It’s hard to describe just what Jules Moss is playing with the Graham Moses band. If you had to give it just one name, you ’d probably say “jazz,” because that’s the term usually applied to unique or unusual music of almost any style outside mainstream rock or pop, and not readily indentifiable as an ethnic form like reggae or Latin. But there are so many elements in Graham’s music: elements of traditional jazz, fusion, funk, punk, rock—all combined with his absolutely unique vocal style. Graham sounds like a cross between Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Allen Ginsberg, and your local drag race announcer—in polyrhythmic time.
It’s easy to see, then, why Jules Moss’s drumming in this band must also be unique—equal parts jazz, rock, avant-garde, and other elements too numerous to mention. But Jules comes to this challenge well prepared. His background is widely varied, and his enjoyment of all forms of music has given him the ability to perform admirably in any style—or in all styles at once, which is really the best way to define his current gig.
RVH: What was your musical background?
JM: My father was a drummer. One time—before we really knew Dad was a player—we moved, and my brothers and I found all these “black boxes” among the other cartons. When we asked Dad about them, he said, “Those are my drums.” So we said, “You’ve had these all the time, and we never saw them? Set ’em up!” So he sat down and played a little swing beat, and it was all over right then. We all started playing drums. My brother David is now an avant-garde percussionist who’s pretty well-known.
We always heard a lot of music in my house. My father took us to hear Louie Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Dave Brubeck. My mother plays classical piano and is a modern dancer. So that’s my basic background.
I started studying with Joe Porcaro in Hartford, Connecticut. Then he left for the West Coast, and I continued studying with Richie Lepore. When I was about 14, I got this gig in a Greek band, and the music was all odd-time signatures. Greek music is incredible; they dance in nine and five. I mean, you go to a Greek wedding, and there are five-year-old kids dancing on top of tables and banging tambourines—in five! The revelation was when I saw the band with the original drummer, who came back and played one night. He played the Greek stuff and was all over the bar lines—real loose like Elvin Jones. Then they did a rock tune, and he sounded awful. He sounded so stiff playing in four. The odd-time stuff was what he had grown up on. So that’s where my odd-time abilities come from; I played for almost two years doing Greek music every weekend, and it became a natural thing for me. From the Greek band, I got involved with jazz and rock, and I wound up going to Berklee, where I studied with Alan Dawson and Fred Buda. But I just wanted to play, so I left after two years. I played around Boston a lot, and then came to New York. As it turned out, I only stayed for the summer, but I met Jimmy Garrison, the bass player who had been with the John Coltrane quartet. I met him at a rhythm workshop he was doing with Joe Chambers, and he really liked playing with me. So he asked me to be in the group he was forming. Here was a guy who’d played in one of the greatest jazz groups in the world and was the swingingest bass player you could ever imagine. I was thrilled! The group was Jimmy, Ralph Towner, Dave Lieber, and myself. We had a couple of rehearsals, but Jimmy wasn’t a leader type, so it didn’t work out. But it was still a great experience. Later, Jim was called to go up and do a black music course at Bennington College in Vermont. He called me and said, “Hey Jules, do you want to come up and teach school?” So I arrived on the campus of Bennington College with Jimmy Garrison, and we taught black music. He just got up and told stories about playing. We’d play bass and drums together. I ended up staying in Vermont and gigging there for about a year and a half. Then I got married and came to New York again.
I immediately got into a rehearsal band with a lot of cats from Berklee playing horns. It was a chance to meet different players every week. The leader would come to each rehearsal with four new charts, and he’d never let you take them home, so it was cold reading every time. Everyone played in that band: Lou Marini, Tom Malone, Will Lee—a lot of great cats. I also played around the jazz clubs in New York. I played for a year with Marian McPartland, and traveled all over the country with her. I’ve worked a lot with singers, including Joe Williams, Sheila Jordan, Lee Konitz, and Bob Cranshaw.
Then I started getting into James Brown. A guitar-player friend of mine was really into funk, and we’d get together and just play funk grooves. I went to a gig one night to see another friend play bass, and the drummer was playing some great funk—right in the pocket. I went up to him and told him so, and he asked me if I wanted to sit in. So I played, and he loved the way I played; as it turned out, we had a similar approach. His name was Daoud Shah, and he’d been playing every weekend in this R&B band up in the Woodstock area. It was four black guys playing some serious funk: Hammond organ, sweet vocals—funk. Daoud had just gotten the gig as the drummer for the first season of Saturday Night Live. He invited me to cover for him in the funk band while he took the TV gig . So I took a bus up to Woodstock the following weekend, and they picked me up and took me over to the club where they were working. We played an Ohio Players song and an Isley Brothers song—about eight bars of each—and said, “To hell with this, we don’t need rehearsal. Let’s go eat!” I ended up playing with that group for the whole year, and it was a ball. It was a turnaround for me, because the jazz scene is so different. When people watch jazz, it’s kind of cool; the players have a cool attitude and so does the audience. When I played with these funk guys, the moment we started all hell broke loose. People started dancing and screaming, and the guys in the band were jumping around the stage. It was more fun than I had ever had playing. From then on, I was into dance music. That was the beginning of a new phase for me.
