Alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc first came to prominence on the New York loft jazz scene of the mid-1970s, as leader of the band Muntu. But he started out in Chicago, then moved to Boston, and then to Antioch College in Ohio in the early part of the decade, where he spent two years working with Cecil Taylor. (Moondoc was never a student, but he was nonetheless part of Taylor’s ensembles there.) In 1973, he moved to New York.
Muntu‘s membership fluctuated during the roughly 10 years that it existed (from 1973 to 1982, plus a brief reunion in 1985 and another at the 2002 Vision Festival), but the best-known lineup included Moondoc, trumpeter Roy Campbell, bassist William Parker, and drummer Charles Downs, then performing as Rashid Bakr. The group recorded several albums, two of which—along with a previously unreleased live performance—can be heard in a terrific three-CD box, Muntu Recordings, on the NoBusiness label. Somewhere around the end of the 1970s or beginning of the 1980s, though, Taylor, having returned to New York, poached Parker and Bakr for his band. They can be heard on his album The Eighth. Left without a rhythm section, Moondoc adopted the typical jazz practice of putting musicians together for gigs and recording the results. He made a few albums for Soul Note this way in the 1980s, including Judy’s Bounce, Konstanze’s Delight, and Nostalgia in Times Square.
In the late 1990s, Moondoc recorded several albums for the Massachusetts-based Eremite label: the trio dates Tri-P-Let and the live Fire in the Valley; Revolt of the Negro Lawn Jockeys; Spirit House, the debut recording by a big band he’d led in the ’80s, the Jus Grew Orchestra; New World Pygmies Vols. 1 & 2, duets with Parker (plus one disc of trio work featuring drummer Hamid Drake); and an archival duo session with drummer Denis Charles, We Don’t. He also released two live documents on Ayler—one with Jus Grew, and one with Parker and Drake.
His latest recording, The Zookeeper’s House, is his first studio album in over a decade. (Buy it from the label.) It features a fantastic collection of players: trombonist Steve Swell, trumpeter Roy Campbell (in his final recorded appearance), pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist Hilliard Greene, and drummer Newman Taylor Baker. They’re not all heard together. Shipp appears on the disc-opening title track and the nearly 13-minute “One for Monk and Trane”; the horns are on “Little Blue Elvira,” “For the Love of Cindy,” and a version of Alice Coltrane‘s “Ptah, the El Daoud.” The three-piece horn section gives his music a fullness in surprising contrast to the sharp, bluesy yet keening quality his albums have frequently had in the past, when he’s been out front all alone. The Zookeeper’s House is easily one of Jemeel Moondoc‘s best albums, and a terrific reminder that he’s long been one of avant-garde jazz’s most underappreciated voices.
Stream “The Zookeeper’s House”:
Jemeel Moondoc was interviewed by phone on August 9, 2014.
You’re originally from Chicago, but you moved to Boston, then Antioch College, where you worked with Cecil Taylor, then New York. What caused you to leave Chicago, rather than stay there and affiliate yourself with the AACM?
Well, I was associated with Phil Muselah [sp?] and Michael Phillips, they were associated with the AACM, but they had some work in Boston, and I had started to play with them, so we went to Boston, and when we got there we found out that there was not that much opportunity for jazz there. So I kinda stayed there and played rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues in different bands, but then I met people—a bunch of so-called avant-gardists in Boston, and eventually ended up going to Antioch and playing with Cecil.
You tend to be a horns-and-rhythm guy, without too many chordal instruments. Are you mostly interested in melody over harmony, as a composer and a player? Where’s your focus when you’re playing?
Yeah, I do focus on melody a lot. I think melody tells a story, and I think that’s what I try to do in my playing, is tell a story. Melody is, for me, the best way to do that.
Your album titles and the notes—there’s definitely an underpinning of folkloric study and stuff. It’s not just a bunch of tunes.
[Laughs] Yeah, you know, everything has a story. That’s what I grew up to believe, and I like that concept. It’s much more interesting when you tell a story. You give people something to really feed off of.
Your sound on the alto is very unique—it’s really loose, to my ear. How do you get your sound, is it all embouchure and breath control? What do you think is the key to your playing?
