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Ras Moshe is not a name most people are familiar with. If you listen to straight ahead jazz you probably wouldn't know Ras. Now if you go to some of the 'downtown' performances in New York City and Brooklyn you probably have seen him play. I heard him ten years ago playing Tenor Sax at the Sunday Night Avant Series hosted by Dee Pop at the now defunct CBGB'S. I listened very intensely because many feel free form players are not real players or musicians. Based on what I've heard and seen, some of those opinions are true, but there are a host of improvisers that are above the cut and Ras is definitely one of them.
From the very beginning I could hear a history in his playing. He was 37 years old then and I said to myself, "this guy can play, and if he keeps on growing he will be an absolute monster." I am here to tell you he is. He is studied and disciplined, with a gentle soul and a quiet demeanor. He has a great smile and a heart of gold. His quiet demeanor is misleading because when he plays, he explodes with excitement. That is why in 2006 I asked him if he would play Alto Sax on my The Vampire's Revenge CD. When we were about to record the title tune where Ras is the first soloist I said to him, "Ras, this is why you are here. Play and don't hold back and play as much as you want." His solo was everything you would expect from a player of his caliber, as were all the musicians on that date.
This is my first interview for All About Jazz. Up to now I've been writing articles. I've decided that once in a while it would be good to 'change it up' and so I have.
Let me introduce you to Ras Moshe.
AAJ. You were born March 22 1968 with the name Theodore Burnett III. When did you become Ras Moshe and why?
RM. My grandfather's name was Theodore Burnett the 1st. My dad was the 2nd. I'm the 3rd. My Grandfather came here from Jamaica in the 1930's and played Alto and Tenor and recorded with many big bands too.
I received the name Moshe due to a religious conversion in the family when I was about ten. The Ethiopian name Ras came when I got deeper into Rastafarian culture. It's a practice of using the prefix "Ras" before various names. It also means "child of the sun" which is what I prefer. Ras Moshe is like a stage name, but I am the same person.
AAJ. You studied with your father. Did you study with anyone else?
RM . I also studied with my Grandfather. Both he and my father were strict with the lessons, but in a loving way. I was also part of the Heritage Symphony Orchestra, a youth Orchestra that had classes in Pratt Institute. We played a repertoire of Classical music written by Black Composers. I was 13 or 14.
AAJ. What was your attraction to Jazz when other kids your age were listening to Pop, Soul, R&R and Reggae?
RM . I heard Jazz a lot in the house. My father was a serious fan as well as a great Alto player. Also, parallel to that, I got into music for my own reasons too. For me it is a spiritual and social calling. My maternal Grandfather didn't play music like my father, but he listened to music a lot. Growing up around Jazz in that time period was not as uncommon as it got to be later on. When I was growing up, all the music aside from Jazz was innovative as well, regardless of genre, so I listened primarily to Jazz. I grew up with Reggae as well and I played both. Things started to change for me in the late 70's/early 80's.
ABJ. How did things change in the late 70's/80's?
RM . Things changed because the music in the neighborhood got more generic. The messages weren't very good and it seemed like it was an intentional thing. This particular critique is not because it was "popular" but because of the content. Also actual instruments, unlike the pop music, were more and more through time not making that music earlier on.
AAJ. When you started playing jazz, did you play the standard jazz repertoire?
RM. There was the standard jazz repertoire in my formative years, via the school band from the 5th grade throughout High School. Some of the songs we all know and love.
AAJ. Did you study harmony and theory? If so, where or with whom?
RM . I learned Harmony and Theory in the school bands I played in. My High School the teacher always let us practice even if it wasn't time for class. He showed us a lot. I also took some classes with Jazz Mobile, which brought me closer to jazz.
AAJ. Are you comfortable playing on chord changes?
RM. I am comfortable playing on chord changes. I think that is a natural conception of my playing even when I'm not using composition.
AAJ. Did you go to college or did you become a professional musician after High School?
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.