Tisziji Munoz

Tisziji Muñoz: The Guitarist Who Quit Music and Became a Yogi

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 06.27.14 in Features

For it is music that seduces/ and rapes the worldly/ just as it is materialism which rapes/ the moderately creative of their greatest powers/ Such music cannot touch the spiritual/ For to touch the spiritual is to be burned by its Fire!
— Tisziji Muñoz,
The Diamond of Heart-Fire-Sound

On January 1, 1972, Tisziji Muñoz turned his back on music as a profession. By that time, the greatest electric jazz guitarist you’ve never heard had already been a child-prodigy Latin drummer, a baritone-ukulele player in the one-hit (“Canadian Sunset”) teen doo-wop group the Arrogants, and a promising young guitar slinger in Toronto’s small but intense early-’70s jazz milieu. But then he had an epiphany: “The music scene was just another form of death.”

Instead, Muñoz rededicated his life to “the way of spirituality, yogic development, karma-transformation, and self-transcending purificational spiritual practice.” Music was no longer his focus – it was a side project. Muñoz had a more fundamental — even hereditary — calling: as a spiritual master.

Since then, Muñoz has appeared on about four dozen albums, mostly on his own Anami label, with another 20 or so in the pipeline awaiting release. The secret to this non-musician’s productivity is that he neither practices nor rehearses, neither for gigs nor recording sessions, and rarely touches his guitar, except when he’s trying to build up calluses in the weeks leading up to one of his rare shows. That said, he has performed and recorded with Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Rashied Ali and Ravi Coltrane, among other luminaries. Paul Shaffer, his longtime friend and sometime music director, considers Muñoz his jazz mentor and performs alongside the guitarist in the Tisziji Muñoz Quartet with an exploratory spirit never hinted at on The Late Show With David Letterman.

From his 1976 solo debut, Rendezvous With Now to his most recent releases, a trilogy of albums with keyboardist John Medeski, Muñoz’s sound has been as immediately identifiable as Parker’s saxophone. He recorded only sporadically throughout the ’70s and ’80s, achieving warp speed in the ’90s on albums such as Present Without a Trace, Spirit Man, and Death Is a Friend of Mine. By the end of the decade, he had cleared most of the Coltrane out of his system.

It’s not as though Muñoz intended to become a musical secret or clandestine cult flavor, though; it just kind of happened naturally, inevitably. “Not entertainment, inner-attainment” promises his website, which contains his books, music, videos, rants and much more. And while I can’t say I’m familiar enough with his primary calling to judge, I suggest that if he’s anywhere near as effective a spiritual teacher as he is a guitarist, then come let us adore him.

Tisziji Munoz's guitar

Photo by Richard Gehr for WS

With his long graying hair, often worn in a topknot, his bushy mustache and soul patch, Muñoz resembles many of the yogis and Asian mystics he has so arduously studied over the years. He favors scarves, vests and long, loose shirts. When I meet him at his six-acre compound in the town of Wallkill, New York, he reminds me of a gentleman farmer in Rajasthan, Nepal, or some other lost horizon. The farmhouse he shares with his wife, Nancy, and whichever of his children happen to be in town, also contains a recording studio. A long, two-story converted barn on the other side of their vegetable garden is divided into studio space, Muñoz’s office, and rooms for visiting pilgrims or patients in need of spiritual healing.

‘I almost lost a hand, but I had the greatest music lesson in the world: my mother screaming, with blood all over both of us. She had my head up against her breast. She was absolutely lamenting, ‘Please help me! My baby’s dying!’ That scream is now part of my scream.’

But before he could help others, the practitioner first had to heal himself. Tisziji Muñoz was forged in a crucible of pain in Brooklyn Heights. His early life consisted of a series of unfortunate events. When he was five, a cousin pushed him through a window, severing the artery in his left wrist and causing permanent nerve damage that has made chording extremely painful. As a result, he developed a distinctive single-note style of playing — a keening, singing sound that evokes cosmic winds, Indian ragas and screaming saxophonists. (Pharoah Sanders, in whose band Muñoz played for five years, mistook his guitar sound for a horn upon hearing it for the first time.)

