by Ian Mann
February 19, 2020
This Anglo-Swiss sextet delivers a distinctive group sound with the band’s jazz and improv chops complemented by a punkish, DIY attitude that finds expression in the urgency of the performances.
“Going Down The Well”
(Unit Records UTR4933)
Dee Byrne – alto sax, effects, Simon Petermann – trombone, effects, Cath Roberts – baritone sax, Oli Kuster – Fender Rhodes, effects, Seth Bennett- bass, Johnny Hunter – drums
MoonMot is an Anglo-Swiss collaboration featuring members of the British musicians collective LUME and the similarly inclined Jazzwerkstatt, based in Bern.
The project began in 2017 when LUME founders Dee Byrne and Cath Roberts were invited to perform at the tenth edition of the Jazzwerkstatt Festival. The Festival’s artistic directors Marc Stucki and Benedikt Reising were keen to foster a spirit of co-operation between British and Swiss musicians and the sextet that eventually came to be known as MoonMot emerged from that collaboration.
Later in 2017 LUME returned the compliment when MoonMot performed at the EFG London Jazz Festival, supporting the Scandinavian free jazz powerhouse The Thing.
In March 2019 MoonMot undertook a six date tour of Switzerland and their performance at the BeJazz Club in Bern was documented and used as the basis for this début recording. It’s not a “live album” in the conventional sense, all the applause has been edited out and the music underwent a degree of editing and post production on the day after the performance.
The recording appears on the Swiss label Unit Records, founded in 1983 and a leading outlet for European jazz, contemporary classical and electronic music. Its release has been generously supported by various Swiss cultural organisations.
MoonMot is a highly democratic band and the album features compositions from all six of its members. Essentially the sextet is a leaderless, fully collaborative entity but Roberts has remarked that if anybody can be regarded as the leader it is trombonist Petermann, who organises the majority of the group’s activities and who acted as the producer of the album.
Both Petermann and Kuster like to treat the sounds of their instruments via electronic processing, increasing the range of sounds available to them. The trombonist is also a member of the large ensemble Fischermanns Orchestra, with whom he has held the position of musical director since 2013. Kuster leads his own group, the Oli Kuster Kombo, with which he has recorded three albums.
The four British jazz musicians will be familiar to audiences from various collaborations including Roberts’ Sloth Racket and Favourite Animals ensembles and Byrne’s Entropi, Deemer and Ydivide projects. Bennett and Hunter, both bandleaders in their own right, form the Sloth Racket rhythm section and Byrne is part of Favourite Animals, the large scale version of the Sloth Racket group.
Sloth Racket and Favourite Animals operate in the hinterland between composition and improvisation. Roberts’ writing for these groups is deliberately sparse and often takes the form of graphic scores, with little emphasis being placed on conventional musical notation. These methods allow ample scope for collective free improvisation, a process to which Roberts is totally committed. It all makes for fascinating, if sometimes challenging, listening and all three of Sloth Racket’s albums, plus the Favourite Animals recording represent recommended listening.
To these ears the music of MoonMot sounds more concentrated and tightly focussed, with a greater emphasis on structure and composition, more like Roberts’ earlier group Quadraceratops or Byrne’s quintet Entropi.
Indeed it’s Byrne’s title track that kicks off the album, initially centred around Roberts’ rousing baritone sax motif but also incorporating some thrilling improvised interplay between the three horns. Roberts takes the first solo on earthy baritone sax, displaying great power and fluency as she digs deep. By way of contrast Kuster’s keyboards add a spacey, other worldly feel to the music as the rhythm section drops out and the piece takes on a mysterious, ethereal quality, with the emphasis now focused on the textural and atmospheric. Indeed Byrne has commented that this composition was “born from an image of descending into darkness and then looking back up at the light from down in the depths”.
Petermann’s “35 Years” commences with an introductory horn chorale that emphasises the sublime blending of the three horns and sounds a little like a contemporary classical piece. Kuster adopts the classic Rhodes sound at the keyboard, generating a surprisingly warm sound that complements the interplay between Petermann on trombone and Byrne and alto, plus Petermann’s subsequent trombone solo. Petermann, too, probes deeply, subtly manipulating the sound of his instrument by means of electronics. Kuster also features as a soloist, displaying considerable invention and imagination at the Rhodes. Eventually the piece comes full circle with a reprise of the opening horn chorale.