That band played for about eight months, and then the leader got a gig with Harry Belafonte. The rest of the band knew this singer named Martha Velez, who had just recorded an album with Bob Marley in Jamaica. This was in ’76, and her thing was very ahead of its time: a white pop singer doing reggae-influenced music. The Wailers had backed her up on the album, but she needed a band to tour with. Her boyfriend, who was a bass player, had learned to play reggae while he and Martha were in Jamaica. I had heard reggae on the radio, but it always sounded upside-down to me; I had never listened to it enough to really figure it out. But Martha wanted a reggae band to back her up, so we combined with her boyfriend to become her band. I went out and bought myself 30 reggae albums. I played reggae all day long at my house, rehearsed all night long with Martha, and got into a reggae groove. We did a little tour of the East Coast, and then went out and played in L.A. I was one of the first American drummers to play reggae in New York.
When that gig ended, the guitar player, the organ player, and I hooked up with an incredible bass player whose name was Michael Johnson, but whom everybody called “The Count.” We ended up forming a group called Pockets, and we played together for two and a half years. We started out in the Poughkeepsie/Woodstock area. Then I got a gig for us at Mikell’s in New York City. I think Stuff had just left, and they stuck us in there. We started to get a little reputation around New York City as a hot R&B band, and finally we got a production deal. But this was in ’78 and ’79, when real R&B was just not happening; the disco thing was pushing it into a closet. We were the wrong thing at the wrong time.
So I started to free-lance again around New York. Then the punk rock scene came on like crazy as disco faded, and all of a sudden, there was a lot of live playing happening again. I had a loft on 27th Street at the time with a little sound system there, and I had bands coming over to rehearse at my place. I was suddenly in ten bands, and playing an off-Broadway show at the same time. I was also doing demos; the drum machine wasn’t dominating the field yet. New York was a great free-lancing town at that point. I was in all these bands, and it was a great learning experience to go from one thing to another. But I’m really a “band” sort of guy. I like focusing in, and making something really hot and strong. It takes time to develop a tightness in a rhythm section, and a band sound. You’ve just got to play and work together. It would begin to annoy me when I would get on a gig with one of those ten bands and it was loose. Although it was a great challenge to play the Bottom Line with a band that had only had three rehearsals and make it as tight as possible, it still could have been so much hotter.
One of the bands, called the Hardbeats, started to get a good reaction around town, so we decided that we’d make it a full-time band. We got a couple of cover sets together, got our own van and sound system, and started playing clubs around Westchester. We worked with several producers over the years, and did demos and things. Even while I was playing with the Hardbeats, I continued to play other out- side things, but I was basically with them full-time—managing and booking the band as well. I learned a lot from that situation.
About a year and a half before the band broke up, the bass player quit, and I had the chance to bring my friend Count in on bass. That was great, because we were like a team. It’s important for drummers to find bass players they can work with; that’s the bottom.
Soon after Count joined the band, I injured my left arm while loading some equipment. So for eight months, I played right-hand-only drums with the Hardbeats. That was interesting, to say the least. I had basically played simple, straight-ahead dance rock with that band anyway, but with one hand it became barbaric. I mean, you’re talking one fill every four or five songs, as opposed to one every 24 bars.
That, in combination with other things, led to the band calling it a day in September of ’84. That was the longest I had worked with any one band, and at that point, I felt like there were a lot of changes I would have to go through to get back into the free-lance thing. Things had changed a lot in the previous few years, and even though I had seen it all happening, since I was in a band, I was always working. Back in New York, the drum machine had really taken over the home-studio and demo situations. That was a scary thing to come back to.
The first thing that happened was that Graham called, because he had a gig in L.A. That was a lot of fun. I was ready, at that point, to take some time off, because the Hardbeats had been schlepping from New York to Newfoundland in a van for over four years and I was just really burned out.
The winter of ’84 was a period of change for me. Count had written some songs, and a partner of mine named Serra Pica and I decided that we wanted to produce some of them. So we took them into the studio. I played all the drums and Serra played keyboards, while Count played bass and sang all the parts. That was a lot of fun, and we began to realize that we had a lot of ability, what with all our combined experience from working with other people, and making their demos and records. Now, I’m working on making a record with Serra and all her stuff. We’re doing some different things in order to finance this project ourselves. That way, we have complete control over it; it doesn’t involve anyone else. And it’s coming out great.
RVH: Somewhere, in the midst of all this varied career activity, you managed to hook up with Graham Moses. How and when did that come about?
