Free Spirits

Mike Moynihan’s Purple Spectre plays a mystical mix of jazz, hip hop and R&B

Sweeping out of the desert, the University of Arizona, and the city of Tucson all at the same time is a new band with as many genres as local influences. Mike Moynihan's Purple Spectre proves that experimentation needn't be grating.  

Moynihan founded Purple Spectre in November 2017, with multiple collaborators and friends. The jazz quintet is made up of keyboardist and UA jazz director Angelo Versace, drummer and UA student Kai Felix, bassist and Berklee College of Music alumnus Patrick Morris, trumpeter and UA student Max Goldschmid, and saxophonist Moynihan.

"This band was the culmination of a lot of composing I've been doing," Moynihan says. "There was this music I really wanted to be playing, and I had a vision of who I wanted to play it, and luckily those people ended up joining the band."

The band members were introduced in different ways, but they all have a tie to the UA. For instance, Versace teaches Felix and Goldschmid as the UA jazz director.

"Good musicians tend to congregate together," Versace said.

Moynihan, a graduate from Catalina Foothills and then the UA, is an independent musician as well as leader of Purple Spectre. So he already had recording studio time booked when Purple Spectre formed, working as a great opportunity for their first trial as a band.

"We ended up making a nice little EP out of extra studio time," Moynihan says.

Released in December 2017, the Spirit Realm EP runs just over 10 minutes but is brimming with ideas. As the band describes it, they used '70s jazz fusion as a jumping off point. They're a jazz band, no doubt about that, but contain perceptible influences from hip hop, R&B, funk and rock.

The electric keyboards and restrained drumming give the music a contemporary, urban vibe and when the thick bass notes linger in, it's hard not to get into a groove. This isn't to detract from the brass, however. The saxophone seamlessly jumps between cool droning which allows room for the other instruments, and taking center stage with melodic, wailing solos. The trumpet and sax melodies somehow wind up equal parts energetic and mellow, like something you might hear on Giant Steps.

"A lot of the music that Mike writes isn't overly explicit," Versace said. "So there's a lot of room to explore. Things were almost immediately clicking on our first rehearsal, we didn't have to do many takes."

With a successful release under their belt, Purple Spectre is aiming to record a debut album in mid-August. They have a show scheduled at The Nash in Phoenix this autumn, and plan for it to be their album release show. And hopefully, with that album's success, they can book shows for a tour in the summer of 2019.

"We definitely want to appeal to a wide audience," Moynihan says. "We don't want to fall into the modern jazz trap where we're only making music for musicians. I don't like the term 'accessible,' but I do like the idea of music that reaches a wide audience."

Beyond Tucson and the UA, the band draws influences from jazz classics like Davis and Coltrane, but also contemporary jazz like Kamasi Washington. They even draw inspiration from more modern and experimental musicians, such as Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti. (A look at their name proves that.)

"Modern jazz has kind of gone in the niche way of classical music," Moynihan says. "I believe in the spirit of jazz and the spirit of improvisation, but it doesn't only have to be only for musicians."

The band is still brainstorming to come up with a fitting name for their style, something like groovy jazz with mind-bending improvisation and solos, but they aren't quite sure yet.

"It's groovy and funky, some of it is even danceable." Moynihan says. "My goal is to make something that is classic, but also sounds fresh and original. It's a difficult balance, but it's worth it. There's definitely potential with what we're doing."

Since their inception, Purple Spectre has performed at multiple locations around Tucson: Solar Culture Gallery, Vero Amore, the Main Gate Square and more. Just as much as they filled the desert evenings with sweet brass notes, so has the Old Pueblo influenced and inspired their sound. Sure, Tucson has a distinct Latin/desert rock sound a la Calexico, but Moynihan and company hope to create a style of local jazz all their own.

"We have an opportunity to be one of the groups that defines the Tucson sound in jazz," Moynihan says. "Sure, we're a desert town, but that's not the only vibe we have."

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