ENSEMBLE NOVO RELEASES BOLD SECOND ALBUM
Look To the Sky explores gems
from Brazil’s MPB heyday in the late ‘60s
played in an open, improvisational spirit.
In the years since the release of its debut Blue Night in 2013, Philadelphia-based Ensemble Novo has refined a sound that’s perfectly suited to its primary inspiration – music made in Brazil during the 1960s and early 70s.
It’s a sound built on contrasts – the crystalline clarity of the vibraphone crossed with the husky introspection of tenor saxophone, the warmth of nylon string guitar woven into the crisp pulse of samba percussion. As is true of so much from Brazil, this is music that encourages (and sometimes demands) dancing, but is equally suited to contemplative listening.
Look To the Sky, which was recorded live at Rittenhouse Soundworks over several days in May 2016, finds Ensemble Novo tackling several little-heard gems from the years just after the bossa nova craze – the fertile era known as MPB. Among them: The Antonio Carlos Jobim/Edu Lobo collaboration “Vento Bravo,” Egberto Gismonti’s first “hit” song, “O Sonho,” and the Milton Nascimento classic from Club de Esquina, “Cravo e Canela.” This period in Brazilian music is notable for its endlessly lyrical melodies, coupled with a jazz-influenced sense of harmonic daring. Ensemble Novo not only celebrates these qualities – it has rapidly evolved into a unit that transforms them – into gorgeous, richly interactive and endlessly surprising creations.
A video featuring the title track is available here: https://youtu.be/_3hv1rycCZM. It offers glimpses of Ensemble Novo in the studio recording, as well as in performance during a Musician’s Gathering evening at Rittenhouse Soundworks. Other resources are available at www.ensemblenovo.com.
Ensemble Novo is the brainchild of writer and musician Tom Moon, who plays tenor saxophone and flute and is the composer of the brooding “Columbia Waltz” on Look to the Sky. Following the publication of his New York Times bestseller 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, Moon resumed active work as a musician and devoted specific attention to Brazilian music. He convinced several prominent members of Philadelphia’s diverse music community – vibraphonist Behn Gillece, guitarist Ryan McNeely, percussionist Jim Hamilton, bassist Mark Przybylowski – to join in an exploration of samba, bossa nova and MPB. Through a monthly residency at Philadelphia’s popular whiskey bar, Time, that’s been going for over three years, the group has developed a loyal following of listeners and dancers, and has performed at Longwood Gardens, Spruce Street Harbor Park, the Barnes Foundation, World Cafe Live, Heritage and many other venues.
Look to the Sky is the first of 2 mini albums that Ensemble Novo will release in 2017. The other, Who Saw You Then, Who Sees You Now, will be available in the summertime.
Behn Gillece: Vibraphonist Behn Gillece has quickly become a fixture on the jazz circuit of the Northeastern United States, performing regularly in New York, Philadelphia and Boston. As co-leader of a quartet with saxophonist Ken Fowser, he’s released four critically acclaimed albums, including the recent Top Shelf. Gillece has appeared as a guest on over 20 other recording projects, including Into The Ojala, the 2011 debut of Tom Moon’s Moon Hotel Lounge Project.
Ryan McNeely: Since he graduated from Temple University, guitarist Ryan McNeely has become one of the busiest musicians in Philadelphia – performing with countless jazz artists, Brazilian singers and gypsy-jazz ensembles. He’s part of Hot Bijouxx, the revered gypsy swing band whose eponymous debut was released in April 2013.
Jim Hamilton. A founding member of the pioneering Philadelphia percussion ensemble Alo Brasil, Jim Hamilton has spiced the rhythms of R&B titans BoyzIIMen, prog rock wizard Tim Motzer and many other performing artists. Hamilton is a lifelong student of Brazilian rhythm, and through his record label, Tensionrod Music, has introduced audiences worldwide to his most exciting discoveries, including the incredibly creative Rio-based Pandeiro Repique Duo. He recently converted an old car dealership in Germantown into an audio/video production facility, Rittenhouse Soundworks, where Ensemble Novo’s Look To the Sky was recorded.
