Turning The Tables On The Music Critic: A Conversation With Tom Moon

Tom Moon i i

Music writer Tom Moon has just released Into The Ojalá, his first album in over 20 years. Birdie Busch/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption Birdie Busch/Courtesy of the artist
Tom Moon

Music writer Tom Moon has just released Into The Ojalá, his first album in over 20 years.

Birdie Busch/Courtesy of the artist

Regular NPR listeners know Tom Moon as one of the fellows who regularly talks about new CDs at the ends of hours on All Things Considered. Philadelphia area music fans may also know him for his long tenure as a critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Or even if you're neither a frequent listener nor Philly resident, you may have read his marvelously eclectic book 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die.

Tom Moon also plays the saxophone; he studied music at the University of Miami, and spent time in the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra, among other professional opportunities. But he largely put his career in music on hold to focus on journalism; by 2008, he hadn't recorded his own material in some 20-odd years. So it was a bit of a surprise to see him just issue his sophomore release, Into The Ojalá, with a band he calls the Moon Hotel Lounge Project. Like Moon's criticism, there's ample room for jazz in his aesthetic, but that's certainly not all there is; dreamy Latin rhythms and spacey, almost downtempo grooves suffuse the recording. Here's a taste:

Into the Ojala

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Into the Ojala

More Information: intotheojala.com

Now that the critic volunteered himself to become the criticized, I wanted to see what Moon had learned from the experience. Why did he do this? What was it like to have the spotlight on him, for a change? What kind of sound was he aiming for, and what did jazz have to do with any of it? I sent off a few questions via e-mail, and he most graciously responded:


Patrick Jarenwattananon: So the biggest question is: Why? Why, after 20-plus years away from the studio, did the music need to come out then and there? I think of this great quotation that Shaun Brady extracted from you: "To bring music into this overcrowded world that's already choking with music is an act of some arrogance."

Tom Moon: Why not? There is no rulebook for music, as you know, or for that matter, music journalism. There's nobody up in the Critic Central Ivory Tower telling scribes how to behave, setting down lines that cannot be crossed. One key trait of culture in the Internet era has to do with fluidity — people who work in one discipline can, with the necessary skills and gumption, take a flying leap into another discipline. I'd argue this is healthy. If you're here to grow as a human being, you find yourself trying things all the time.

What happened to me is fairly typical of a phenomenon that might be called "downsized into creativity." After the book I did [1,000 Recordings], I discovered that the entire dynamic of freelancing had changed: Without a steady platform, I found myself spending much more time hustling writing work than actually writing. That was a recipe for frustration, and as I have always done at any crisis point in life, I turned to music. Over a period of time I began to revisit tunes I'd started years before. That investigation sparked new tunes. And that got me thinking I should get out of the attic and play with people again. And so on. Before I knew it, I was in it. I didn't start out trying to make a record: I started out curious to see if, after a long time away, I could communicate through music. What I found surprised me.

PJ: How did you fall into writing about music in the first place? If I may be a bit blunt, your biographical sketch leads one to believe your career as a performer wasn't exactly on the fast track to Saxophone Colossus Status when you began focusing on journalism, those cruise-ship gigs notwithstanding ...

TM: I studied music in the jazz program at the University of Miami, at a time (1979-1983) when the place was exploding with talent. By the semester break of my freshman year, I already knew I'd never have the requisite technique to become a titan of the instrument. I quickly made peace with that; we have enough titans. Instead I focused on tone and on composition, and was incredibly lucky to study with Ron Miller, the composer, who was the first person to encourage what he heard as an "original" voice.

Around that same time, a friend told me that the student newspaper was giving away records and if you agreed to write a few reviews you could walk away with a stack of stuff. I was fairly obsessed with music, so this seemed like a good deal, and I started writing little reviews. One of the highlights of that was getting a copy of Steely Dan's Gaucho on the day it came out, and having to listen quickly and write something on deadline for the first time. It wasn't very good criticism, but I got swept up in the challenge of it.

