of conflict for them. Because I didn’t know anybody in Philadelphia, they felt that the potential existed for people to hire me to play when they were just trying to get press. So it was better for all concerned. It was sort of reverse deal with the devil. Instead of arriving at the crossroads and getting the keys to the kingdom and playing, I had to say that I won’t do this professionally any more.”
Moon still kept his hand and heart in playing music. “I was excited to be in Philadelphia,” says Moon. “For a while I played jam sessions every week. It never occurred to me to do something more with it, because I was so damn busy covering stuff as a writer. And I was doing freelance stuff for publications like Rolling Stone and JazzTimes. I didn’t have the time to devote to it [playing music].”
A few years ago, Moon took a break from his job as music writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer in order to work on the book, 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, which was published in August 2008. “When I got done with the book and the book tour was done and I was trying to restart my freelance career, I encountered this wall of frustration,” he recalls. “I felt suddenly that this world that I had been shielded from as it was dissolving. I was paid for three years just to do this book and during that time I did some freelance writing work”
However, Moon’s break from his career as a professional music journalist coincided with the decline of the print media, with magazines shutting down and newsrooms cleared. Suddenly finding it hard to get writing assignments, Moon was in a state of shock and disbelief. “I wondered what had happened. My world was gone. How can it be that this tiny little expertise that I have which was once valuable is completely not valuable in the world?”
At least Moon still had his music which seemed to provide a respite from his frustrations in the journalism field. “I found myself picking up my horn because that has always been a place for me to go. When nothing else works, you can at least play the blues. I started to play on a more serious level.” Moon began working on material that had been around for many years. “There were tunes that were largely unfinished, loops, pieces of things. I finished some tunes. I began to think, ‘Let me see if I have anything here that’s worthwhile.’ I reached out to some musicians here in Philly who I knew to be great players and open-minded people and who I knew would read through a chart and tell me whether this was worth pursuing or not.”
Getting together with various musicians around town, Moon began to feel that he had some music worth developing further. He was surprised how much that positive feedback mattered to him. “The result was that for the first time in a long time I was being encouraged by people somewhere outside my own little head to do something. I’m not someone who needs a lot of external reinforcement, but at that moment, I think I did.”
One of the guys Moon reached out to was Kevin Hanson, a guitar player known for his work with a band called Huffamoose. In fact, Moon had written about them several times over the years and had been impressed with not only their sound but also their enthusiasm and attitude. Moon explains that Hanson ended up acting as the catalyst for the entire project. “I meet with Kevin and I share my tunes. And I go home and I start writing. The things I was writing seemed to scream out for the drummer Erik Johnson [also from Huffamoose]. You know how a lot of jazz drummers have a certain ride pattern no matter what the setting? They have a way of playing. I would see Erik play with Huffamoose and he had this loose open thing. Then I’d see him in a jazz setting and it was different. The sound changed depending on the situation. So I ended up writing stuff that had those guys in mind.”
Moon got together with Hanson perhaps five or six times. “At that point there was no discussion of making a record. It was just let’s work up these tunes and make the charts legible. Then about a year goes by and finally I have a stack of 20-25 tunes that are ready to go. We rehearsed for a few times. This was the band that Kevin has called the Fractals, with the rhythm section from Huffamoose with a keyboard player named Michael Frank—one of those keyboardists who orchestrates on the fly.”
Moon says that the music’s evolution led to the group expanding to a larger ensemble. “We were playing songs and I kept hearing vibraphone and so we brought in Behn Gillece. And Kevin kept hearing percussion and we added Josh Robinson. So suddenly this thing that was supposed to be very small and contained like a quartet, became a seven-piece band. What we discovered right away is that even though it’s counter-intuitive that it’s very cluttered stuff, like when you have guitar and piano and it’s mud. And when you add vibraphone and that’s more mud. For some reason the way this particular collection of personalities came together, we weren’t getting mud. There was space. There was a lot of air and light in the pieces. That’s what I wanted.
Although Moon is ostensibly the leader of the session, he readily admits that this was not the usual blowing session led by a hot-shot saxophonist. “As a player I was nowhere near being able to play a dazzling thing on the saxophone like Chris Potter. If anything, maybe I can play a melody. And that’s all I wanted to do. Luckily these guys as soloists are all really great and they had enormous love for the tunes. Next thing we knew we were saying let’s record this thing.”
