Jemeel Moondoc Tentet - Live at the Vision Festival

Alan Jones, Bagatellen

Jemeel Moondoc's presence at Vision Festival, in one fashion or another, is a certainty. As a pioneering voice of the Downtown sound, Moondoc is one of the area's more respected musicians - creative, dependable, consistent. His music makes clear an understanding of the personal and social relationship of improvisation and the city. Neither is it bold, nor especially well-crafted, but when Moondoc is on, he is ablaze, with an ability to harness and simultaneously unleash a 40-year history of local music and the many faces/embodiments from which it has blown. His success, like anyone else's, is often a matter of his chosen company.

There are markedly different qualities that separate the small sounds from the large. In a Moondoc trio, one can expect to hear that New York brand of free "energy music" that aims to be huge while having no premeditated hooks, only forceful continuity. Yet his larger ensemble recordings are, historically, just the opposite; composition laced with big horn parts, attractive changes, abundant solo space and, yes, swing. It is in these larger contexts that Moondoc shines, having a knack for placing the right musicians in the right chairs. Take the trumpet line of Roy Campbell and Nathan Breedlove. Campbell with his participation in several key areas of an ever-expanding plane of improvised music, at times Don Cherry-incarnate, and others a distinctive trumpeter riding between overplay and stylistic headway. And Breedlove, whose raunchy sound and lyrical phrasing contrast wonderfully against the deeper edges of a rhythm section. The Jus Grew Orchestra, with its perhaps more-stable-than-others lineup, calls to tradition in its own structure, using chunks of sound and slivery melodies that come off animated, if not faintly emulated. Jazz, blues and soul are simultaneously incorporated. "From way back, to straight ahead," Moondoc says, "the lowdown nasty so high up and sassy."

Live at the Vision Festival has the distinction of being the first commercial release to bear that conventional title; each year's convening runs with the tapes continuously rolling, as it was with the Jus Grew Orchestra in 2001. The results are only satisfactory. A fairly uneven sequence of music, the recording is blessed by whatever secret recipe it is the folks at Ayler have for the mastering and finalizing of their tapes. The disc opens with a cruiser of a number, Moondoc's "Opulent Continuum," fiery horns in the front, swings and swells at the rear. But the generic "The Blue Dog - Blues for Earl Cross" follows, with a catatonic rhythm section put in paralysis by John Voigt's matter-of-fact bass line. Bern Nix shows his chops on guitar, but sadly is given no place to take off other than in predictable opportunities to submit some killer blues licks. The remainder of the recording continues with changes that call to Mingus and Ellington, Moondoc performing finely enough as a director of his personnel assets - this is the leader's high mark: knowing his musicians and having a feel for texture in the overall compositional picture. Unlike many of Moondoc's other recordings, that spirituality of sorts that passes through the music and pervades our sense - a message, if you will, whose meaning is peculiar, if not indiscernible - is absent here. Maybe his music's intent is to be at once purposeful but mysterious. The problem with mystery is that, if not written with precision and with intent to surprise with little room for misinterpretation, the results will be so varied as to distract from the desire to truly understand.

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