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Tom Moon: The Second Life.

December 3, 2013

TomMoon02Text by Kevin Stairiker. Images by Michael Bucher.

Tom Moon is taking back cocktail hour.

The 52-year-old saxophone player, along with his Latin jazz-inspired group Ensemble Novo, are aiming to bring chill music back to Philadelphia clubs. Their latest album, Blue Night, which dropped in July, displays the full fervor of a repertoire that, as Moon jokingly describes, “falls between the early bossa nova and 1975, when things get to be very electric piano-ed out in Brazil.”

“I wanted to make a lounge record,” Moon says. “I wanted it to be very chill, approachable and you could put it on, and boom, it’s cocktail hour. At our show last night, someone said to me, ‘This is better than a margarita!’ I said, ‘Can I quote you on that?’”

The way Moon describes their music is filled with both scholarly knowledge and a natural giddiness to share. Moon has been providing paths to hundreds of artists for decades as a music critic featured in national publications like Spin and Esquire, and on NPR’s All Things Considered.

TomMoon01Moon’s journalism career began innocently. He was in it for the free records.

“During sophomore year of college, I saw one of my friends on campus carrying a stack of vinyl,” recalls Moon. “He said, ‘I’ve been doing these little record reviews in the school paper and they give you free records!’ And I thought, ‘Well, that sounds pretty good.’”

While working on a degree in jazz with a focus on saxophone,  he began contributing to the University of Miami’s school newspaper.  After graduating, Moon spent a few years reviewing jazz shows for the Miami Herald while also playing gigs. In 1988, he came here to work for the Philadelphia Inquirer as a music critic – but it came with a catch.

“I had to sign a contract saying, ‘I will not derive any income from playing music while I’m in your employ,’” Moon says, citing traditional journalism ethics. “I still practiced and attended jam sessions every once in awhile. They didn’t want me to curtail all activity. I just couldn’t get paid for it.”

Throughout his 18-year tenure at the newspaper, Moon’s saxophone never rusted but he admits he lost skills and the drive to play. When his stay at the Inquirer ended with a buyout in 2005, Moon dove into writing the seemingly impossible book 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.

After compiling choices that he’d sought out during interviews with people as varied as Tom Waits and Madonna, Moon spent three years listening obsessively to nearly every style of music he could find, turning a grand idea into a reality by not doing much of anything else. It was only after the excessive touring to promote the book that he thought about playing again.

“I remember being in my office, sending emails, trying to find work and then 11:30 in the morning rolled around and I thought, ‘Well, what now?’”  Moon says. “I was in sort of a dark patch at the time and during that point, I was probably no good to anyone and I wasn’t really writing, so I found myself playing as a stress relief. It was interesting to see what I remembered and what I had totally lost.”

Moon’s resurgence back into being a musician was not an easy task. He started attending jam sessions at Milkboy Coffee in Ardmore, and was nervous to be playing alongside recent college graduates. But Moon linked up quickly with guitarist Ryan McNeely, who was in the Milkboy house band, and the seeds for Blue Night were planted.

“I hadn’t played in a really long time and I was worried,” Moon says. “I don’t remember what tune I suggested, maybe ‘Once I Loved’ or another Jobim tune. He knew it and it was great. He’s quite the scholar on Brazilian music. I remember as soon as it was over, I was thinking, ‘This is the most fun ever!’”

The twenty four year-old McNeely has similar feelings.

“Playing with Tom is a pleasure because he’s such a fanatic about music,” he says. “I don’t know anyone else as eager and willing to put up with all the hassles and roadblocks in the way of performing live jazz for audiences as Tom. He is able to draw from his vast listening and reviewing experience when playing and can be the critic when trying to edit an album together.”

Moon’s new ambitions for Ensemble Novo are purely to entertain audiences in a way that doesn’t belittle their sensibilities.

“Can five or six people get together and play something that’s gentle and has ripples instead of anything big?” he asks. “It’s challenging.”

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