Jameel Moondoc

Muntu Recordings
No Business Records NBCD 7-8-9

By Ken Waxman

Made up of then-young improvisers who would become better known, Muntu could be described as one of the supergroups of New York’s so-called Loft Era; if the self-aggrandizing term wasn’t antithetical to free music. This handsomely packaged set collects three CDs of the band in different configurations plus a 115-page soft-cover book with a Muntu sessionography and essays on the band, the Black Arts Movement and the Loft Era. Of course this would be mere pretty packaging if the sounds didn’t live up to the hype. Careful listening reveals that Muntu began well and only improved. Only its members’ other projects forced it to dissolve.

Every track here includes the band’s core members: leader and chief composer alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, bassist William Parker and drummer Rashid Bakr. CD3 is a newly unearthed trio session from 1975; CD2 from 1979 is where trumpeter Roy Campbell joins Moondoc, Parker and Bakr; while CD1 is a quintet date with trumpeter Arthur Williams and pianist Mark Hennen plus the core three. While the third disc, featuring a 36½-minute run through of the saxophonist’s “Theme For Milford” is historically interesting, Muntu’s substance is defined on discs one and two.

Parker and Bakr are well-coordinated in their roles on the 1975 date, as the drummer exposes clinking rim shots, cymbal pops and clattering bells while the bassist’s rasgueado and walking evolve in double counterpoint. Unfortunately Moondoc isn’t as convincing. Sluicing timbres downwards and launching altissimo runs upwards he appears to be attempting to play both parts in a composition that calls for front-line counterbalance. At points his line seems to leech onto “A Love Supreme”; elsewhere his timbre squeezes reference Ornette Coleman’s early style. Oddly, before the piece ends with reed-biting cries and flattement, it sounds as if he’s quoting “Stranger in Paradise”.

Suggestions of Coleman’s pace-setting quartet are still present two years later when the five-piece Muntu tackles “Theme For Milford”. But with Williams’ trumpet and Hennen’s piano available for contrast the performance is poised and confident. Passing the theme between the horns, Williams plays moderato while Moondoc chimes in with tremolo slurs and honking trills. When the saxophonist turns to glossolalia and note undulations, the trumpeter’s dirty, triplet-laden whines correspond perfectly. Also notable are staccato crackles from Parker. Making the most of his space, Hennen begins with near-prepared-piano pumps than accelerates to jagged runs and rhythmic chording. “Flight (From The Yellow Dog)” is more of the same. Drum rolls, ruffs and rebounds; pounding piano keys; slurry tattoos from the trumpeter; stop-time bass work; and broken-octave reed slithering characterize it. Contrapuntally organized, Williams makes his most characteristic statement here with soaring brays or air pushed almost soundlessly through his horn.

Lacking a chordal instrument, the 1979 quartet with Campbell still produces a sound that is more textured than anything the band had yet created, especially on “The Evening Of The Blue Men, Part 3 (Double Expo)”. Bakr’s clattering cymbals and bass drum pops almost take on bop coloration while Parker counters with wild spiccato sawing. Moondoc masticates his reed into multiphonics alongside Campbell high-pitched theme variations. The band had also evolved to a point where the ballad “Theme For Diane” is treated with appropriate muted tenderness. A smooth trumpet obbligato decorates the saxophonist’s ornamental line, followed by an understated bass solo.

Bakr and Parker’s high-calibre work quickly drew the attention of pianist Cecil Taylor and both joined the Taylor Unit. Eventually Muntu dissolved. Since that time Moondoc gigs internationally as a sideman and with his own groups. Parker has become one of the most visible experimental players with a variety of projects on the go. Campbell leads his own bands and plays in other ensembles; while Hennen is part of the Collective 4tet. Star-crossed Williams’ heroin addiction and metal illness forced him off the scene, even before Campbell joined Muntu.

Like many other lesser-known groups, Muntu was a band which epitomized a particular time. Since its deficiencies were circumstantial and economic despite a wealth of talent, the band should have attained lasting fame and financial rewards. It didn’t, but at least this set captures Muntu at its musical heights.

Track Listing: CD 1: First Feeding; Flight (From The Yellow Dog); Theme For Milford (Mr. Body & Soul) CD 2: The Evening Of The Blue Men, Part 3 (Double Expo); Theme For Diane CD 3: Theme For Milford (Mr. Body and Soul)

Personnel: CD 1: Arthur Williams: trumpet; Jemeel Moondoc: alto saxophone; Mark Hennen: piano; William Parker: bass; Rashid Bakr: drums CD2: Roy Campbell Jr.: trumpet); Moondoc; Parker; Bakr CD3: Moondoc; Parker; Bakr

— For All About Jazz-New York July 2010