“I almost lost a hand,” he says of his early accident, “but I had the greatest music lesson in the world: my mother screaming, with blood all over both of us. She had my head up against her breast. She was absolutely lamenting, ‘Please help me! My baby’s dying!’ That scream is now part of my scream.”

Muñoz’s life, as recounted in his authorized biography The Master Dance (co-written by his wife), is an accretion of catastrophes, coincidences and meetings with remarkable men. He was born Michael John Augustine Muñoz in 1946. He and his extended Puerto Rican clan, which included saints, alcoholics and practicing spiritualists, shared a cramped “shack” near the Brooklyn waterfront. He witnessed his father beat his mother (she “talked like a longshoreman, but her heart was pure”) and took solace in the Latin music he heard over the airwaves (“the radio was my Messiah, so to speak”) and in what he calls “drum fever,” beginning with the tiny trap set he started playing at three.

Other near-death experiences included a severe gang beating (resulting in his becoming leader of Puerto Rican street toughs the Black Diamonds), an overturned jeep that almost killed him in the Army, and a mid-air parachute collision that cost the life of a fellow paratrooper. It was while running nightlong escape-and-evasion maneuvers in Frankfurt, covering long distances in the dark without food in simulated life-or-death conditions, that Muñoz says he received his first real spiritual training. “I realized that the less I ate, the stronger I was. So I began fasting during the military.”

He tried to go to Vietnam (eventually declaring himself a conscientious objector), but ended up a full-time member of Fort Bragg’s 440th Army Band — “my Juilliard” — where he discovered the music of John Coltrane, the sonic spiritualist to whom he is most frequently compared. A group of Coltrane devotees among the bandmembers were even known as the Church of A Love Supreme, thanks to their incessant chanting of the refrain to Coltrane’s 1965 masterpiece.

In 1969, Muñoz’s five-year military service ended with a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-style incarceration in Fort Bragg’s psychiatric ward. Assigned to prep troops heading to Vietnam, he found his own blossoming Buddhist beliefs at odds with the government’s ongoing atrocities. As his objections to the war intensified, he was forced to “rest” in the facility and medicated with tranquilizers. Something about military discipline nevertheless touched Muñoz in a way that helped him systematically undertake his subsequent spiritual studies.

Inspired by a dream concerning a “city by the lake,” Muñoz, his first wife and their two children moved to Toronto and lived there for much of the ’70s. He learned from, and sparred with, other questing guitarists, including the eclectic Bill Evans devotee Lenny Breau and Sonny Greenwich, a charismatic, spiritually inclined Coltrane-ian whose initial friendship with Muñoz turned into rivalry. Muñoz performed in off-Broadway productions of Hair and, along with Paul Shaffer, Godspell. He chanted with the city’s Hare Krishna community during what he calls “the happiest time of my life, while knowing I didn’t want to be with them.” Nor did he want to be with anyone else.

Tisziji Munoz

Photo by Richard Gehr for WS

‘Music is the religion and meditation practice. That’s how I woke up’

Until 1983, that is, when he experienced the breakthrough that confirmed his calling as a karmically chosen, if reluctant, guru himself. Muñoz undertook a “grand tour” of Buddhism, Hindu, and more esoteric spiritual masters, which included meetings with the teachers Hazrat Inayat Khan, Kirpal Singh and Sri Chinmoy as well as literary studies of Gurdjieff, Ramakrishna, Paramahansa Yogananda and Meher Baba. Muñoz’s syncretic philosophy isn’t particularly complicated in theory but, like all good things, takes plenty of practice.

