Ras Moshe. I first met Ras at the back of the Brecht Forum when it was in Chelsea. Daniel Carter and I had an improvising orchestra then and asked Ras to join right away. He then invited me over to his house to check out some music he wrote and as I recall we had a fantastic concert. I remember other musicians looking at us in shock. Where did these two come from? Right from the beginning we could play together like we had been playing together for a long time. Countless times since then we have been in situations in which we instantly create music that seems composed and rehearsed, but it’s actually past that. Not braggin’… just keepin it real Roy Campbell style. You know Roy, he just appeared in the Grammy’s Memoriam for the whole world to watch. (That really did happen). Ras grew up in Brooklyn and knows NYC on deeper levels than most. He is my musical and spiritual brother.
Ras is also a 22 – denoting spiritual power. For me he represents the heart of the energy of creating music. Whenever we play together I know I have to go all the way. When I’m playing with Ras I have to travel to maximum expression. I have long admired how he is fearless in reaching for the core.
Listen to his music and you just may reach your own…
Ras you have actual family history in this music from the here and now all the way back to the swing era. Could you elaborate on that history and how you relate to it including your family’s reaction to your personal vision?
My dad Ted (Jacob) Burnett the II played a lot in Brooklyn in the 1970’s and the first part of the 80’s. He has been playing again thankfully. The music never stops, really. I am formerly known as Theodore Burnett the III. The name Ras came when I was around the Rastafarian community and playing in some reggae bands at the time. Moshe is a name given to me when I was a little younger based on a religious conversion in the family. I always did relate to the musical dynamic in the family. It wasn’t unique at all to have grown up with music,”Jazz” in particular, because it was something that was very much a regular component of the community. It wasn’t some distant elitist thing. Their reaction to my personal vision was always encouraging. Although later my Grandfather stopped playing Jazz and played in the church context. Which is still like playing Jazz practically! They get down in there… the spirit likes music. My Maternal Grandfather was from Harlem. He was a painter and worked for the Transit Authority and was also a part time Fireman. He had a lot of records and we’d be listening all the time. He would tell me about all the cats from that time especially Jackie McLean… Bud and Richie Powell… the original 17 piece Jazz Messengers with Buhaina Art Blakey, Idris Sulieman and others. He told me many many times(you never get tired of hearing it) about walking out on Cecil Taylor. With pride. It was a very funny story. Its also funny how he ended up hearing me playing Cecil’s records constantly. Can’t stop the force. My Father’s sisters and my Grandmothers knew a lot about the Jazz scene too. I’m sure this is the case with most musicians of different ages who play this music.
Fast forwarding to your childhood, as I understand it you got deep into the music at an early age. Earlier than anyone I’ve met. I’ve met many older musicians who met you at concerts as a young teenager or maybe even earlier. You took action in getting records and listening to concerts early on as well. I’ve read about some of your encounters with the veterans of that time on Facebook. Don Cherry, Amiri Baraka and beyond. This might be a long question and answer but could you speak on that period in your life and maybe recall some of the highlights? Hanging out with Don Cherry in particular..that’s my favorite.
Man, I did get into it, from about as long as I can remember hearing anything! Like I said a second ago… it wasn’t unique because of the strong presence of the music itself. I did watch things change as Disco and a lot of music made by machines began to predominate the outlets/entities that presented the music to the community. It was a great period in my life because I was listening everyday and frequenting the record stores “downtown” and getting stuff every week. In a serious way. I started seeing live music in the early 80’s… ’82 I think… I was 13 when I went to see people like Cecil Taylor, George Coleman and the music that was still being played on the Lower East Side… William Parker… Daniel Carter… Jemeel Moondoc… Tom Bruno…William Hooker..Billy Bang. It was the Muntu/Survival Ensemble period… I was too young for that… but I saw them play in other kinds of formations that had the same spirit. Come to think of it, I did “see” the Survival Ensemble, but I was just a kid. I was running around with the others, but I did enjoy the music, that is for sure. I made sure to get the recordings of all these people and I still enjoy them, after I finish getting my own music together.
He came by a health food restaurant I worked in on 1st ave. The spring of 1987. The window of the kitchen faced the street and he came by on his roller skates and asked if I could pass him some Tahini sauce because he’d forgotten to ask. Yes, I knew who he was, so I got kind of excited talking to him and asking about those Blue Note records. It didn’t bother him although he heard these questions before I’m sure. He talked to me there for almost a half hour. Afterwards we would hang out sometimes, sitting in Tomkins Square Park just talking like Jazz fans. This man had a LOT of history. He was there when Clifford Brown and Max were auditioning Saxophonists, knew Billie Holiday. And he did confirm for me that the bands he had with Pharaoh, Gato, Karl Berger etc. pioneered a lot of music that was to come later, especially “World Music” which is what Jazz has always been. I heard over the radio that he passed after not seeing him for a while. There should be a book of memoirs about him from all the people who had the same experience with him.
Ras could you speak about where your music was at from that period until we met in 1999? It was soon after we met that I heard you speak about Music Now!
I remember when we met! A lot of great music has been going up since then. At that time, I decided to attempt to play in some of the “downtown” venues. I was still trying to play the “free music” only in Brooklyn and I was playing a lot of party music, which was a lot of fun. Although in my mind the music I really loved was whirling around in my head. So, I started working on some things. Making the musical system work for me instead of trying to burn it all down. I had/have ideas that I wanted to express. I was always a “Jazz” musician regardless. Playing/practicing it in the house.