Tom Moon. When award-winning music journalist Tom Moon began sharing his original music in 2011, he found himself routinely grilled by his peers about what some saw as his unusual move – transitioning from writing about art to creating it.
“I would try to point out that what I was doing wasn’t an ethical conflict of interest,” Moon says of the interviews he did to spread the word about Into The Ojala, from his group Moon Hotel Lounge Project. “I’d rattle off a list of people who thrived doing both pursuits – the composer Virgil Thomson, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and many others.” During one of the more heated exchanges, Moon recalls, he went back to a transcript of a 2004 interview he did with Stephen Merritt, the singer, songwriter and leader of The Magnetic Fields, who was writing criticism at the time.
“Stephen had clearly thought about this, both from the ethical and aesthetic perspectives,” recalls Moon, a regular contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered and the author of the New York Times bestseller 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die.
“He sensed that he had a responsibility to share whatever specialized knowledge he’d picked up, and wanted to use that knowledge to advocate for great work. Then he said something that stuck with me: “That wall between church and state, between the press and the people the press covers? The Internet has pretty much shattered it. If, as a journalist, you decide to refrain from sharing your original music or anything else you make, recognize that you are following your own code. Nobody cares what side you are on.”
Moon credits Merritt with helping to clarify his thinking on the church/state divide, which has eroded further in the years since he spoke those words. A saxophonist and composer, Moon has Merritt’s quote at the ready as he prepares to share Blue Night, the debut from his group Ensemble Novo. The album offers breezy, inviting interpretations of classic Brazilian samba and bossa nova, as well as several similarly-spirited Moon originals. To be released July 16 on CD and via all music download sites, the album marks the next step in Moon’s unlikely return to music-making.
Moon studied music at the University of Miami, and while living in South Florida amassed an enviable resume – performing in pit orchestras behind Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher and others, working in salsa bands, entertaining on cruise ships, and touring for a year with the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra. He served as music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1988 until 2004, a job that prevented him from pursuing his own music.
Moon returned to active music-making in 2010, after the publication of 1000 Recordings. He started out at low-key jam sessions, where he was regarded as something of a curiosity: “Most of the players were in college or had just graduated,” the award-winning journalist recalls, “and they’d look at me and go “Who’s that greybeard? But they turned out to be incredibly open-minded. I’d been away from music for a long time, and those guys were incredibly patient with me. I was lucky to be welcomed like that –we developed a rich musical rapport very quickly.”
Since then, Moon has become part of a thriving collective working to improve the environment for creative music in the city. He’s composed music for several different groups – his originals are featured on Into the Ojala, the 2011 release by Moon Hotel Lounge Project. The album drew critical raves: USA Today described it as a “seductive spell,jazzy grooves rooted in a bygone era of nightlife sophistication.” Other Moon-led groups appear regularly in Philadelphia music spots – including Time Restaurant, Triumph Brewery, L’Etage, World Café Live and Milkboy Philly where he hosts the weekly Jazz Casual on Tuesday nights.
The roots of Ensemble Novo can be traced to one of Moon’s early jam-session sojourns. “I was deeply immersed in Brazil because I’d just finished a piece on the great singer Elis Regina for NPR,” Moon recalls. “And so at this session I suggested we play Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive.” The guitar player floored me – he knew every rhythm and voicing from the original, really understood the tune in a deep way. We connected instantly.” The guitarist, Ryan McNeely, was in his last semester in the music school at Temple University, and had spent much of his college years studying Brazilian music. He and Moon began playing regularly, and pretty soon – after McNeely returned from his first visit to Brazil – Ensemble Novo was up and running. The group also features percussionist Jim Hamilton, a founding member of the popular Philly drum corps Alo Brazil, and vibraphonist Behn Gillece.
Moon says his goal for Ensemble Novo is simple. “I just want to share these endlessly uplifting and accessible melodies. People have this perception of Brazilian music as a little bit dentist-officey, and sure, it can be that, but it’s also incredibly sensual, and powered by these beautiful alternating currents of joy and sorrow. It’s the opposite of music that demands attention – just a nice low-key elixir that can sneak up on you.”