Ensemble Novo-Look To The Sky and Who Saw You Then, Who Sees You Now. 

Some cities are synonymous with music, and always have been. That was the case with Berlin, Chicago, Detroit, London, Los Angeles, Memphis and New York. It’s also the case with the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, which has to be one of the most musical cities in America.

For many people, Philadelphia is synonymous with Philly Soul, which provided a smooth and soulful soundtrack to much of the seventies. This included Billy Paul, Blue Magic, Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes, Major Harris, Teddy Pendergras, The Delfonics, The Detroit Spinners, The O’Jays and The Stylistics. However, there’s more to Philadelphia than Philly Soul.

Jazz greats Jimmy Smith, Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner and Stan Getz, plus blues man Otis Rush, singer-songwriter Jim Croce, blue-eyed soul stars Hall and Oates and Nu-Soul singers Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. So too are hip hopper The Roots and avant-garde musician Laraaji. They’re among the great and good of music that hail from Philly. Some of these artists even have their own star on Philly’s Musical Walk of Fame. That is the ultimate accolade for a Philly musician or band. This includes Ensemble Novo, who recently released their mini-album Look To The Sky on Frosty Cordial Music, and in three weeks time, will release Who Saw You Then, Who Sees You Now on May ’19th’ 2017. Both albums find Ensemble Novo giving Brazilian popular sounds of the sixties and seventies a playful spin. Sambas, Bossa Novas and Música Popular Brasileira (MPB), are reworked by Ensemble Novo, who are lead by saxophonist and music critic Tom Moon.

While Tom Moon has spent much of working life critiquing music, at one time, he made a living playing music. For Tom Moon, this was a dream come true. Growing up, music had been a passion. He had a voracious appetite for music, and hungrily devoured albums. Meanwhile, Tom was learning the saxophone, and was proving to be no slouch. Gradually, Tom like many young musicians had dreams of making a living out of music. For the majority of aspiring young musicians, this proves to be the impossible dream. However, Tom Moon’s dream came true. 

After graduating from the University of Miami’s School of Music, Tom Moon began work as a professional musician. This was a dream come true from the young saxophonist. There was no better way of making a living, than being a member of a band. This ranged from Latin and circus bands to the orchestras that supported Tony Bennett, Ben Vereen and The Fifth Dimension. Tom Moon spent a year with the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra; was a member of cruise ship orchestras and toured with a number of different rock bands. Variety is the spice of life for a working musician.

Just like many professional musicians, Tom headed where the next takes them. It was a case of have sax will travel. Sometimes, though, the phone failed to ring. It made sense to have another source of income, and in Tom’s case this was journalism.

While most of his time was spent working as a musician, sometimes Tom was a freelance writer for the Miami Herald. They hired Tom as their music critic in 1986, and a new chapter in his career began. 

Suddenly, Tom had a foot in both camps. Now he was a musician and critic. He combined these two roles for three years. That was until one day, somewhat unexpectedly, Tom received a job offer from The Philadelphia Inquirer.

When they saw Tom Moon’s CV, they were intrigued. Here was a  professional musician who also happened to be a writer. This meant he could offer an insight that many other music writers couldn’t. A meeting was arranged between Tom Moon and The Philadelphia Inquirer, who upon meeting the writer-musician, were keen to add him to their payroll. However, there was a caveat to the job offer. Tom was no longer allowed to work was a professional musician. It ensured that there was no potential conflict of interests. So did Tom agreeing not to write about musicians he had previously worked with. With the ground rules in place, Tom Moon’s career at The Philadelphia Inquirer began.

Tom Moon dedicated himself to his new job as The Philadelphia Inquirer’s music critic. He immersed himself in music, writing reviews, interviews and articles. At weekends, Tom still made music, and occasionally played out. Now though, it was just a hobby and not how he made a living.

Instead, Tom Moon was now making a living as a music writer. He was a gifted wordsmith, with an inside knowledge of life as a professional musician. This was a formidable combination. Before long, Tom Moon was well on his way to becoming one of America’s top music critics. However, in 2005 decided to leave The Philadelphia Inquirer.

