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Going Down The Well

by Howard Lawes



MoonMot photograph by Palma Fiacco


While all jazz includes some element of improvisation the balance between the head (melody) and original improvisation varies considerably and while the head can stay the same, the improvisation will vary with every live performance. For both musicians and audience part of the fascination for jazz is the quality and inventiveness of the improvisation, akin to an adventurous journey to a new and exciting destination.  A 'free' style of jazz emphasises the improvisation rather than the head and in totally free jazz (or free improvisation) there is no head at all, and the destination of the metaphoric journey is unknown. 

In 2017, the Guardian ran a series of articles on Underground Music highlighting Evan Parker as the standard bearer for UK free jazz and including a link to a film. Quoting from the article: "... Parker has spent 50 years playing his saxophone without a song sheet, without notation and often without any idea of how a performance is going to evolve":




For many admirers of free or almost free jazz,  perhaps it all started with alto saxophone player Ornette Coleman whose seminal 1959 album The Shape Of Jazz To Come was soon followed by Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation thus defining the name of the genre. John Coltrane's interest in metaphysics resulted in a style that came to be known as 'astral jazz' while his use of overblowing highlighted the role of the improviser rather than the composer. 

Over 60 years later, jazz is still an adventure and further plucky explorers such as the U.K. / Swiss band MoonMot continue to search out new territory.  MoonMot has Dee Byrne on alto saxophone with effects, Simon Petermann on trombone with effects, Cath Roberts on baritone saxophone, Oli Kuster on Fender Rhodes with effects, Seth Bennett on bass and Johnny Hunter on drums. Howard Lawes talked to Dee Byrne about their new album, called Going Down The Well, about her influences and the excitement that she finds in composing and performing jazz:

Dee Byrne's adventurous spirit was exemplified by her route to a university education, so that rather than do the simple thing and study in the UK, she decided to go to Sweden where she spent the first year learning Swedish before enrolling at a university in Stockholm to study linguistics and literature.  Dee also enjoyed the music scene in Stockholm where she played with local jazz bands, and on her return to the UK, she was sufficiently qualified to join the Jazz Masters course at Trinity College, graduating in 2011.  The Trinity course, where she studied with Jean Toussaint, Julien Siegel and Liam Noble, provided her with an excellent grounding in the fundamentals of jazz and also gave her the opportunity to meet other young musicians who were interested in free improvisation, and they came together to form a band called Entropi. 


Dee Byrne

Dee Byrne


A little later Dee met baritone saxophone player Cath Roberts and together they set up LUME, a project to showcase the work of artists from across the UK creative music scene and beyond at venues in London such as the Vortex Jazz Club.  With support from Jazz Services, PRS, the London Jazz Festival and Arts Council England, Dee and Cath have done as much as anyone to popularise free or semi-free improvised music in the UK.  However, as Dee is keen to point out, and is demonstrated by the fact that she either leads or has played with nine different bands, her musical interests are anything but narrow.  At the 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival, produced by Serious, Dee and Cath teamed up with Switzerland's Simon Petermann and Oli Kuster to perform a set generously supported by the Swiss Cultural Fund.  


Here's a video of MoonMot playing Avignon live in 2019.





MoonMot Going Down The well album

Dee Byrne's music has been inspired by the likes of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane as well as a philosophical fascination with the universe and a love of language.  The name of her band, Entropi, is the European spelling of a word that defines a lack of order and predictability while the title of MoonMot's album, Going Down The Well, is in the same vein, implying a journey into the unknown and taking risks.  All the tracks on the album have both composition and improvisation; two tracks are composed by Byrne, two by Kuster and one each from all the other band members.  Having played at the BeJazz Transnational Showcase in 2019, the jury described MoonMot's performance as ".... characterised by its dense, energetic front line. Earthy ostinatos and wild, often free collective improvisations permeate this music, which brings a large portion of punk attitude. Fender Rhodes and electronics form welcome splashes of colour and also create a calmer, more expansive sound, with frequent dialogue between the front line and rhythm section. This empathetic, refreshingly radical group convinces with their great commitment and exploration of political themes."  

The audaciousness of the music is reflected in the track titles such as Threnody For The English Polity, Sonata d'Alouatta (alouatta is a howler monkey, rather than alouette, the skylark), and Brimbore (something in Swiss German that defies translation).  While this is a new band, the members of it are very experienced; both Dee Byrne and Cath Roberts have received great reviews for the their own bands Entropi and Sloth Racket respectively;  Seth Bennett and Johnny Hunter have both played in Sloth Racket for at least four years, while both Simon Petermann and Oli Kuster are band leaders, composers and educators in their own right in Switzerland. 



Listen to Brimbore.




The title track begins with baritone sax laying down a repeated phrase that reminds the listener of Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition and as the track proceeds, a variety of pictures come to mind as the descent into the well continues; eerie alto sax and sounds of water complete the impression of damp and darkness. 


Listen to Going Down The Well.




Track 2 is called 35 and perhaps describes someone's life story. The first part is full of melody with some reflective trombone, but towards the end, following some solo Fender Rhodes, everyone joins in for a frenetic groove before peace and melody descends once more. The next track, Roundabout, contrasts mournful, bowed double bass with bursts of sound from the other instruments before setting off on a lively groove led by drums and everyone else freely improvising as the mood takes them.

The imaginatively titled Threnody For English Polity has a song-like introduction from alto sax before various menacing sounds from the other instruments conspire to spoil the party, and who knows where it is all going to end.  Sonata d'Alouatta is a fun track featuring lots of different combinations of instruments which ends with what sounds like a conversation between a group of alouatta (howler monkeys) while Impossible Made Possible begins with some melodic Fender Rhodes and trombone and transforms into an intense and frenetic alto sax solo backed by a very muscular rhythm section and a strangely curious ending.

Going Down The Well from MoonMot is a really interesting album from a modern group of very thoughtful musicians who combine dramatic free or semi-free improvisation with some lovely melody.  It sometimes seems that free jazz is more for the benefit of the musicians than the audience, an intellectual exercise that is more easily appreciated by trained musicians than the jazz fan, but this album strikes just the right balance between intelligent and adventurous improvisation and music that everyone can enjoy.  It has taken a while for this album to be released, possibly because it is more difficult for international bands to come together, but let's hope it won't be too long before the next one.


Going Down The Well is released on February 14th 2020 - Click here for details and samples. Click here for MoonMot's website.





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