After a year or so I stopped writing for the school paper because I was busy playing gigs. But I still read the local paper (The Miami Herald), and when I was a senior at UM I wrote a series of letters complaining about the music coverage there. On the third volley an exasperated editor said, "Do you think you can do better?" I said yes. So they sent me to cover jazz concerts — they'd publish their staff writer but read my reviews and give me advice. After I few weeks, they started publishing my stuff. I was incredibly lucky to have patient editors who were willing to take time to literally teach me how to do it.

PJ: What do you think the experiences of studying music intensely in college, and then "paying dues" as a working saxophonist, have brought to the way you cover music? Was any of it affirmed or changed after making this recording? Like, was there any one particular experience that made you think, "Man, I really need to change how I do criticism to better portray what musicians go through!"

TM: On the most basic level, I feel like I can fairly quickly discern the "nuts and bolts" of a piece of music — I read scores, I transcribed solos, I tried to emulate the tone of certain players. I still spend time under the hood, so to speak: If there's something I don't understand in a record I'm reviewing, I can go to the piano and usually figure it out. I'm not claiming this as any kind of special thing; it's just another tool in the kit, one that lots of critics use. I believe that as critics, our reactions to a piece are much less consequential than our understanding of what the artist is intending; the quote on my wall says, "You cannot have critics with standards, you can have music with standards which critics may observe." I believe that. I've always tried to let my understanding of the discipline of the musician inform and guide my criticism.

If anything, the time I've spent this past year returning to active music-making has sorta affirmed the soundness of that approach. Too often, critics bring a bunch of possibly unfair and unrealistic expectations to a work. I also believe that music is a lifelong pursuit, like yoga, and regardless of how one interacts with it — as a student, performer, critic — the idea is to stretch one's perceptions, remain open, etc. Mastery is unattainable where music is concerned: There's always more to learn. Music is endless.

As for this project, among the goals was to try to grok the computer-based production approach (we recorded live into ProTools and were then able to mix and tweak each individual instrument) and all that. I knew about it in the abstract but it was another thing to see the options and the decisions up close. The engineer, a great drummer named Vic Stevens, had what proved to be an essential zen attitude and was constantly explaining the choices, making sure I understood the options. I completely get why musicians enjoy the studio — in an instant, it can reveal all the soul and all the shortcomings, too.

PJ: What was it like to recruit the band for this project? Did you know some of the cats from jamming 'round town in Philadelphia, or work with them before? And what was it like to call up a guitarist and producer — Kevin Hanson — whose band you once gave a bad review to?

TM: I knew the core rhythm section from Huffamoose, which was a Philly band that I'd written about regularly in the '90s. As you said, I wrote a fairly harsh review of what turned out to be the band's last album, and after that I didn't talk to those guys or see them for a few years. Thing was, though, the tunes I was writing sometimes seemed to call out for certain players — guys I'd played with on cruise ships, or in Miami. In several cases, I kept hearing the Huffamoose drummer, Erik Johnson, who might just be one of the most solid and inspiring timekeepers I've ever encountered. Also Kevin Hanson. I ran into him playing a jazz gig and just tearing it up a couple of years ago, and that was one of those "seeds of an idea" moments — I knew that if I could convince him to play my tunes, he would make them better. Much better. But I was in the middle of working on the book, and frankly still intimidated by the bad review thing — I fully expected him to tell me to get lost if/when I called. When we did finally connect, it was just all about music; the first time we talked about that review was a few weeks ago, when somebody who was doing a story asked me about it.

I should add that as soon as I got over my initial trepidation, Kevin and I became friends pretty quickly. We talked a lot about music, all kinds, and he very gingerly shared ideas about the tunes, and just playing them in duet fashion I felt incredibly encouraged. Kevin is the kind of musician who makes everyone around him better. And in case I haven't made it clear, I am the kind of musician who needs that. Kevin was interested in seeing what we might make of the material. He didn't care that I'd been away from music for 20 years, didn't care that I was a critic. I have to say, to be welcomed back into the community of music-makers this way was an incredible thing. I will be grateful for that forever.