By then, the maxim everyone’s a critic had become a reality. The advent of the internet saw music criticism become a popular pastime for many music fans. Suddenly, competition was fierce, with an army of amateur critics competing with professionals like Tom Moon. Realising that the world of the music critic was changing, and changing beyond recognition, Tom decided to write a book he had spent his life researching.

This was 1,001 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, which soon, became essential reading for music journalists and fans alike. It was a book that could only have been written by someone who had listened to analysed and scrutinised thousands upon thousands of albums. For Tim this was a labour of love, and resulted in what’s become an invaluable tombé about music. However, once 1,001 Recordings To Hear Before You Die published, was published, a new chapter in Tom Moon’s career began purely by chance.

During the three years Tom had spent writing 1,001 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, suddenly, the competition was fierce when it came to music journalism. No longer was Tom competing against his peers, but a new breed of music writer. Many of them started life on blogs and websites, and quickly found an audience. Suddenly, Tom, who had over twenty years experience as a journalist, was struggling to find work.

The problem was, old media like newspapers, were no longer as popular as they once were. A new generation of writers relied more on new media, which to a generation of newspaper journalists, was something they had no experience of. As a result, the new breed of music writers had the upper hand over journalists like Tom. Despite that, Tom wasn’t giving up on life as a journalist.

Day after day, he made pitches, and knocked on doors. Alas, the pitches came to nothing and doors remained unanswered. It must have been a soul destroying time for such a well respected writer. After over twenty years as a journalist, Tom wasn’t used to having time on his hands during the working day. One day, having made a couple of pitches and phone calls, Tom realised he had nothing else to do for the day. Having wondered how he could fill the rest of the day, Tom decided to look for his saxophone.

Twenty years had passed since Tom had lasted played his tenor saxophone. Having dusted down his trusty tenor saxophone, Tom started to practise. This became a daily routine, and offered salvation during what was a tough time professionally. Work was hard to come by for Tom, who through himself into his music.

By then, Tom had taken a few lessons to refresh his rusty skills. Soon, Tom started writing new pieces of music during what would prove to be an outpouring of creativity. The next step for Tom was forming the Moon Hotel Lounge Jazz Project, which later, would receive rave reviews for its late night sophisticated sound. This was just the start of Jim’s journey into Philly’s music community.

Soon he was a familiar face at jam sessions that took place around Philly. That was where Tom first met young guitarist Ryan McNeely, who shared Tom’s passion for mid-20th Century 

Brazilian Bossa Nova, samba and jazz. Tom remembers: “Ryan McNeely called a Antonio Carlos Jobim tune…“I was stunned. I thought, ‘This guy understands the nylon patterns, even though he’s playing it on the electric guitar.” Straight away, Tom realised that Ryan had a maturity beyond his relative youth.  Ryan: “invited me back next week. We started playing. That was a lifeline for me.”

After the initial meeting with Ryan McNeely, Tom became a fixture of a Philly’s friendly and eclectic music scene. Tom was rubbing shoulders with musicians from different backgrounds, including the future members of Ensemble Novo. This included vibraphonist Behn Gillece and percussionist Jim Hamilton, who like Tom and Ryan has a passion for Brazilian music. Jim however, had a very different musical background, having played everything from progressive rock to R&B with BoyzIIMen. Each of the future members of Ensemble Novo would bring something new to Ensemble Novo, which in a way, typified Philly’s music scene. 

Tom reflecting on the period that the members of Ensemble Novo first met, and started playing together, remembers: “the vibe among musicians here is very welcoming. People are open minded,..There’s a sense that since no one is going to make a killing in the industry, let’s at least have fun and play together.” That was what Ensemble Novo would do.

In the early days of Ensemble Novo, the group concentrated on playing what music from the mid-20th Century, which was the golden age of Brazilian popular music. This included Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Vento Bravo and Milton Nascimento’s Cravo e Canela, which were the perfect showcase for the combined and considerable talents of Ensemble Novo. However, gradually, Ensemble Novo began to add to their setlist.