Well, I think the alto has a certain sound to it, but I really like a lot of tenor players, so I listen to a lot of tenor players and I try to get a sound that is similar in terms of size. I think the difference between me and a lot of alto players is the size and shape of the sound, and I really have always worked toward having a big sound on the alto. I mean, there are people who I admire a lot, like Cannonball Adderley, who had a huge, huge sound, and I always try and get that. A wide-open alto sound is better for me, when I’m doing melodic storytelling, being able to manipulate the alto in a way that I can sort of speak through the saxophone. That’s what I try to do all the time. I’m always working toward that – to speak through the saxophone.
Muntu’s lineup shifted a lot during its lifespan—obviously the classic lineup was you, Roy Campbell, William Parker and Rashid Bakr, but did you feel like the name applied to whatever you were doing, like if it’s you and whoever else, it’s Muntu?
Well, the name Muntu was my concept; it means, in terms of African culture, it means a new and evolving culture, and I tried to apply that to American black music. And the first grouping was just people that I was associated with, like I think the first grouping was myself, Rashid Sinan, William Parker and Mark Hennen—that was the very first grouping. And Hennen and I had come from Antioch, and I had met the trumpet player Arthur Williams, cause he had come out there to play in Cecil’s ensemble and was there a little while. He was going back to New York, and Cecil’s tenure there was not over yet, but I told Arthur, when I come to New York let’s try to get together and form a band. I had put together bands while I was at Antioch, and we did gigs in that area, but when I got to New York, me and Mark Hennen, that was the first assemblage. And as time went on, Sinan dropped out, and then Rashid Bakr came in, and the same thing with Arthur Williams, Roy Campbell replaced him, and we’d play in a lot of places that didn’t have a piano so it became a pianoless quartet at times—that was why it kept changing, was circumstances.
What are your memories of the Big Moon Ensemble that William Parker put together in 1979 or 1980, the recording that was recently released as part of his Centering box?
Well, I had thought at one point that that was my idea, that me and William both put that thing together, the double quartet. That idea came from Ornette Coleman’s double quartet; we wanted to do something like that. That concert was produced by Judy Smee, who at that time was my manager. So those pieces—that was an idea that William and I collaborated on. It was me and Danny Carter, Roy Campbell and Arthur Williams, William and Jay Oliver, and Dennis Charles and Rashid Bakr. I remember that ensemble. Dennis Charles had not been playing for a while, and it was a wonderful thing that he decided to start playing again, and playing with us.
You were also part of the Centering Big Band that he put together in 1984. How do you find room for an individual voice in an ensemble that size, when there are so many people kind of battling for space?
That is true. But, you know, a way to solve that, actually, is to do conduction, where the leader is actually the person in charge and is really conducting the movements of the orchestra. That’s one way to do it. Now, that particular band, that was William’s—he was in charge of that, and I forget how he arranged solos and stuff like that. I think the band basically just listened to each other, and when it came time for one person to step out, that person was allowed to do so. But like you say, with a big band like that, sometimes it’s really hard to control unless there’s somebody conducting.
A lot of your albums have been live recordings. Do you prefer to record live, or has it just been a matter of budget?
I actually prefer recording in a studio. But like you say, budget concerns. The reason I prefer a studio is, you can do several takes of a certain piece and pick the best ones. Live is live, and it is what it is. If it’s a good set, it gets recorded. That’s how that works out. And a lot of the stuff I did for Eremite was live recordings. It’s not necessarily something I prefer, but it was that way, economically.
On Judy’s Bounce, you play the song “One for Ornette” and it really does sound a lot like one of his pieces—you even capture his style on the horn very well. How influential was he on you, as a player and a composer?
Well, you know, he was a great influence on me as a composer, because that’s what he did, he composed. And like I said, to me it was in the spirit of storytelling. Ornette always had little stories to tell in his compositions and performances, and that’s what I liked, so that’s why I dedicated that piece to him. Plus, I was playing with Eddie Blackwell on that date, so I felt it was appropriate [laughs].
On Konstanze’s Delight, you’ve got Ellen Christi on vocals. How do you feel about vocals in avant-garde jazz, generally? How did that enhance that record, for you?
