Drummer Rakalam Bob Moses has played with Charles Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Pat Metheny, among many others, and his late-'60s band, Free Spirits, was among the pioneers of jazz/rock fusion. He also teaches at New England Conservatory. Yet for his 60th "b'earthday," as he called it, rather than celebrating his own achievements, Moses chose to showcase electric guitarist Bhapuji Tisziji Muñoz, whom he considers to be among the greatest and least-known living musicians.
Muñoz's music evokes the cosmic free jazz of John Coltrane's later work. Like a saxophonist, Muñoz plays only one note at a time, yet he can play with such velocity that the notes blur, akin to Coltrane's "sheets of sound." Unlike Coltrane, who embodied the struggle toward transcendence, even at his most intense Muñoz remains serene, the struggle recalled in tranquility.
Monday night, a substantial crowd of Moses' students, colleagues, and fans filled Jordan Hall. When the band took the stage, cries of "happy birthday" and "Rakalam" arced over the applause. Moses spoke briefly, calling Muñoz "my teacher, my guru," before yielding the stage to the guitarist.
Opening the first set, "Spirit Path" began with lone guitar, displaying Muñoz's luminous tone and breath-like phrasing as he limned the simple melody. Pianist John Medeski joined in with rippling consonant chords, then the two bassists provided some undertow, with John Lockwood plucking and Don Pate bowing. Only then did the self-effacing Moses chime in with gentle cymbals and snare.
As Muñoz ramped up the velocity and dissonance, the band built to a volcanic rumble over which the guitarist swooped, soared, and screamed. The piece evolved like a force of nature until it returned to its songlike opening tune. .
"No Self, No Thought, No Mind" opened with Medeski playing staccato chords and Muñoz chanting the title along with them, equal parts Thelonious Monk and Zen koan. "Ode to Shompa" was Muñoz's bittersweet dedication to the passing of Moses' father. Medeski played Muñoz's "Motherhood" as a solo piano lullaby. Then a familiar 6/8 vamp announced the Coltrane adaptation of "My Favorite Things," with Muñoz playing the melody straight with a searing, bell-like tone before launching into the stratosphere.
The second set began with "Love Is a Prayer," sung from his wheelchair by Muñoz's son Rebazar in an unpolished voice brimming with the joy of making music. The majestic, mountainous "We Meet Again in Spirit" had the band reach perhaps the peak of its intensity.
Over the course of the evening, Lockwood and Pate held up their end superbly, shining in two inventive duets. Medeski ranged from Keith Jarrett delicacy to Cecil Taylor fire. And Moses sat back, supporting them all, stepping out for two brief solos with the freshness of a child at play.