This was Tom explains after “Ryan spent time in Brazil and took some pandero lessons. He brought back all these records. He convinced me there was a way to do samba that wasn’t super traditional, open enough to blow over.” For Ensemble Novo this was a game-changer. New songs were added to the groups repertoire, including Egberto Gismonti’s O Sonho, an uptempo samba. It would later feature on the mini-album Look To The Sky. So would a song by Tom Moon.

Not long after Tom picked up his tenor saxophone after a twenty year absence, he began to write new material. With  Ensemble Novo now making their tentative steps onto Philly’s music scene, Tom continued to write and hone new material. By then, Ensemble Novo was a familiar face on the Philly music scene. However, they were in no rush to record an album. Instead, they would only record their debut album when they were ready.

Tom Moon in his previous life as a music critic, would’ve heard more than his fare share of albums recorded by bands before they were ready. Musical history has shown that this is a big mistake, and often results in the band never recording another album. The maxim “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” is more like a truism. When Ensemble Novo recorded their debut album, they were determined to make a good impression.

Blue Night.

Eventually, Ensemble Novo decided they were ready to record their debut album, Blue Night. It featured eleven songs which were recorded at Philly’s Turtle Studios. The songs included a a number of Brazilians standards which Ensemble Novo reworked. They were originally written with a vocalist in mind, but in Ensemble Novo’s hands became instruments. They were joined by two tracks from the pen of Tom Moon. These eleven songs would become Blue Night.

For the recording of Blue Night, a decision had been made to play quietly. Tom Moon especially was tired of obtrusive music, and decided that Ensemble Novo’s playing should be understated on Blue Night. They stuck to their game plan as they switched between Bossa Novas, sambas, MPB and jazz.This understated, less is more approach proved effective. Especially on songs like Berimbau, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s And Orinha, Egberto Gismonti’s Pr’um Samba and Edu Lobo’s Boranda. They were the perfect showcase for the talented and versatile musicians that comprise Ensemble Novo. Their debut album Blue Night was released on Frosty Cordial Records later in 2013.

After the release of Blue Night, Ensemble Novo seemed in no hurry to record a followup album. Three more years passed, and Ensemble Novo continued to play live. They were by then, stalwarts of the Philly music scene. However, on the ‘14th’ and ‘15th’ May 2016 Ensemble Novo recorded not one, but two mini-albums.

Over the course of the two days, Ensemble Novo recorded thirteen tracks. The majority of them, were from the sixties and seventies, which was a golden period in Brazilian music. Tom Moon had written two songs which would be recorded during the sessions at Ritterhouse Soundworks, in Philly. These tracks would be recorded by the five members of Ensemble Novo.

This time around, Ensemble Novo featured guitarist Ryan McNeely; vibraphonist Behn Gillece; percussionist Jim Hamilton;  bassist Mark Przblowski and tenor saxophonist and flautist Tom Moon who took charge of production. They had all featured on Blue Night. Joining Ensemble Novo was percussionist Tom Lowery. These six musicians managed to record the thirteen songs in just two days, which would become the mini-albums Look To The Sky and Who Saw You Then, Who Sees You Now.

Look To The Sky.

Six of the thirteen songs recorded in May 2016, featured on Look To The Sky. Five of these songs, Tom Cook regards as Brazilian classics. They’re he believes akin to musical perfection. 

That comes as no surprise, given the songs that Ensemble Novo have chosen. They were written by some of the greatest songwriters in the history of Brazilian popular music. That describes Antonio Carlos Jobin, who penned the beautiful, emotive sounding Vento Bravo. Ronaldo Boscoli’s Se E’ Tarde Me Perdoa is a showcase for Tom’s sultry saxophone, while the rest of Ensemble Novo play in a similar understated way. In doing so, Ensemble Novo transport the listener back to Rio De Janeiro in the sixties. Egberto Gismonti’s uptempo samba O Sonho is without doubt, one of the finest moments on Look To The Sky. It’s light, airy and propulsive as Ensemble Novo showcase their considerable talents. This they continue to do.

Columbia Waltz is a quite beautiful, wistful composition by Tom Moon. His saxophone and Ryan’s guitar play leading roles in the track’s success. Look To The Sky is the second song from Antonio Carlos Jobin. Again, Ensemble Novo’s playing is understated, with Tom’s gently rasping saxophone playing a leading role in what’s an exquisite interpretation of a classic. However, Milton Nascimento’s Cravo E Canela is a joyous and uplifting musical journey, that’s the perfect way to close Look To The Sky, which was recently released.