It was an experiment. It worked, so it felt right. So what happens is, for me, in order to tell a story, but with singers it’s always lyrics that tell the story, but I think in avant-garde music the vocalist has to be able to do improvisation, or some kind of system of scatting or playing without lyrics. And I think for me, that works when she just created—instead of singing lyrics—using her voice as another instrument. That worked for me, and I think it came off pretty well. She just became another instrument.
Nostalgia in Times Square is one of your most straightforward-sounding records, to my ear. Were you deliberately attempting to go in a more listener-friendly direction, or what? What was the thinking behind that record?
Well, yeah, you know. I had developed this relationship with Soul Note Records, and I thought maybe I could further nourish that relationship with that record. I don’t know; a lot of times, after that record was recorded and put out, I got a lot of feedback from my fans who thought that approach was problematic for them [laughs]. I got a lot of feedback from fans saying, “We want to hear you play avant-garde music!” So that was what happened with that.
How did you get together with Michael Ehlers at Eremite? You made quite a few records for his label.
Michael walked up to me at a show and approached me about doing some recordings for him, and for me it was a good idea, because I hadn’t recorded anything in a while. And like I said, I kind of prefer doing studio recordings. I think the very first record was a studio recording, with Laurence Cook and John Voigt.
Yeah, you did a studio album and a live album with that trio. How long was that group together, and what can you say about those records?
That group was just together for those two recordings, and it was not my idea. Laurence Cook was not my idea. John Voigt was. I had played with John Voigt before. He’s a very good bass player. But as good as Laurence Cook is, I would have preferred another drummer. But, you know, I can’t say it was a compromise. They’re very good records. It was like…Muntu had dissipated, and I was in a situation where I was putting together all different kinds of bands, performance-wise, and that was one of them.
Revolt of the Negro Lawn Jockeys was kind of a reunion with Khan Jamal, right? What was the impetus and inspiration behind that music?
Oh, yeah, I loved working with Khan Jamal. He’d recorded with me before, on that album with Ellen Christi, and I had an opportunity to put something together for the Vision Festival, I forget what year that was, but I put together that band, Cody Moffett and Nathan Breedlove and Khan Jamal and John Voigt. That was really great; I loved working with that band. I got a chance to perform some of this stuff I had written earlier, and it turned out very, very well. That was one of my best post-Muntu configurations.
The Spirit House album was a reunion of the Jus Grew Orchestra. What can you tell me about that group’s history?
I had been composing for a big band since I can remember. Even when I was back at Antioch, we got together some large configurations and performed in that area. That’s something I’ve always loved to do. And that band actually performed every week for about two years, the Jus Grew Orchestra, at this place down on the Lower East Side, a bookstore on Sixth Street, just off of Avenue D. We performed every Thursday night; I don’t quite remember the years, I think it was 81 to 82, or 82 to 83, but I did that for a while, and it was something where I was writing music every week and Butch Morris was conducting it. He was the original conductor, and that’s where I learned conduction, from Butch, actually, because he led it every Thursday for six or seven months. That recording, I think we did at the University of Massachusetts, and it was a really good opportunity to record that stuff.
You also recorded another live album with Jus Grew, at the 2001 Vision Festival – was that the end of that group, and do you think you’ll ever do anything on that scale again?
Oh yeah. Definitely, absolutely. I’m just looking for the opportunity right now. Whenever I get an opportunity, I’m gonna jump right on that. Assemble an orchestra, perform and try to record it. That’s like number one, two or three priority that I have right now, at this time. It’s at the top of my list.
The two New World Pygmies albums are very different from anything else in your catalog – they sound like North African music more than any kind of jazz. Was that material fully improvised, or did you and William Parker sit down and conceptualize it beforehand?
That was totally improvised, all of that. It wasn’t the first time we played together, though. I did a tour of Scandinavia with William and Hamid [Drake], I forget what year it was, but I remember after that tour that Eremite Records put together a little tour for us, and that’s just the way it came out. Nothing was written, if I remember correctly that was all improvisation. I remember doing a recording, just me and William, a couple of years prior to that, a duo album which was all written compositions. A couple that I wrote and a couple that he wrote. I forget the name of that, but then the trio came, and there was nothing written for that. But I remember going on tour with William and Hamid, in Scandinavia, and all that music was written by me. But none of it ever got recorded.