PJ: Tell me what you were aiming for with the "hotel lounge" aesthetic of this stuff. Is this an idea you've been working up for some time, perceiving some unexplored territory in the synthesis of stylistic references?

TM: The "unexplored territory" is more of a mindset: Does the musician come out with guns blazing and demand attention, or does the musician operate more in the background, the shadows? This is worth thinking about right now, in this moment where so much music travels for free. Music has lost a bit of respect, its standing in the world. Sometimes I feel like saying, "This is not a 99 cent commodity!" I'm not at all against sharing music, but I do think that now, a generation or so into the file-sharing ethos, the public at large seems to have the mindset that music is something that's easily obtained — and that means it can be easily discarded. This could be my own sensitivity, but it seems that as a result, people are comfortable talking over a live performance, or just disregarding whatever is going on in a room so they can send a text or whatever. Our screens are preventing us from fully using our ears.

I witnessed this epidemic in very nice lounges all over the place. The musicians did not seem bothered by it — maybe they're just resigned to the whole thing, or they welcome being left alone. That's what made me want to play my music in these types of spaces: Rather than start from the presumption that what I'm bringing is "art," I quite like starting from the notion of ignorability. Leave us alone, and let us see if we can slip into your subconscious. Take that call, volley back those texts, we'll still be playing — and if you let your mind drift a bit, you might encounter some pleasant, slightly melancholy sounds. The first time we played as a group, the seven of us, we discovered that all kinds of quiet possibilities were available. There is room to be subversive. You can begin with a simple heartfelt melody, and if you are really working with it and believing in it, you can take it someplace that's quiet and wonderful and entirely appropriate for the surroundings.

That's one of the things I most admire about [Antonio Carlos] Jobim. What's more background music than "Wave" or any of his tunes, right? Look more deeply and you find that under the smooth cocktail-hour veneer, there's an enormous amount of musical sophistication going on. His melodies pack a deep emotional wallop — if you let them. His chords are like maps to idealized worlds. In terms of pure songcraft, it's possible to make a case for Jobim as the most important composer of the second half of the 20th century.

PJ: One of the things I quite like about your writing and radio pieces is that you make it a point to cover jazz (and other "intimidating" music) and put it in the same "space" as rock, or Brazilian music, or modern pop, etc. It seems as if that's what you're going after in your music too, to some extent.

TM: I am a generalist for sure. While I certainly respect the knowledge of critics who concentrate exclusively on one area, those who have influenced me the most — Jon Pareles of The New York Times, for starters — are interested in lots of different music, and bring readers into the search for connections between styles. I believe that if you're fundamentally curious, you will sooner or later bump up against music that is completely alien to you — and when that happens, there's plenty to gain by grappling with it. As a critic or musician or listener.

As for my compositions, I never really thought about that before. I guess maybe that has something to do with coming up in Miami, where sounds and philosophies either coexist or are readily mixed together. One of my tunes sorta switches between an Afro-Cuban clave and a more fluid Brazilian rhythm; a purist might have "issues" with that but to me it hangs together.

PJ: As a guy who has studied jazz, and often writes about it, and credits Joao Gilberto, Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis, and hired jazz-capable musicians to work this music out, jazz must be an important element here — even if it's not capital-J Jazz music. Could you speak on that?

TM: All during the process of this, I felt there was a fairly clear distinction between "capital-J Jazz" and my comparatively lightweight endeavor — which I hear as certainly incorporating improvisation and chord changes found in jazz, among other elements, but not living exclusively under that umbrella. The genre distinction game is useful only up to a point: As a musician and a critic, I'm much less interested in what something is called than the sound and essence of it. If there isn't an existing line in a dropdown menu to slot something in, that obviously can impair its chances in the marketplace, but that doesn't mean the music is flawed. The categories and the funneling of music into categories is what's flawed. I went enough rounds with the neo-traditionalists as a critic to know that Into the Ojala doesn't align with the "Wynton Marsalis test" of what jazz is. Fine by me!