“Music Now” was an idea I had about providing an outlet for musicians to play and an outlet for my own concepts at the same time. I was already a proud member of the “Neues Kabarett” series that formed at The Brecht Forum (that I already did some poetry events at years ago). I joined the Kabarett about a year after it formed, and I saw their events. Barbara Burch came to a gig at The Pink Pony and asked me to be a part of it. It was Kurt Gottschalk, Barbara, Urania Mylonas and Peter Cox who unfortunately passed not long ago. I started my series Music Now in conjunction with that to continue the music and to accommodate more musicians being able to play. The musicians were happy that both concepts were happening based on their comments/correspondence with me. Music Now is still going strong after 14 years now. Mostly at The Brecht Forum and sometimes other locations. I’ve been working with Kazembe Balagun and Matt Birkhold in this dynamic and there’s other projects to come as well.
Building on your Brecht connection you were the first musician I met to be involved in trying to make a difference in social and political worlds. Music being the bridge. Could you speak on music’s role in affecting the world for the greater good from your perspective? What are some of the ways you have engaged in change through music or otherwise over the years?
I am extremely appreciative to The Brecht Forum for providing an outlet for artists with a socio/political orientation. The marginalization of artists, especially “Jazz” artists can be a problem on the left as well. Which continues to be odd. I was always around the Brecht in general, even before I started Music Now. This music can make great changes in peoples lives, and like John Coltrane said – also in the thinking of the people. I have no utopian views about things. I’ve always been pretty realistic. But I do have a strong sentiment about what this music can do. Even when there’s no words involved, the implications can be felt through sound. I myself have always been an activist, even outside of music. It comes from my life experiences with racism. I am not bitter however, just committed to changing things for the better. I believe in music for music’s sake and in music for a cause. I think both perspectives are natural inclinations among people who create art.
Ras where do you see yourself in relation to the history of the Tenor? Going deeper how would you assess the state of the tenor in 2014?
I see and hear myself as part of the Tenor Legacy, the music legacy in general. I work hard on this stuff everyday and the results have been pretty good. The state of Tenor in 2014 is still standing strong. I pass my fellow travelers on the streets with their saxophone cases, Basses, Trumpet cases all the time. We are moving this music forward for sure.
Besides tenor You play soprano, alto and flute. I’ve noticed you get more into flute over the years. You also have one of the most unique alto sounds I have ever heard. Could you riff on what each of these horns brings to you and your history with them?
I enjoy the Flute very much. I have a better one now. So its been coming along very good so far. The Flute has that vibration that’s hard to describe, but its probably the instrument that goes back the furthest in most cultures. I started on Alto Sax. I’ve been playing it again after about 7 or 8 years maybe. I like the contrast with the Tenor. I picked up the Tenor in the 90’s. These instruments all have spiritual properties, and a spirit dimension as far as the cultural realities go. The wood, Iron and metal – they speak.
Going with that vibe, I have seen you tap into elemental forces on tenor. Back in the Spark trio I felt you had literally tapped into the power of a Tidal Wave. How do you feel about the idea of spiritual power in music? Or music at its most natural?
Man, that session was one of the greatest things we did. I still like that one. I’m always critical of myself when I hear myself back, but that session and a couple of others was no joke at all. To me this music is all about that spiritual power, that’s why the word “Jazz” doesn’t capture the essence. I’m not picky or condescending about it though, I still use the word at times in order to let people know what you play. “Jazz” is basically capturing that spiritual power via the power of music. Its not music that’s “here today, gone tomorrow” like other kinds of music. Music at its most natural sounds and feels better because you’re not playing for business oriented reasons. We are conduits for the spirit to descend and speak. Human mediums. The spirit of iron and fire. I must do this.
Could you talk about your recordings as a leader up to this point? In particular Into the Openess, The Transcendence Quartet, and Outsight.
I am proud of the recordings I’ve done as a “leader” and as “sideman”. They are all performances that I felt were worth the people hearing. I especially like “The Spark Trio”, “Transcendence”, ” Politics” (with Bill Cole’s ensemble) and the newest one “Outsight”.
In many of your performances in NYC over the years you’ve collaborated with a small army of musicians in many different contexts. Any thoughts on those performances over the years and having a large rotation of people to create with? Your concert at the Firehouse Space last year comes to mind as one I’ll never forget.
Oh yeah, the one at The Firehouse Space I super liked. We hit a peak. Still hittin ’em! All those performances we all did are still in my head. I remember everything and how well everyone played. I am extremely appreciative of everyone who does this music with me. Seriously. And you know you and myself been playing some serious spirit music bro. I am going to start releasing a lot of this music myself. Sun Ra and Harry Partch did the right thing in that regard. I have to say that being in the untempered ensemble of Bill Cole is a great experience. Playing music with these people I came up listening to – of course I’m learning more and more at the same time – its been giving dimension to what I play. Also William Hooker, Charles Downs (Rashid Bakr), William Parker, Karl Berger. It is an honor for me to be a part of one of the many ensembles they have. I’m sorry if I left anyone out!
Any thoughts on Brooklyn now vs Brooklyn when you came up? The NYC scene 2014. Plus any final thoughts about music and or life in general. Thanks for a great interview!
Well. The good part is that there is a resurgence of this music we’re talking about now going on in Brooklyn. And that’s the good change. I like it a lot. And I can’t believe where I’ve been playing gigs lately! I used to frequent these different Brooklyn streets a great deal, (growing up there and all) thinking in my head “damn, this would be a good spot for music”. In hindsight I can see that it was a form of creative/positive visualization. It’s a very constructive way to live. Of course the negative change is the economic warfare going on,which is very mean spirited. I don’t know who the individuals are that are involved in this real estate stuff,but its continuing evidence that you should be kind to children.
Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe. Heart that is full of love, love that comes from above. Heart that is kind and true, brings eternal life to you…
Be sure to check Ras’ Facebook Page for info about upcoming events!
The latest CD release OUTSIGHT
Ras on youtube with Transcendence