The music of Michael Moss and Billy Stein reminds us of the vast possibilities of improvisation. The five free improvisations and four improvisations on compositions heard on Intervals, their recorded debut as a duo, covers a prodigious amount of musical territory. Yet there is nothing forced or artificial about its variety; Stein and Moss flow from one passage to the next entirely naturally. That ease of execution comes from their discipline as musicians, the years of experience they have in a wide range of musical contexts, and their refusal to acknowledge the conventional barriers that constrain expression. It also helps that they are both searchers after higher truths.
A Brooklyn native, Stein came from a musical family. His father, a cantor, had studied opera and worked for Broadway composer Frank Loesser. His mother, a Julliard trained pianist, proofread liner notes at RCA records.
Stein took a route to jazz traveled by many. Drawn to ’60s rock, folk, and soul music, he picked up a guitar at the age of 13. A few years later a friend turned him on to the blues and they formed a band. And the first time he heard jazz, he fell in love with it. “I still remember the first time I played a Wes Montgomery record,” Stein says. “I was so moved that I broke down and cried.”
He majored in music at Hunter College, where Milt Hinton ran the jazz workshop and became a mentor. At the same time, he attended jazz workshops sponsored by the Henry Street Settlement and Jazz Interactions, where he learned from musicians like Attila Zoller, Gene Bertoncini, Ted Dunbar, Jimmy Heath, Makanda Ken McIntyre, and Harold Mabern.
After college, Stein gigged in Latin, jazz, and R&B bands, recording with the late salsa pianist/arranger Joe Blanco and the Sahib Shihab Big Band. A meeting with drummer Charles Downs (Rashid Bakr) introduced him to the Lower East Side new-music community. He has performed extensively with the former Cecil Taylor drummer and appears on his only album as a leader, Earth Native (Majic Music, 2002). Stein’s first CD as a leader, Hybrids (Barking Hoop, 2005), features a trio with Downs and bassist Reuben Radding.
Moss, a native of Chicago, also grew up in a musical family—his father, H. Baron Moss, was a Julliard-educated concert pianist and composer who gave him music lessons from an early age. He began improvising when he was nine.
Moving to New York in the mid ’60s, Moss became a member of Free Life Communication, a nonprofit musicians’ collective whose members included musicians such as Dave Liebman, Richie Beirach, Bob Moses, Armen Halburian, Frank Tusa, and Mike Mahaffey, among many others. He would serve as the president of Free Life from 1974 to 1976.
Free Life provided “a place where creative impulses were allowed to freely generate,” Moss says of the experience, “where close associations between people were allowed to develop, where there was a focus on creativity and where people could develop their ideas. Free Life gave me the opportunity to play with the best musicians in New York City.”
Moss drew on Free Life members to form two of his most important early bands— Free Energy, a large ensemble that was influenced by his interest in Renaissance orchestra music and free jazz, and his quartet Four Rivers, which included drummer Mike Mahaffay, bassist John Shea, and pianist Greg Kogan. Four Rivers was a mercurial project, sometimes doing free improvisation, at others incorporating elements of folk music, and often expanding to include additional drummers and percussionists. They recorded three LPs on Moss’s 4th Stream label: Upstream (1976), Cross Current (1978), and Live at ACIA (1980).
Outside of Free Life, Moss played with Sam Rivers, Cal Massey, Dave Burrell, and others. He also appears on the 1972 Annette Peacock-Paul Bley album I’m the One (RCA) and on Dreamcatcher and Bindu, two Stork Music cassettes by drummer Heinz Geisser’s Collective 4tet with William Parker and Mark Hennen.
For most of the 1970s, Moss was also in graduate school working toward an MS in psychology, in part to avoid serving in the Vietnam War. In 1991, he received his PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. For the more than a decade after obtaining his advanced degree, Moss worked primarily as a psychologist, although he never gave up music entirely. Now retired as a psychologist, Moss lives in New York with his wife, dancer-choreographer Judith Moss.
Moss and Stein met more than a decade ago on a gig with drummer Downs and for the past two years, they have performed with the sextet Zone. About two and half years ago, they began performing as a duo.
The Moss-Stein duo is complete and self-sufficient; they don’t need a rhythm section to make music that is organic and whole. In fact, the two-instrument combination allows them to explore subtleties of sound and rhythm unobtainable in larger groups; their linear explorations can grow more intricate and their interactions more intimate in this setting. Listen to their easy give and take on “Mordor” or the intricate weave of soprano sax and guitar on the title track and you realize there is nothing else to add. Their rhythmic ingenuity takes many forms, from the cat-and-mouse games they play with the bossa nova beat on “Nouveau Bossa” to the elastic feel of the time on “Say It Like It Is” as they stretch and compress their lines. The freedom is exhilarating. One of the most liberating aspects of their music is the way they can function independently of one another, trusting that they are together even when they are apart. On “Late Bloomer,” for instance, they sprint along parallel to one another, converge to let their phrases high-five each other, and then race off separately once again.
The duets are ideally suited to exploring textures and timbres, too, and with both participants possessing a distinctively beautiful tone, the sounds and colors are ravishing indeed. The sonic pallet is especially broad because Moss plays six different woodwinds (and this album doesn’t even encompass every instrument that Moss, with his interest in world music, plays). Whatever the horn, Moss plays it with a big, directly-from-the-heart sound. His tenor has a polished glow with an occasional rough edge; his flute is plush and quick silver; his clarinet has the human cry you hear so often in the great klezmer artists.
Stein has a dark, confiding sound, but he’s not exactly introspective. He can be assertive, even explosive at times, and his velvety dissonances can give way to brilliant knife-edge notes that sparkle and flash. His solo introduction to “Flutter” is a good place to hear how he uses color and texture to shade and weight his lines and chords.
Their individual sounds blend in arresting ways throughout the disc. On “Traum” the mellow bronze swirls of Moss’s clarinet are embedded in a dark matrix of Stein’s startling bass register chords. The marriage of guitar and shofar on “Neshemah” evokes an ancient/modern spirituality.
Perhaps what’s most moving and pleasing about the music of Billy Stein and Michael Moss is its sense of boundlessness. It’s not as if one could point to a single moment or a specific track on this disc to illustrate that claim. But listening to them over the course of this hour’s worth of music, a strong sense of their belief in the limitlessness of music emerges. And because humans are metaphor-making creatures, we (or at least I) hear that sense of boundlessness as a symbol of both the infinite reaches of creation and the bottomless mysteries of the self. But it’s a duality that ultimately resolves itself. The endless journey outward into the world and beyond and the inward journey to self-understanding, although traveling in opposite directions, converge in our hearts and minds as a sense of the divine. Not all artists can give us that glimpse of the infinite, but Michael Moss and Billy Stein manage to evoke it through their brilliant manipulation of musical intervals.