“I developed a parallel form of teaching that evolved into what I call Hu-dism,” he explains. “Not awakening by way of scripture,” like enlightenment, “but an awakening by way of soundensoundment. You don’t create it — it happens. And music is the key. Music is the religion and meditation practice. That’s how I woke up,” he says with a hearty laugh. “It’s the source of your own being. They call it true nature; I call it Hu nature — sound nature.” He demonstrates a meditation technique, sounding “Hu,” he exhales slowly. He recommends that I do this a dozen times in a row. When I do so at home the next day, Muñoz’s recipe for entering “Zero Heart-space” tranquilizes me briefly with pharmaceutical efficiency.

“I wrote the book No Self, No Thought, No Mind Equals No Problems — or NSNTNM=NP. I call it the Great Equation,” he says. “You should do it on a regular basis to prevent neuroses building up. We can chase the ghost of our own self-creation away. The tone begins to polarize and align the atoms in the body, slowing the brain down, creating alpha waves.”

‘I’m not a guitar player, so I don’t have any theory about guitar — that’s a fact. It just comes rollin’ right out of the cooch — raw, right out of the womb.’

Although he’s a teacher with several musician followers, this, I learn, is about as close as Muñoz gets to actually teaching music. “I don’t give any music lessons,” he says. “I’m not a guitar player, so I don’t have any theory about guitar — that’s a fact. It just comes rollin’ right out of the cooch — raw, right out of the womb. But I’m a medium, so it’s easy for me. It’s not easy for other players, I guess.”

I’d take issue with Muñoz’s claim not to awaken by scripture. Tisziji testifies through his guitar, and isn’t recorded music a documented reflection of one’s inner state? Precious few gurus, shamans, priests and other spiritual professionals offer actual evidence of what they teach, preach, feel and believe. What is this “Fire-Sound” of which he speaks in books such as The Diamond of Heart-Fire-Sutra? For Muñoz, Fire-Sound signifies a transcendent musical act that literally burns away karma. Can it really “initiate the spiritual rotations necessary for your levitations above the earth”? Listen to “Purification By Fire #2″ on Mountain Peak and hear the notion made manifest. His hollow-bodied Carlo Greco guitar, played with a metal pick through an amp set a surprisingly low volume, delivers an authoritatively soaring, very electric sound.

Although he tends to travel the spaceways, Muñoz is not immune to the pleasures of melody. His 1995 album Spirit Man contains ecstatic versions of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “If I Only Had a Brain,” and you can hear similarly stellar interpretations of “My Favorite Things,” “Giant Steps,” and “Kind of Blue” elsewhere. He has recorded most of his music alongside his longtime rhythm section of pianist Bernie Senensky, drummer Ra-Kalam Bob Moses and bassist Don Pate, although he’s explored many other configurations as well. Last year he released Heart to Heart, a deep and remarkably emotional session with pianist Marilyn Crispell, and a conceptual trio of albums — Beauty as Beauty, Beauty as Ugly and Ugly as Ugliest! — with Medeski Martin and Wood keyboardist John Medeski. The latter album consists solely of Muñoz speaking over the band. “I talked about what I was playing about,” he says. “I put it into words.”

In 1986, Muñoz declared himself the Bhagavad Guitar Player — “One Who, born Awake to Being the Sound of Light and the Light of Sound, Is Now Awake as the very Soul and Mind, Feeling and Heart-Source of Music, as That may Represent or Express the simple yet profound Love, Thought, Feeling-Tone and Free Action of One Who Is Its Own Sound” — and wrote a manual of the same name with chapters like “Transcendent Sameness” and “What to Practice Without Practicing.” The advice probably boils down to “be yourself,” but Muñoz would add that there’s no such things as “being” or “self.”

As we spoke in his studio about his siblings, who struggled to understand both his artistic and spiritual callings, Nancy Muñoz interrupted us, beckoning Tisziji into the main house, where a visitor waited. He excused himself and returned a few minutes later. “I had a quick healing,” he explained, “almost like a laying on of hands.” Devotees of his music might well say the same.