The way they work as a team seems very different from the way other players have worked behind you. So what’s it like playing in front of William and Hamid? Did it change your approach at all?
Yeah, you’re right. Because William and Hamid play together so much, they’ve developed something that’s thoroughly powerful and really different. So when you play with them, you have to really be in it and really be strong, because they can blow you away. Those two guys playing together can blow anybody off the bandstand. You really have to be on your feet to play with those guys. And it’s something they’ve developed – a power and rhythm that’s incredible, developed over years. If you are playing with them, it’s something you have to stand up to. It’s very, very strong.
You haven’t made an album leading a full band in over a decade – what’s kept you out of the studio? How much material did you have piled up?
I don’t know – economic circumstances, opportunity, you know, when I finally got an opportunity to do this CD. All the pieces but one I wrote, and I wanted to use a piano this time, so I got Matthew Shipp, who’s an incredible piano player, very knowledgeable about the tradition of jazz and the avant-garde. So I thought I would use him on a couple of pieces. I’d played with him a couple of times a long time ago, but I really admired his work that he did with David S. Ware. I thought that was really phenomenal. He kind of reminds me of another really wonderful avant-garde piano player, Don Pullen. Matt is—to me—like a cross between Cecil Taylor and Don Pullen. In his playing, he’s got a soulfulness—he’s avant-garde, but he’s got a churchy soulfulness about him. He’s very exciting. I did a couple of pieces with him. And Roy Campbell, my man Roy—me and Roy, we’d been together forever, it seems like. We’d done a lot of stuff together, so I wanted him on there. And Steve Swell, this is an interesting story. Me and Steve Swell, we go back to the ’80s also, in my Jus Grew Orchestra. But a couple of years ago, we did a tour of the United States, me, Steve, William Parker and Hamid Drake. That was really, really incredible band. And that band, Fire Into Music, recorded. A couple of times. One was called Swimming in a Galaxy of Goodwill and Sorrow, on the French label, Rogue Art. And we recorded in Marfa, Texas for some label [Ballroom Marfa], it was like a one-shot deal. We went to Marfa on that tour and recorded a live record, which is great. So that band, that conglomeration, me, Steve Swell, William Parker and Hamid Drake, recorded two records that I don’t think a lot of people know about. But what I was saying was that Steve is on my new record—a great, powerful, strong player who has a wonderful sense of tradition—and of course my man Roy, and then these guys, Hilliard Greene and Newman Taylor Baker, I’d been playing with them off and on for years and years and years, and I’d always wanted to do something with them in terms of recording. So that record turned out pretty well, I think. I’m proud of it, and it’s doing very well, and probably in the next couple of months I’m gonna do something like that again. The same record label. Maybe in late September or early October.
This is the first time you’ve recorded with a three-horn front line, right?
In a small band situation, yeah. It gives it a bigger sound, especially with the two brass—high brass and low brass, and the sax in between. It’s really a wonderful sound.
What inspired you to interpret Alice Coltrane’s “Ptah, the El Daoud” on this new album?
The piece itself. I always loved the piece, I used to play it just practicing. I never really performed it, but I’ve been playing that piece for years, cause I love it. I think it’s one of Alice’s signature pieces, so I decided to pull it out and we did it.
What do you think is next for you? You’re playing New York this month, and then are you writing more music, putting together a regular band? What are your plans?
Yeah, I’m gonna go back in in late September or early October. Roy is gone, but Nathan Breedlove, from the Negro Lawn Jockeys album, I’m gonna use him and Steve and myself and the same rhythm section. Hill Greene and Newman Taylor Baker, wonderful players.
Is the old loft scene energy completely gone, or is it still accessible?
Yeah, the energy is different these days. A lot of things have changed. But I think it’s still there; it’s always gonna be there, it’ll never go away. But it’s just about having access to it. I believe I’m in touch with it, and I can call it whenever I need it. The spirit of improvisation, free music, is happening, and so it’s just a matter of putting it all together and putting it into something that people can hear and feel and create something new and different. As long as you do that, and you’re dedicated to that, I think everything’s gonna be fine.