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

R.J. DeLuke By

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Award-winning writer Tom Moon spent about three years doing research for a book that recommends recordings people should listen to at some point, well, before they die. It's a well-considered and valuable book, and it champions a great way to fill leisure time while enlightening oneself. It guides readers into musical areas they may otherwise not investigate, exposing them to broad musical samplings that can push them toward even more explorations.

Moon's tome, "1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die" (Workman Publishing, 2008), is part of his valuable career as a music critic, that started in the 1980s. But his latest effort is quite different. He's recorded an album of his own music, on which he plays tenor sax. In a bit of an odd twist (though not totally unique—Leonard Feather played piano and did some recordings), it puts him out there for other critics, maybe even musicians, to scrutinize. That's a reality, but ultimately irrelevant. The music is an expression of Moon's creativity, and it's out there for people to experience and enjoy.

The changeover is not a stretch at all. Moon studied in the highly respected University of Miami music program, and made his living for a while in the Miami area playing his horn. He toured for about a year with Maynard Ferguson's big band. His music journalism career came up slowly, stemming from dissatisfaction with a lot of what he saw being written about music. Moon started writing for the Miami Herald years ago, then became a regular critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper. He has contributed to NPR's "All Things Considered" since 1996, and is a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Music Journalism award. But he never really stopped playing his sax. About a decade ago, he got into a flurry of writing songs. After his research for the book—which covers music in all genres—it became time to get that music out: hear what it could be, hear what it could do. The result is Into the Ojalá (Frosty Cordial Records, 2011), from what he calls the Moon Hotel Lounge Project.

Moon is a jazz fan who has playing experience in that world. But he also played in Latin bands around Miami and toured with a rock band. He played cruise ships and was in pit bands. Into the Ojalá is jazzy, with a decided samba, bossa nova influence in places like "What You Had When You Knew You Believed." He's backed by a solid group of musicians, including Kevin Hanson on guitar, who is also the album's producer.

Moon says the project is inspired by modern hotel lounges he encountered in his travels, with an intent to create "some sounds that could thrive in these spaces." It has accessibility, but also a hip, velvety coolness. Don't think in terms of tongue-in-cheek lounge music, where one can delight in the campy nature of it. That's not it. It's a serious musical statement from Moon. It's got a relaxed quality that comes out across the 10 tunes. Moon's sound and writing often give off a John Klemmer vibe ("Powerful Tonic," "Ronnie Waltz"), the saxophone rich and sensual. The music shifts nicely to and fro in the landscape Moon and his cohorts created.

When it comes to music, Moon is humble, confident, progressive and curious. Those are pretty good qualities. No doubt, they also shape his journalism.

The CD was recorded live, over the course of a few days in a studio, all the musicians playing together. But there were a couple overdubbed solos and some tinkering of the sound during the mixing, using ProTools. "I wasn't a jazz purist about it," says Moon, as he worked on the right atmosphere and vibe. "In order to do that, we're going to have to spend some time after the actual performance has ended. I know everyone is doing that now. ... I didn't have the purist dissonance that said, 'Oh my god, we're cheating.'"

The Latin influence comes from Moon's love of Brazilian music, especially singer Elis Regina and the inimitable Antonio Carlos Jobim. "I'd call Jobim tunes at jam sessions and tried to figure out, 'Is there a little bit of a zone here that's not being covered by the activity in jazz?' I realized some of my tunes fit into a little bit of a slot that was underserved ... for lack of a better word—almost isn't really jazz. It's almost lounge music. That's sort of the conceit of the ensemble. But it's also a mission, too."

Admits Moon, "I am not a technical player. There's nothing I'm going to do on the saxophone that other guys can't do ten times faster and more impressively. I'm just not that kind of a player. At the same time, I have something to say, and I have my own idea about how to play. It seemed like it would be a good challenge to try and create a subtle, open setting and see if any of these tunes could work in it. I was astounded to discover that, in fact, they did. I did not expect it. I didn't set out to make a record."

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