Tom Moon

A Critic Reboots as a Performer

Tom Moon was the pop music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer for nearly 20 years. He left the newspaper to write a book,  1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, which came out in 2008, but hit a wall when he tried to get back into journalism. Frustrated and rudderless, Moon picked up his long-neglected tenor saxophone and began to practice. What began as a salve during troubled times morphed into a reignited passion. Moon wrote and recorded an album, “Into the Ojala,” as the Moon Hotel Lounge Project, and released it earlier this year.

Q: Did it weigh on you, while making this record, that you would be seen not just as a musician but as a music critic stepping over to the other side?

A: Not much at all.

Q: Really?

A: I don’t know how old you are, but I’m 50. In the days when I was coming into journalism, if you were on the track to work for a place like the one where you worked or where I worked, you immediately and forever forswore doing anything in your discipline. And then I watched the Internet redraw all the lines for recording artists and for arbiters. People were playing both sides of the fence. So somewhere in this recent evolution I finally decided that there’s no reason not to. It was very much not my intention to put it out, though, initially. The acid test was, “Does this actually contribute something that’s not in the conversation already?”

Q: What was your original intention? To just engage in the creative process?

A: That’s right. And to document the music. I’d done that many years before. I made a record before I was hired by The Inquirer and participated in several other records when I lived in Miami. And I always considered the process of just developing music and writing songs and composing and playing with people to be, you know, an incredibly important learning process, whether or not I ever shared it with anyone. And the entire time I was at the Miami Herald and then the Inquirer, I went to jam sessions. I played as much as I could, I continued to write. To me it was more the discipline, in the way that, say, yoga is discipline. You do it because if you don’t then there’s atrophy. Believe me, in the last couple of years I’ve been humbled and have encountered a lot of what could only be described as atrophy and worse. I mean, I’m not the musician that I was when I left the University of Miami’s music program, maybe in some ways for the better but in most ways for the worse. It’s incredible to be around people who are doing it all day, every day and to realize that as much as I was thinking about music all day, every day, because I wasn’t playing, my ears might be good but my fingers are not.

Q: And do you think that that’s largely a function of not doing it daily, not keeping up your chops, or do you think that aging is a factor?

A: Boy, I think about that a lot.  That’s a million-dollar question. When you look at visual artists, we’re trained to see them as having a long arc of a career. In many cases the technique continues to evolve and they don’t lose stuff until well into the twilight of their career. And that’s what you would hope would be the case with music, but what I found was that even though I was able to hear and conceptualize what I wanted to play, it was simply not available. It took a lot of basic playing of scales, very basic practicing, but also a lot of mental stepping back and just sort of accepting the fact that some parts of my musical development were way ahead of others.

Q: So you had to make accommodations.

A: Yeah. They say it’s hard to learn an instrument when you’re over 50, that it’s somewhat like learning a language, and I think that’s true. On the other hand I know people that have started that late and they play beautifully now. I don’t think that you can make an absolute rule about it.

Q: Tell me about the decision to start your album project.

A: The real trigger was about a year after all the stuff related to the book wound down. The book came out in the fall of ’08 and kept me busy through the end of May ’09.

Q: By then you’d been largely out of journalism for four years.

A: Right. And the process of writing the book, it had to be all or nothing. I did contribute to NPR, I did some things for Rolling Stone, but I was not really in the soup as a freelance writer. And luckily I had enough of an advance on the book to sort of stretch it out and make it work. But when the book finally came out, I was suddenly in this position of needing to start knocking on doors again. I had a few things that were looking like they were going to be semi-steady that fell out. And at that time NPR was in a different place with its website than it is now and they were not looking for anyone to contribute full time. I encountered just one slammed door after another. Suddenly I was a freelancer, and I failed miserably. I guess if my wife was being charitable she would call it a funk. If she was being honest she would say I was pretty depressed. I found myself working on spec, trying to develop different things. At that time I had an agent and there was a fair amount of interest in another book and that went nowhere. Likewise, public radio people that I met in the course of doing the book were all hyped up to develop a public radio discussion program focused on music and the arts, and I spent a long time down that rabbit hole and came up with nothing. All I have to say about public radio is that it is an enormously territorial place. I’m very thankful to have my little once in awhile platform at All Things Considered to tell about records.

Q: Sounds like a challenging time.

A: Let’s face it, in life you have to have those.

Q: That’s right. Sometimes it seems things don’t happen, big changes don’t happen, unless you get really agitated.

A: I’ve talked to enough people now that have had similar experiences of sort of disengaging from a world they thought they knew, and they all say at some point you just realize that you’ve been knocking your head against the wall and it’s only 11 o’clock in the morning, and now what? Out of that I started to play.

Q: Then at some point it morphed into a more concrete project.

A: That’s right. I had struck out enough times on enough different things to have real doubts about if there a way to contribute in journalism that makes sense. I mean, I was quite inspired by you, because that’s the first thing everybody said I should do, and I have yet to be able to figure out a way to do that properly, to do it so that it’s not just hanging a shingle out in the ether.

Q: For me it’s important to have an organizing principle. Honestly, I can’t imagine just starting a blog. I’m not trying to dissuade you from doing it –

A: No, no—a blog about music? Doesn’t that seem like the most ridiculous thing to do right now in the world? It really does.

Q: You came up with an organizing principle for yourself, as well, in the notion of modern hotel lounge music. Tell me about that. Did having those parameters made the work easier or more comprehensible for you?

A: Yes, because I’m not a very disciplined songwriter/composer. I don’t sit and capture everything on a recorder right away, which is something I now want to change.  But what came out at me immediately was that where I was going, and what I was interested in, was not jazz. It was instrumental music that had its roots in Jobim more than anything else, and all the songwriting in Brazil. I kept thinking that what I wanted in my life, either if I created it or if I could go as a patron, was a place to not be hit over the head with stuff. To actually engage with some music that was not making too many demands and was yet open and spacious and inviting. I like the idea of creating a space where little magic things can happen and they’re not so much the testosterone thing of “look at me!” And in the jazz world — this is going to be a huge statement and I make it fully aware that I’m speaking also as a critic — I have to say that I’m concerned that so few people who are composers, who are really brilliant minds, are paying attention to ways of creating settings for improvised music that are, for lack of a better word, just plain old approachable. There’s work in that direction. I mean, this new Joshua Redman project called James Farm is a huge positive sign. Some of the Brad Mehldau stuff, of course. I’m not saying in any way that I’m on the level of Jobim or anything, but I just appreciate this music as providing a sort of zone, a Zen place, whatever you want to call it.

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