Photo Credit: The Dave Mathews Band
Left of Cool
by Bob Fuson
“Left of Cool” is a series which examines saxophonists who exist outside the paradigms of the jazz and classical worlds. Future entries in the series include Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthews Band, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones), Dana Colley (Morphine), JC Kuhl (Agents of Good Roots), Courtney Pine, Sam Butera, Clarence Clemons, and Colin Stetson. It is named after the eponymous Bela Fleck and the Flecktones album.
For better or worse Kenny G has become a polarizing entity in the saxophone community. His detractors cite bland playing and unoriginal concepts; Pat Metheny went so far as to call him a “musical necrophiliac” for recording over Louis Armstrong. His fans call attention to his monumental financial success. If he’s making that much money, the saying goes, he must be doing something right.
Critics accuse him of being the ultimate sellout. Though Metheny made pointed critiques of Kenny G’s playing, few would argue that the man can play. A cursory listen of his early work with Jeff Lorber show a player hewed in the same fields that reaped Michael Brecker, Bob Berg, and Bill Evans. For those who consider jazz the ultimate art form, a melding of the mind and soul, this is a crime of the highest order. To water down your talents in the interest of making money is jazz blasphemy. The standard assumption is this – Kenny G can play, but he chooses not to.
Then again we tend to eat our own in this regard. Branford Marsalis recounts dealing with a very angry George Coleman after signing a contract for $100,000. No one doubts Branford’s artistry. So the question remains – can you make high art, steeped in the jazz tradition, that is both popular and financially lucrative? Can a musician ever make a fortune without selling a piece of their musical soul?
As it turns out you can. There is a saxophonist who created some of the most startling examples of modern improvisation on record. Someone who had a deep love and understanding of the jazz tradition (and the funk tradition, and the rock tradition…). Someone who never compromised his artistic integrity, yet people flocked by the tens and hundreds of thousands to buy albums and concert tickets. Concerts where this saxophonist regularly took extended solos on songs lasting upwards of twenty minutes, solos that kept stadiums in rapt attention. Due to his reticent, quiet nature he has been overlooked by most as just one more member of a popular band. Most definitely he has been overlooked by musicians; popularity tends to blot out the finer elements of one’s musicianship if you’re not really paying attention.
That saxophonist was LeRoi Moore, founding member of Dave Matthews Band.
Moore cut his teeth in the musical community of Charlottesville, Virginia. A true melting pot of academia (the University of Virginia resides there) and bohemian, Charlottesville brought together a mass of musicians from all genres in a scene described as “incestual.” It was not uncommon for Moore to sit in on gigs with country bands and rock bands; he co-founded the more traditional Charlottesville Swing Orchestra with trumpeter John D’earth. He was also a founding member of D’earth’s Thursday night shows at a local bar named Miller’s. D’earth’s Thursday night appearance have been going on for well over thirty years, playing modern standards and contemporary jazz. Moore was at the crossroads of all of it.
It was at Miller’s that Moore came to the attention of bartender Dave Matthews. Matthews was a full-time hippie and part-time songwriter. Matthews eventually mustered up enough courage to ask the local musicians he admired to start a band with him. The idea was just to record a demo; Matthews asked Moore and Moore’s childhood friend and local drummer Carter Beauford initially. The two were hesitant but eventually agreed to join the young bartender. By all accounts the first rehearsal was abysmal. They decided to add a bassist, a student of D’earth’s still in high school named Stefan Lessard. Local bandleader and violinist Boyd Tinsley was asked to sit in on the demo for one song, and eventually became a full-time member. The rest, as they say is history.
It speaks to the vibe of Charlottesville that a relatively unknown and untrained bartender could approach two of the top jazz musicians in the city and they would agree to perform with him. A true representation of the saying that “no gig is beneath you.”