Who Saw You Then, Who Sees You Now.

Having recently released the Look To The Sky mini-album, soon, Ensemble Novo will be preparing for the release of their second mini-album in as many months. Just like on Look To The Sky, Ensemble Novo rework Brazilian classics. They enjoy the chance to explore and improvise, taking familiar songs in new and expected directions. That is despite Tom Moon describing the six Brazilian songs as perfection. However, he doesn’t take a reverential approach to the music though. After all, they’re not ancient artefacts in a museum, they’re mini works of art which Ensemble Novo imbue with the joie de vivre.

Chico Buarque’s Quem Te Viu, Quem Te Ve which opens has an understated and ruminative, late night sound that invites reflection. Upa Neguinho is a much more upbeat song, that breezes along conjuring up golden sandy beaches, blue skies and everything right with the world. Soon, it’s all change.

Quite different is The Sand This Time, a vamp that’s played in 6/8 time. Ensemble Novo stretch their legs as they improvise, before they come to middle of the song what was composed by Tom Cook. After this they continue to improvise and showcase their imagination and inventiveness before the song reaches a crescendo. Bossa Nova singer, guitarist and composer Edu Lobo wrote Casa Forte which breezes joyously along, allowing each member of Ensemble Novo to enjoy their moment in the sun. This includes Tom, whose switched to flute. However, this is only temporarily.

Tom’s jazzy tenor saxophone plays a leading role on the maudlin sounding Estate. Meanwhile, the rest of Ensemble Novo play a supporting role on this beautiful sounding song that suggests hurt and heartbreak. There’s still an underlying sense of sadness on E Luxo So’ as Tom’s saxophone takes charge. Gradually, though, there’s a change in mood as Tom saxophone dances, before the baton passes to the vibes during what’s an emotional roller coaster. Reza closes Who Saw You Then, Who Sees You Now, and finds Tom’s flute playing a leading role on a track the veers between wistful to thoughtful and later, beatific. It’s a quite beautiful and satisfying way to close Who Saw You Then, Who Sees You Now. which will be released by Frosty Cordial Music on the ‘19th’ of May 2017.

For fans of Ensemble Novo, it’s been a case of feast or famine. Recently, this musical famine came to an end with the release of  their first mini-album Look To The Sky on Cordial Music. Then in three weeks time, Ensemble Novo will release Who Saw You Then, Who Sees You Now on May ’19th’ 2017. Both albums are akin to a love letter to Brazilian popular music from the sixties and seventies.

This is something the members of Ensemble Novo cherish, and share a love of. However, Ensemble Novo aren’t willing to record faithful covers of these classic songs. Instead, Ensemble Novo give these Brazilian popular songs of the sixties and seventies a new twist. Sambas, Bossa Novas and Música Popular Brasileira (MPB), are reworked by Ensemble Nova and head in new and unexpected directions. However, given Ensemble Novo’s love of, and respect for Brazilian music, this might seem unexpected. 

Ensemble Novo have absolutely no qualms about taking the songs in new directions, as they improvise and combine different genres. Some of the songs take on new meaning, while others however are instantly recognisable. They’re part of two mini-albums that showcase the considerable talents and versatility of Ensemble Novo, which is lead by former journalist turned bandleader Tom Moon. 

He’s back making music, which was what he was doing after graduating from University of Miami’s School of Music. Tom Moon the one time music critic proves that not only can he walk the walk, but talk the talk on the two mini-albums he and other four members of Ensemble Novo, Look To The Sky and Who Saw You Then, Who Sees You Now. They were made in Philly, the City of Brotherly Love, a city that’s better known for soul than Brazilian music. Maybe that is about to change when the denizens of Philly hear the delights of Look To The Sky and Who Saw You Then, Who Sees You Now which feature the Ensemble Novo, at their creative zenith.

Ensemble Novo-Look To The Sky and Who Saw You Then, Who Sees You Now. 

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