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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."

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."

His work got him noticed in Philadelphia, and he decided to move to that city and work for the Inquirer. "It was somewhat of a financial decision. It was also this idea that I knew I could communicate in words—that I had some things to say about music that weren't really out there. I would read the critics in daily papers. ... I would read them said say, 'This is totally lame. This review is based on what the cover art looks like.' As a musician and a student of music, I was affronted by that. Part of my thinking was: If I'm going to be true to the idea of music in the abstract, one of the things that maybe it needs right now is people who can talk about it and be effective advocates and explainers, cheerleaders, if necessary. At that point it seemed to me, and it's still true—probably more true now—that there was a place for intelligent—or at least an attempt at—intelligent writing about music that wasn't concerned with image and cover art and all the stuff that we see in what would come under 'celebrity journalism.'"

He went to Philly in 1988 and discovered a strong music scene. Moon had never stopped playing the sax, and in the City of Brotherly Love's vibrant scene, he would get involved in jam sessions. But he didn't do professional gigs, as the newspaper viewed that as a conflict of interest—"especially for someone coming from another town," Moon adds. "They did not think, for example, it would be good for me to be looking for gigs in Philly, seeking work from people I might have to someday write about. At the time I had to think about it, but it made sense. I stopped doing any sort of professional [music performance] work. I would play jam sessions. I never stopped playing my instrument for any length of time."

His journalistic career expanded over time, and his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, Blender, Spin, Vibe and other publications. He's interviewed hundreds of recording artists, among them Miles Davis, Keith Richards, Sonny Rollins, Madonna, Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits. Then he got into work for his book. It was his sole professional focus, except for occasional "All Things Considered" gigs. But when it was done, the world of journalism was rapidly changing.

"I had spent three years doing nothing else [except working on the book]. I wasn't going to jam sessions. I wasn't playing at all. After this thing came out, I discovered that the whole media landscape had changed." Print media opportunities were dwindling. The world of online writing is not the same animal. So his thoughts turned back to the performing of music.

"I've always played, and I always have written music," Moon says. Moon credits this to Ron Miller, a mentor who taught jazz composition at the University of Miami and also plays piano and writes. "He was one of these people, as a teacher, who wrote for his own groups and himself in a very compelling way, and did that all the time, no matter how busy he was. I always thought that was hip. ... Whenever I would have time to play, I'd want to create something. I ended up writing a lot of music."

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., "I had a period where I was like, 'Whoa. The world is going to end soon.' ... I had an 'Is this all there is?' moment. I thought I ought to see if there is anything I can express through music that I'm not getting through words. I wrote a bunch of music in that year, in a panic, almost," says Moon.

The move back to playing music was a natural progression.

"I think music is a lifelong thing," says Moon. "When you start doing it, you don't ever get to see an end point. Unless you're one of the very few complete instrumentalists—people like Coltrane or Michael Brecker or Joe Lovano. Unless you're at that level of mastery and you've been able to document that over and over again, what you're on is a lifelong journey of trying to get better a little bit at a time.

Moon, now 50, knew what he was getting back into. Even so, there were pleasant surprises. "To enter back into the world of music at this point in life, is, first of all, crazy and foolhardy on one level, somewhat," he says good-naturedly, "and on another level enormously heartening that musicians were patient and willing to welcome me into their world, and open enough to say, 'Hey, these tunes are cool. Let's see what we can make out of this.' That was unbelievable."

Moon adds, "I am living in this place of gratitude that these guys brought what they brought [to the music]. ... I always wanted to be able to communicate through music. I knew the writing had some meat on the bone, the tunes themselves. But never in a million years did I expect to be talking to you about something like this. It was not in my sights."

Moon had done a self-produced recording with some friends when he was in Miami, more as a tool to help them get gigs. This one was different, and there were very valuable learning experiences along the way. Moon grew to realize more sharply "what an enormous uphill mountain it is to go from one's conception to a disk" that is produced, fine-tuned and then eventually reaches the desk of a journalist for review. "It's easy to forget the amount of time it took for a little CD with 10 songs to climb that mountain. In addition to being a lot of fun, it was eye-opening to the level of: what does an independent artist face when they start."

Going through that has better informed him as a journalist. He doesn't worry so much about categorizing right away recordings that come to him. His priorities for listening are different.

As far as putting himself up for scrutiny by other critics, Moon has no worries. "It's less about apprehension and more about opening discussion about aesthetics and criticism, and what it means to the overall, long-term, protracted conversation about music. ... There's some value in knowing that the person who's reviewing X record actually can communicate through music. I can imagine people who I've reviewed in very severe fashion over the years listening to this and going, 'This makes sense now. I now understand that this is why this guy had such a blind spot on my record. He's obviously dialed into this one little world and doesn't get anything else.' That's not necessarily a fair perception, but at least there's some point, somewhere on the spectrum of music from Bach to Zappa, where I can say, 'This is where I live.' Whether that's useful to somebody who is an artist or not ... I hope it is." In an era where anyone with an opinion can toss it out on the Internet—which often takes the form of glib observations in place of considered, analytical professional criticism—Moon's CD "maybe offers a bit of a window ... that the opinions I arrived at came out of something."

Moon hopes to get gigs to play the new music. He's already written newer music he wants to try out in performance.

"I hope there's more. I think of music as a lifelong pursuit. It's not a get-rich-quick scheme. It's something I want to do. Hopefully, the Fates will align, and I'll be able to do it a little bit, going forward."

Selected Discography

Tom Moon, Into the Ojalá, (Frosty Cordial Records, 2011)



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