Roberts informs me that her composition “The Roundabout” was written in the style of her Sloth Racket pieces, a graphic score with conventional notation only being used for the main riff. Kuster opens the piece at the Rhodes, joined by the shimmer of Hunter’s cymbals and the rich, dark tones of Bennett’s bowed bass. A further passage of unaccompanied arco bass is deeply atmospheric with Bennett gradually being joined by shadowy horn interjections and then by the full band as they launch into typically rumbustious Roberts riff, its odd meter Rhodes driven grooves providing the platform for some exuberant, squalling interplay between the horns.
Bennett’s “Threnody for the English Polity” commences with its composers ominous arpeggiated bass motif, soon joined by the mournful cry of Byrne’s alto. Roberts wrings considerable bluesy emotion out of her baritone, complemented by the vocalised wah wah growling of Petermann’s trombone. The furtive shuffle of Hunter’s brushed drums and the ethereal shimmer of the Rhodes add to the atmosphere as the three horns continue to carouse around that anchoring bass motif. It all sounds a little Charles Mingus updated for the 21st century.
Kuster’s “Avignon” begins with the chiming of unaccompanied Rhodes, out of which emerges an infectious rising motif and a powerful baritone driven groove. Despite the complex melody lines and tricky time signatures there’s an appealing energy and immediacy about the music here with Hunter giving a particularly energetic performance behind the drums and with Roberts stretching out powerfully on baritone above a propulsive bass and drum groove.
Hunter’s episodic “Sonata d’Alouetta” opens with an extended improvised dialogue between the composer’s drums and Bennett’s double bass. Eventually a rhythmic motif emerges and the rest of the band join the party with unison horn lines paving the way for a Rhodes solo from Kuster. I like the way Kuster deploys the Rhodes, treating it as an instrument in itself and not as a substitute for an acoustic piano. I’m variously reminded of such jazz exponents of the instrument as Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea and also of the late Alan Gowen of Gilgamesh and National Health fame. Byrne subsequently features on alto, soling above a rolling drum groove prior to a more obviously improvised exchange between Roberts on baritone and Petermann on trombone, refereed by Bennett’s underpinning bass. A written ensemble passage then paves the way for Petermann’s trombone multiphonics as the piece plays itself out.
Byrne’s “The Impossible Made Possible” begins in relatively sedate fashion and features Kuster’s keyboard musings followed by Petermann’s trombone ruminations, the latter shadowed by Bennett’s accompanying bass. However the piece packs a sting in its tail as Byrne erupts on biting, shredding alto, accompanied by guitar like keyboard stabs and Hunter’s dynamic drumming. The composer has described this section as being “a bit mental, with a really cathartic punk vibe”.
Kuster’s “Brimbore” closes the album, a dark and deeply atmospheric piece featuring the grainy sounds of Bennett’s bowed bass and Petermann’s deep, brooding trombone sonorities. Hunter’s mallet rumbles and Kuster’s shimmering Rhodes add to the vaguely unsettling atmosphere, and yet there’s still something strangely uplifting about the piece as MoonMot conclude this excellent début album on a contemplative and highly atmospheric note.
“Going Down The Well” represents an excellent début from MoonMot. There’s some excellent playing here and some intelligent writing for the musicians to improvise around. Although not a live recording per se there’s still an energy and vitality about the music that has its roots in the excitement and spontaneity of live performance.
Less open ended than Sloth Racket or Favourite Animals the more structured approach of MoonMot serves the group well and results in a distinctive group sound with the band’s jazz and improv chops complemented by a punkish, DIY attitude that finds expression in the urgency of the performances. Nonetheless Kuster’s distinctive keyboard work also brings a spacey, prog rock element to the band that makes the group sound even more individual, and which certainly worked for this particular listener.
MoonMot are currently on tour with live dates in the UK and later in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. The remaining tour dates are listed below, catch this exciting and unique sextet if you can.
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18 February - London (UK): The Vortex
19 February - Sheffield (UK): Jazz At The Lescar
21 February - Bristol (UK): Bebop Club
1 March - Liverpool International Jazz Festival (UK)
8 March - Arnhem (NL): Metropol
9 March - Gent (BE): Hot Club
10 March - Amsterdam (NL): De Peper
12 March - Basel (CH): Off Bar
13 March - Bern (CH): BeJazz
14 March - Stuttgart (DE): Kiste