JM: It started during that period when I was working in ten bands; Graham’s band was one of them. We’ve been playing together, off and on, for about five years now. The way we first got together was that a bass player friend of mine was working with a trumpet player friend of Graham’s. Graham had gotten to New York and was looking to put a band together. My friend heard Graham’s music, said, “We need a drummer to play this,” and recommended me. I was playing in Pockets at the time. Graham’s trumpet player came to me one night and asked me if I wanted to play some wild music with a lot of odd-time sig- natures. I was curious, so I went over to Graham’s house and met him. He sat down and played his music on the piano, and it was wild. We got together, and the first thing we did was learn four tunes and cut them as a demo in an 8-track studio. From there, we just started doing gigs. The music was a real challenge, and challenges are great; they keep me on my toes. There are so many different styles and feels that Graham goes through just on one song that to shift gears and make it all blend together is a lot of fun. I’m basically a groove drummer, and to make a groove work for three bars and then go to another groove is a real challenge. Usually, you have more time to make a groove happen, but with Graham it has to happen instantly, because like I say, you’ll have three bars of something, and then suddenly you’re in another world.
RVH: Graham’s music certainly is different—so different, in fact, that I would imagine the commercial potential is pretty limited. Does that bother you?
JM: Graham’s music is so different that marketing it is an uphill thing. Yet, within a year after I first met him, he got a deal on Inner City, the jazz label. He released the album, and it got a mixed reaction. We’re not a dance band or a straight-ahead jazz band, or a rock band. The music is hard for anyone to define, so it’s hard for anyone to sell. But to me, it’s genuine; Graham is a genuine artist. I’m real picky about what I do now. I’ve worked with a lot of people and schlepped around a lot. Now, I’m only going to do things that mean a lot to me, and Graham’s music means a lot to me.
RVH: When you’re putting together a new tune for the band, how is it assembled?
JM: Rich Oppenheimer, our sax player, has been a big part of things from the beginning, because he has helped Graham arrange and write things out. Graham never writes out his music; he just plays it on piano, sings it, and there it is; he’s just a natural. Rich would tape it, count it out, and transcribe it for the band.
I’ll look at the charts sometimes, but mostly, I don’t like to use charts, even from the very first. I’ve found that, if you learn a song with charts, you depend on them. A chart can sometimes limit you; you think, “Well, that’s the way it’s written, so that’s the way it is.” If I just listen to a song, I can come up with a feel myself. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the way Graham counts it; I can play something different against it, and it can still work. It’s good for the other guys to have charts, because they’re dealing with chords and melodic lines. But for me, I just look at it as a song: One part of the song is one thing, and one part is another. I really like Graham’s lyrics, and I memorize the stuff from the start. I just fumble through it at rehearsals until I’ve got it. Then Graham will say, “Well, this part isn’t set.” So he’ll play something, we’ll get a little groove going, and we’ll arrange something together. All the bass lines come out of Graham’s comping. In fact, he plays almost the whole band on the piano; I get a lot of accents and groove feels from the way he plays. It takes time, because Graham hears things differently. Not only does he write in odd-time signatures, but a lot of his phrases are crazy, too. Instead of playing eight bars of seven to eight bars of nine, we’ll do five bars of 3/4 to seven bars of 9/ 8. He’ll do a thing in 4/4, but the hook will be nine bars of 4/4. This is how he hears the music; it’s really natural with him. It’s just like the Greek people I used to play for; they hear it in five, and that’s natural to them.
A funny thing happened to me when I first saw Graham’s band with another drummer. I had quite a few other gigs going on, so I couldn’t make this particular series of bookings with Graham. But I did get to hear the band one night. The tunes that I knew, I could follow. But they had learned some new tunes as well, and I was totally lost! I thought, “This is what it must be like for someone to hear this music for the first time.” When we play the music, we’ve rehearsed it, and although the rehearsals are difficult, you get to a point where the music feels natural, and you know where you are. But when I heard the new songs, I was falling out of my chair, totally baffled. It was amazing.
RVH: One thing that struck me about the band was that, if you took away Graham’s vocal, there really was no lead instrument doing melodic lines or solos. This was jazz without lengthy instrumental work—almost a five-piece rhythm section. And Graham’s vocals are almost arhythmic and atonal. What do you lock onto as the central focus of the music?
JM: There are great melodies in Graham’s music, but his singing is in that fine line between singing and talking, like Bob Dylan or Lou Reed. As far as what I lock onto, there is a structure to each one of Graham’s songs, although they are structured very differently than any pop song you’ve ever heard. When he comes in, he has a whole arrangement. They’re kind of unusual arrangements; sometimes he’ll hear just a couple of vocal lines and then a big instrumental section, and that’ll be the song. There are no limits or boundaries as far as his songwriting concepts go. I get my rhythm and feel from his piano playing, and I get a sense of attitude from what he’s singing about. That helps me create and color my own part a lot.
RVH: You’re playing a reasonably small kit. Avant-garde or fusion drummers usually tend to have a lot of drums and cymbals in order to have a wide range of sounds. Do you feel limited?
JM: No, I’ve used this particular drumset for the last six years or more. I could use another drumset, but I don’t know if I’d have more drums or cymbals per se—maybe different sounding ones. I was never into classic “fusion,” and I don’t consider Graham’s music to be fusion in the sense of Mahavishnu or anything like that. I guess because of the odd-time signatures you could relate it to that, though.
RVH : “Polyrhythmic punk” was the term that came to my mind when I heard the band.
JM: Yeah! I was calling it “junk” music: jazz and punk, or “puzz”: punk and jazz. But polyrhythmic punk would be a better term for it.