The concept of an improvisational orchestra seems incongruous. But, the truth is that this orchestra works, really works. The rhythm section is made up of Bern Nix on electric guitar, Cody Moffett on drums, & John Voigt on bass. The remaining players are Steve Swell and Tyrone Hill on trombones, Lewis "Flip" Barnes and Roy Campbell on trumpets, Zane Massey on tenor and Michael Marcus on bari sax and reeds. At the helm, is Chicago-born, alto saxophonist, Jemeel Moondoc.
This band has a perfect structure. Spatially, the rhythm section resides at the back, becomes the strong, surprisingly often straight ahead, support for the brass which is spread in front of it in pairs, from left to right--the trombones, the trumpets, the saxes - with Moondoc poised in the front. When Moondoc conducts, he is shaping what the musicians are giving him in sound. His back to the audience, Moondoc dances; he curls and uncurls his wiry fingers, furiously shakes his arms and hands to encourage, to pull sound from one or all instruments; or his arms and hands gracefully undulate like bird wings to direct the pace to slow and the tones to soften. He mostly sculpts the brass. The rhythm section is so reliably strong that it provides an undeniable foundation on which the brass can improvise. The brass becomes the river that can flow on its own, even when Moondoc is not gesturing to any of the players.
The interplay between Moondoc and the orchestra is one of complete integrity. Each player can become his own conductor all the while recognizing that Moondoc is the major sound sculptor. The solos performed by each player, including Moondoc, demonstrate precision and comfort with his instrument. The music that comes out of the band extends over a wide range from blues tunes to tunes with a Latin beat to tunes that swell with the grandeur like those heard from swinging traditional big bands.
And most significantly, there is music that stays together even when it appears to be falling apart. Moondoc responds to what each instrument is doing--he molds texture; he evokes the nature of the musical mood- delicious, sour, mellifluous, jagged. He extrudes music out of each pair of brass instruments, then balances each pair so they are working together in unison, then pushes one pair out, leaves another in, then elicits a solo from each instrument at the right point, then repeats the whole pattern all over again but in a different sequence.
Waves of structure phase with those of structurelessness. Individual instruments build bridges from one section of music to the next; individual instruments also round out the sound perfectly within the orchestral sound. In fact within each of two sets performed, movements of the music were markedly distinguishable, although you would have thought that the music was endless. Moondoc "conducts" from side to side, comes to & stays in the center, hears it all and finally closes the musical parentheses with his body, his hands, his mind.
The thrill of the musical content of the orchestra’s performance last night envigorated and instilled in the audience a momentum that bonded the two groups together in a way that was exceptional. Perhaps it was my complete openness and lack of preconception and expectation that let me hear and be totally inspired. As Moondoc wrote years ago on an album he autographed for a friend: "We put our spell on you -- voodoo to you".
Ya’ damn straight.
(This band’s performance at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, March 31, 2000 will be recorded on Eremite Records - website: http://www.eremite.com)