The ironic aspect of Moon’s relationship with these musicians is that he had panned them in a review written several years before. “It was a Huffamoose record that Eric, Kevin and the bass player were involved with. This is a record they made after having made a record with a major label. I liked the songs a lot. But the production wasn’t as focused as anything they’d done.”
So it was no surprise that Moon was a mite bit anxious about the response from these same musicians. He couldn’t help but wonder if they, like many musicians, would hold his every word against him. “Yea, when we first started talking, I had a lot of trepidation and I spent six months worrying about this very thing. I kept thinking that these guys were the right collaborators as far as sensibility wise, but I wondered if they would not want to play with me because of that review, even though I had written other more positive things about subsequent projects and performances.
“When we first talked, I said, I know that we have a history and I completely understand if for any reason you are uncomfortable and you don’t want to engage with me musically, I completely get it. To his credit, not only did he not flinch, he said, ‘Let’s get together and try this.’ That was one of those moments…as much as musicians have long memories and may be stung by what was said about them in the past, they’re thinking about what we can make now. The fact that someone like Kevin Hanson was willing to say that about someone like me was huge for me. It wasn’t a vote of confidence, but more like—let’s see that we can do. That’s all I wanted. And he [Kevin] went into it with both feet.”
That affirmation from the musicians meant more than a little to Moon. “For someone who had not played music on a professional level for as long as I’d been away to have that experience, that was one of the greatest gifts I’ve received.”
Releasing the album in January, Moon premiered the music and the band live in a room very different from the usual jazz club. “We played at this place called L’tage. It’s a small room that holds 120 people. We did two sets and we had a full house for the first and a musician house for the second set. We had a blast. It was enormously affirming to hear tunes that we worked up and been persnickety about in the studio just live. There were some clams, but there was a looseness.” Nonetheless, Moon hasn’t quit his day job as a music journalist. He’s hoping to do more gigs with the group, but at the moment has nothing planned. “The challenge is getting this constellation of talent is tough,” he explains. “I have to slot in any gigs between a lot of other things.”
I interviewed Bill Milkowski way back when for a JT letter from the editor about the common notion that music writers are just frustrated musicians and he made the argument that writers aren’t frustrated musicians at all. Milkowski made the argument that writers who are also musicians aren’t frustrated because they play for fun and don’t depend on it for a living. He believed that musicians are much more frustrated about playing music than writers.
Although Moon has been on all sides of this argument, he was reluctant to get drawn into the frustration contest. “I’m not out of the journalism profession. I don’t think there is a church/state separation in this world. Look at George Bernard Shaw and the example of countless classical musicians who wrote, and even Stephin Merritt from Magnetic Fields [rock band] who’s done a fair amount of criticism. The idea of expressing allegiance for one side or the other is not where I live. Even when I was writing for the Inquirer, I was thinking as a musician. And I won’t escape that. And I don’t want to escape that. It has helped my work as a critic and it’s helped keep me curious about music.”
However, Moon’s latest foray into the world of professional music-making has given him even more respect for what musicians experience in their lives. “What you learn is that there is an awful lot that goes into the discipline of being a musician in this unforgiving culture. You’re instantly involved in a bunch of compromises that you wouldn’t make if the bottom line wasn’t looming over you every month.”
Moon is quick to point out the irony that more writers than ever are frustrated in their profession, whereas musicians have been dealing with similar obstacles for many years. “I think that musicians now are a better model of resourcefulness than journalists are. I’m taking my cues from people like Mike Boone [Philadelphia-based jazz bassist] who are teaching one day and playing another. Meanwhile the journalists were caught completely flat-footed by the notion of this freelance community. The thing that I see is the most corrupting influence is not the fact that there’s no work, it’s because so much of the work that’s done is for free it has a corrosive effect on the effort and the standards for journalism.”
For his part, Moon knows what he wants to do with his own music. “This idea of lyricism that we pick up so much in the music of Jobim almost seems gone from this culture. The effortless of that kind of lyricism speaks to me. If I could ever as a composer write something that’s as beautiful as ‘Once I Loved,’ that would be amazing. That’s the goal for me.”