And just to clarify: The musicians here do not consider themselves exclusively jazz musicians or rock musicians. They are simply musicians, capable of conversing in a number of different styles. To fully appreciate the range and depth of this rhythm section, check out anything on The Fractals' Heavy Rotation.

PJ: I gather you produced and released this album yourself, too. I presume that working as a critic, you gained a good sense of how the record business operates in 2010. But I also bet you learned something new about the process, no?

TM: Actually it was produced by Kevin Hanson, the guitarist. He is one of the most positive people I've met, and I really think had it not been for his enthusiasm this project would have remained in my attic, in demo form. He and I talked a lot beforehand about strategies and options for capturing the music, and it was interesting, in those conversations, for us to compare our experiences and knowledge of recording and also the business, having seen it from different sides.

Once we did a "gutcheck" and it became clear that this was music we felt positive about sharing, I embarked on what might be called a "crash course" in the indie side of the business. As has been said often in recent years, there are tons of tools available to someone who wants to contribute music to the discussion — the company CD Baby is set up to help independent artists at virtually every step, from physical CD sales to administering digital distribution and helping with promotion. Lots of that stuff takes serious investments of time and money — it's a journey you have to take one step at a time; you have to decide whether to pay this guy in the tollbooth who says he can get your music on the radio, or that guy at a different onramp who can send a gazillion hits to your site. Right now I'm trying to decide whether Facebook ads are a good value or the next giant step in the evolution of evil marketing. Going through that process gave me incredible insight into the road original music travels before it winds up on a critic's desk. In a way, it offered a type of professional development and education I didn't anticipate. And wouldn't trade it for anything.

PJ: Do you find you process music differently as a critic vs. a musician? Like, I was never a musician even on the cruise-ship gig level, but the stuff that still inspires me to shed, or even just work out ideas on a piano — I find I think about it a bit differently than stuff I have to intellectualize into words and histories and narratives.

TM: First, with all respect, it takes a considerable degree of skill to entertain people on cruise ships. Even in the cocktail lounges where all the drinks are free. In a sense, it can be much more difficult to stir an emotion within a guest on a ship than a paying customer in a concert hall.

Now, to your primary question: I don't think I process music any differently when playing or listening. In both settings I want to be moved; I want to encounter sounds that take my breath away. What I've learned lately — and never knew as a young musician — has to do with what might be called the "evaluative" mind: As a critic I sometimes listen with a focus on pitch or tone, or for the moment when a soloist lands on a "wrong" note. That's part of the job — to see if the bases are covered, if the fundamentals are dialed in. When you're playing music, and especially improvising, sometimes paying too much attention to those details can change the flow of the music. Gunk things up. I've had to learn to sorta "quiet" the evaluating mind and let stuff happen, to be willing to take leaps and make mistakes.

PJ: So now that you've put yourself "out there," are you hearing any insightful (or at least interesting) feedback from any of your fellow critics?

TM: I'm grateful to be reviewed at all — there's lots of music out here to cover. As I said in one interview, I'm an extra-large target, an easy target for a snark-dispensing critic. There's been some sharp and totally constructive criticism about how the material is a bit too easy listening, and also some fairly glib stuff making the same point. For me, that's been easily offset by people who have commented on specific aspects of the music — several people have said they appreciate these unusual chord progressions and the moods they suggest, which is big for me.

Also heartening are the comments about the soloists — the pianist Mike Frank has a couple of solos on the Rhodes that I think are marvels of motivic development, and it's nice that others are hearing that too. Same thing with the guitar solos — I love that people whose ears I respect are as enthusiastic about Kevin Hanson's playing as I am.

PJ: As you surely know, much of the appeal of jazz and improvised music is that it really ought to be seen live. I gather you're planning to play this stuff on a real stage for actual people?

TM: Yes, weather permitting, our first gig is Jan. 30 at a small and wonderful room in South Philadelphia called L'Etage. I have no idea if any "actual people" will show up.

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