Jemeel Moondoc: Muntu Recordings
Lithuanian based NoBusiness records has put together a wonderful retrospective on under celebrated saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc and his pioneering ensemble Muntu, sumptuously packaged in a three-audio disc plus booklet box set. It's a bulletin from another era, the late 1970s, a fertile period in free jazz history which has been sparsely documented. The set goes some way to redressing that imbalance, with the 114 page booklet containing erudite essays by Ed Hazell on loft jazz and Muntu, a commentary by Moondoc himself, a gazetteer of New York City lofts, and a Muntu sessionography, copiously illustrated with period black and white photographs.
Included are Muntu's first two releases and a third set issued here for the first time. Muntu was an important band. It manifested some of the early activity of free jazz maestro, organizer and bassist William Parker, and his first recorded collaboration with subsequent longtime associate trumpeter Roy Campbell. Furthermore, Muntu also augured the distinguished improvising cooperative Other Dimensions In Music, with identical personnel except for the reed chair. In a bittersweet acknowledgement of the band's import, Muntu's time was up when Moondoc lost his rhythm section of Parker and drummer Rashid Bakr to the prestige (and work) of pianist Cecil Taylor, after more than eight years of joint endeavor.
Originally released on the reedman's own label, Muntu's music was little heard in its heyday, although original copies now change hands for ridiculous amounts. At last the music is more widely available, carefully transferred from LP. These guys know what they are doing as the majority of NoBusiness issues are on vinyl, so only occasional clicks and pops betray the source material.
Muntu's 1977 debut, First Feeding (Muntu), was a well-recorded studio date. Three pieces in a 39 minute program pass in a collective swirl of dense ensembles, thickened by Mark Hennen's piano. Together with the cellular keyboard motifs, the simultaneous horn lines of the leader and trumpeter Arthur Williams bear the hallmark of Cecil Taylor's groups at the time (unsurprising given the recent participation of Moondoc et al in Taylor's ensembles at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio), particularly in the discursively voiced elegiac themes with their deliciously ragged feel.
Moondoc's characteristic blues-drenched, astringent tone was already in place, manifest through soulful alto saxophone outpourings. Williams was talented but troubled and woefully underrepresented on disc. A distinctive voice with a broad tone, he corrals whispers, rasps and places heraldic figures into a heady brew. His solo on "Theme For Milford" astonishes with a series of abrasive middle register growls. Notwithstanding Moondoc's desire to forge his own sound, this edition of Muntu touched on terrain inspired by Taylor which still remains underexplored.
Captured in 1979 shortly after a European tour, Evening of the Blue Men (Muntu) showcases a new and more open lineup. Williams has been replaced by Campbell and Hennen's piano has gone. Consisting of just two side long pieces totaling some 40 minutes, the live recording from NYC's St Marks Church allows ample space to stretch out. Without piano, Moondoc's tone sounds lighter and airier, his Ornette Coleman influence more to the fore. Campbell's fluent, slurred legato blends pleasingly with the reedman's plangent holler. Parker's prodigious powers of levitation shine through the echoey ambience, entrained with Bakr as a single cohesive unit and confirming Taylor's wisdom in head hunting them as a pair. "Theme For Diane" is an early entry in an illustrious line of Moondoc dirges, though the repeated buggin's-turn solo roster might grate with some listeners.
Previously unreleased, Live At Ali's Alley is actually Muntu's earliest recording, predating First Feeding by two years. Reduced to a trio, most likely due to trumpeter Williams problems and lack of a piano, the group loses some of its impact. It's a demanding listen, consisting of a 36 minute version of "Theme For Milford." While the head is barely stated, elements surface throughout Moondoc's lengthy improvisation as he triangulates his path. He starts sprightly and Coleman-ish, but struggles to maintain that level over 20 minutes and the focus has switched to the rhythm section well before he pauses for a duet of rippling strummed bass and accented percussion, which is more about texture and propulsion than melody. A loose retelling of the theme closes out the set. From the applause it sounds as if there were about four people present. Lucky them.
This lovingly presented set is both historic document and vital music.
Tracks: CD1: First Feeding; Flight (From The Yellow Dog); Theme For Milford (Mr. Body & Soul). CD2: The Evening of the Blue Men Part 3 (Double Expo); Theme For Diane. CD3: Theme For Milford (Mr. Body & Soul).
Personnel: Jemeel Moondoc: alto saxophone; Arthur Williams: trumpet (CD1); Mark Hennen: piano (CD1); Roy Campbell: trumpet (CD2); William Parker: bass; Rashid Bakr: drums.