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Interviews

Tom Moon: From Musician to Critic--And Back Again

By Published: February 8, 2011
In the meantime, Moon "kept hearing in my head some of the people I've covered over the years," and among them was Hanson. "I kept thinking about Kevin in relationship to these tunes, also his drummer Eric Johnson. I really wanted to see what happened to the tunes if I ever get the chance to play them with Kevin and his guys. We did, and it was great." Moon got studio time and went to work.

"It's not what I set out to do. We recorded more than what's on the record," he notes. "Some of it we couldn't use because it was long. ... I found this one really good bossa nova beat on a drum machine. It really seemed to swing, and it had a lot of energy and was subtle and all that. So I had about five tunes that were demoed with the same beat at different tempos. When we got into the studio, we messed with them. One of them is 'Scaffolding, How to Dismantle,' which has this slow, processional, almost a Radiohead vibe. That started its life as a bossa nova, sort of in the Jobim style. But if we had recorded it that way, we would have found that there's too much of that kind of stuff on the record."

Moon is careful about categorizing the music. "This is not a jazz record. It doesn't fit the Wynton [Marsalis] definition in terms of swing. Except for the waltzes, it doesn't swing. There's plenty of improvisation, but it's not in that realm of testosterone—which I love. I respect that enormously. It feels to me like something I can't do anyway, so let me go in this other direction, and let me make something that possibly has this other dimension to it or suggests exploration in a different way." He adds, "I'm not an athletic player. My writing is not that way, either. There are a lot of long tones in the melodies. There's nothing that's tricky to play. The guys play plenty into it, but the actual tablet, the template of the pieces, in most cases is very simple."

Moon was also careful to assemble the music in a way that gives it a flow, a certain thematic order. "There's a real alchemy involved in setting pieces next to each other and making them work together, making them feel like they fit together. I'm so old school about the album as being a meaningful thing. There is something to be said for developing what is a journey."

Moon's musical journey began where he grew up, outside of Washington, D.C., in McLean, Virginia. He played sax in high school and at jam sessions in his area. That led him to the University of Miami and his pursuit of music studies. After getting his degree, he based himself in Miami and got gigs, including the stint with Ferguson. He also taught jazz history for non-jazz majors at the University of Miami, for a while. In the early 1980s, Moon became frustrated, or at least disappointed, with a lot of the articles he saw being written about music in the Miami newspaper. One in particular was a write- up on Carly Simon's Torch album, in which she covered some of the Great American Songbook.

"The reviewer rhapsodized about the way Carly Simon looked on the cover and didn't talk at all about what the music was like. I wrote a letter to one of the editors. ... We corresponded a few times, and he said, 'Well, you think you could do better?'" The newspaper sent him to jazz concerts and he impressed the editors. "I was very lucky there, to have editors who were patient and willing to teach me the nuts and bolts of how to build a review, how to write a feature story—things that were not really in my experience. I went to music school. My college years were in practice rooms and jam sessions and stuff."

Moon would be absent from journalism while on the road as a working musician, then would re-establish contact when he was back home. Eventually, writing assignments branched into other genres. "As they had need for other work, they would ask me to do things that weren't jazz. That was great, because I believed in the idea that you can't learn just about one type of music without becoming curious about other types of music. ... I went from being a purist-type scholar or critic, into somebody who was curious about all of it. I was lucky enough to have editors who didn't say, 'This is out of your wheelhouse, so we can't give this to you.' This was more like, 'Give this a try.'

At the time I started writing, I was young enough to not be tethered, and I spent a lot of time out hearing stuff: getting the education of a critic by doing it, rather than going to journalism school or something."


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