Moore was shy (if you did not know him) and suffered from stage fright. He would ask club owners not to light his side of the stage. When they refused he donned sunglasses onstage and did so for most of his career. His friends and colleagues described him as “wickedly funny” but with a dark sense of humor. He could be moody, prone to outbursts from the stage, and often hated his own playing. Ironic, in that what he considered a fault (his avoidance of stock licks and phrases) made him one of the most unique saxophonists in music history. The dichotomy of LeRoi Moore is that he often disregarded those things which made him special.
The subsequent (and sudden) success of Dave Matthews Band is beyond the scope of this article, but Moore’s contributions to the band’s albums and live shows are nothing less than exceptional. The band has an open taping policy, meaning anyone can tape and trade their live shows provided they don’t sell them. This makes Moore one of the most recorded saxophonists of the 1990’s and 2000’s. From live shows to albums to collaborations, his playing remains incredibly consistent. In 1996 he began taking lessons from John Purcell of the World Saxophone Quartet, as well as studying with Dr. Roland Wiggins in Charlottesville. Though consistent, he constantly sought to improve himself and deferred to other musicians onstage whenever possible. The list of saxophonists Moore invited to play with the band reads like a who’s who of the saxophone world. Humble to a fault, a 1996 cover of Windplayer Magazine that labeled him a “saxophone master” embarrassed him greatly. He rarely participated in interviews after that, and never gave a one-on-one interview again.
If one can look past the success and screaming crowds there is a high level of artistry in Moore’s playing. Consider his solo on “Lie In Our Graves” from Live at Red Rocks, a show recorded in 1995 and released in 1997. The solo comes startlingly close to vocalese, with long drawn out expressions of joy intermixed with weaving eighth notes to drive the rhythmic intensity. Every phrase is packed with melodic content. It is one of the most important solos in modern improvisation.
On the band’s first album for a major label, Under the Table and Dreaming, Moore adds another landmark improvisation on “Lover Lay Down.” He twists in and out of the texture behind Matthews’ vocals, becoming in effect a second vocalist, though he neither plays too much or too little. Every note is perfectly placed. It’s a feature for his soprano saxophone, for which he had one of the most beautiful and personal sounds.
The clearest example of the unconventional instincts of LeRoi Moore can be heard on their second album for RCA Records, Crash. The final track “Proudest Monkey” features an extended soprano solo from Moore. It is replete with dove-tailing motifs, building to an exciting climax. At its highest point Moore eschews fast runs, counter to the reflexes of most saxophonists after John Coltrane. As Carter Beauford signals the apex with a roaring fill on descending toms, Moore elects to jump into the upper register with round, full notes while Beauford continues to fill. The majority of saxophonists would be spurred to furious intensity over the keys, but not Moore. His crystalline, beautiful soprano saxophone floats on top like a paper airplane above a hurricane.
LeRoi Moore was appreciated by thousands of fans, but the musical community at large has failed to give him his proper due. He was a genius, redefining the way the saxophone performs rock and pop music. He kept true to the tradition of the greats of jazz music without watering down his sound or approach. He created lasting works of art, of high improvisation, and he did so in a way that resonated with millions of people. The added benefit of this was that it was commercially successful as well.
Moore began mentoring younger musicians and started producing albums in the 2000’s. He was in the process of conquering some of his self-doubt and personal demons. He reached out to friends about sobriety and embraced his role as an elder statesmen of music. He was engaged to be married, and accepting his place in music history. Sadly he did not live to see his contributions recognized fully. He passed away from injuries sustained in an ATV accident in 2008. The foundation started in his name continues to do positive work in the Charlottesville community.
LeRoi Moore remains one of the most underrated yet important saxophonists in the history of American music. For more information visit:
Bob Fuson is the Instructor of Woodwinds at Hastings College and Instructor of Saxophone at Doane University. His research is focused on the life and works of the late LeRoi Moore, for which he wrote his doctoral dissertation and maintains a blog dedicated to his legacy. From this his research has branched out into saxophonists of uncommon stripe in similar ways to Moore.