Spirit guides Moses on his journey

Boston Globe, January 25, 2008

When John Coltrane passed away in 1967, he was just a few years into the spiritual quest that his later albums document, with titles like “Om” and “Interstellar Space,” and the liberation they reflect from conventions of jazz form and expression. Coltrane was only 40 at his death, and no one knows where his music might have gone had he lived longer. It’s been left to his collaborators and others whom he inspired to imagine this invisible yet compelling legacy.

With the passage of time and changes in the zeitgeist, mystical ultra-free jazz exists at the outer periphery of the music business. It’s completely non-lucrative, and its practitioners have long since accepted life at the margins; indeed, many of them prefer things that way. For one reason or another, performances by artists in this spirit don’t occur frequently. When they do – as with the appearance of drummer Rakalam Bob Moses and guitarist Tisziji Munoz, Monday at Jordan Hall – it’s advisable to expect the unexpected.

The gig celebrates what Moses, who teaches at the conservatory, calls his 60th “b’earthday.” It also features pianist John Medeski (of Medeski Martin & Wood fame) and bassists Don Pate and John Lockwood. The same personnel collaborated 20 years ago on a beautifully textured album of wide-open improvisation, “Love Everlasting,” and have worked together in various combinations off and on ever since.

On the phone from his home in Quincy, Moses discourages using that early album, or for that matter any other reference point, to anticipate what might get played at the concert. “The main thing is to understand that this will be different from anything they’ve heard,” he says. “Still the mental apparatus and enter from the heart.”

That mantra encapsulates the journey of Moses, who is something of an ascetic, having eschewed meat, coffee, sex, and other habits. He teaches a couple of days a week at the New England Conservatory and performs just four or five gigs a year, he says. It’s a far cry from his early days in New York playing with a preposterously long list of legendary musicians – from Charles Mingus and Rahsaan Roland Kirk on down the line.

“Even though I’m a white cat, I come from a very strong jazz karma,” Moses says. Indeed, he grew up as steeped in jazz as anyone could be. His family lived in the same Central Park West building as Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and Art Blakey, and his parents were hosts, friends, and benefactors to numerous characters on the scene.

“Mingus used to come over to the house,” he says. “My mother was very close to Billie Holiday. Our house was a sanctuary: A lot of artists who were brilliant but dysfunctional came there for refuge.”

Moses willingly acknowledges the impact of Coltrane on his creative life: “Coltrane was the cat who first inspired me,” he says. But at this stage in life, Moses says he no longer considers himself a jazz musician. “I’ve said my thank-yous and goodbyes to all that.”

In that, he has followed Munoz, whom Moses regards as his spiritual master. Munoz gave Moses the name Rakalam. It means “inaudible sound of the invisible sun,” Moses says.

A reclusive guitar genius from a hardscrabble New York Puerto Rican background, Munoz considers himself primarily a spiritual teacher. He has written dozens of books on mystical practice and spends much of his time performing spiritual ministrations at his home in upstate New York rather than playing music.

A self-taught guitarist, he has a remarkable tone and technique that has all the depth and subtle fragility of the human voice. Nerve damage to his left hand, sustained when he was thrown through a plate-glass window as a child, all but prevents him from playing chords. Though barely known outside avant-garde and mystical circles, he’s played extensively with such Coltrane acolytes as Pharaoh Sanders and Rashied Ali.

Moses says he played for years with Munoz before opening up to what he calls “the guru part.” “I grew up very New York: tough, cynical, atheist,” he says. “It took me 20 years before I asked him for spiritual help. I feel like a rockhead for waiting that long.”

Moses credits Munoz for something close to a spiritual rebirth: for helping him to rebuild a troubled relationship with his father and, more generally, to shed negativity. “One of the things I’ve learned from him is that a spiritual being tries to change nobody and nothing.”

Moses remains opinionated, with views on music and culture that reflect his unusual trajectory and have caused him to be seen, variously, as annoying or elitist. “I’m sure I’ve alienated a lot of people,” he says.

One infamous incident came in 2001, when he called out, in a letter to the Boston Phoenix, various musicians whom he felt were taking in vain the name of masters like Mingus or playing their music in ways that he felt violated their spirit. “I got a lot of anger from that,” he recalls. “But that was love, that was me as an elder trying to help the young people.”

He stands by his opinions of the time: for instance, that white musicians should steep themselves in the spectrum of black music, including R&B, gospel, and reggae, en route to jazz; and that musicians should seek to develop their own style rather than mimic the masters.

His own quest, he says, is still in its infancy.

“I play very infrequently, but it’s so exciting to play,” he says. “I’m turning 60, and finally, I can begin to learn. It really feels like a beginning.”