SAX PAX FOR A SAX (Atlantic 83069-2) is Moondog's first album in twenty-six years, and only his sixth in a recorded career that spans five decades. And, frankly, I had assumed until this new album was released that Moondog was dead. He had disappeared from his old Sixth Avenue haunt around the corner from the Museum of Modern Art years ago, but for many years he was a street-scene fixture in mid-town Manhattan. Blind, clad in robes, and wearing long flowing hair and beard, he dispensed sometimes-rhymed wisdom and music from a variety of home-made instruments. He was first recorded in the early fifties, and released his first album, a 10-inch LP, on Epic in 1953. (I have a reel-to-reel taped copy of that album, and have sought for years for the actual LP....) On that first album Moondog played all the instruments himself, via primitive overdubbing (each successive generation was recorded over the earlier ones in a back-and-forth process with two tape recorders) in what ended up pretty lo-fi. But he unveiled both his song-writing process and a powerful piece he called "Theme." The process persists, and, fortunately, "Theme" was rerecorded in 1969.
Basically, Moondog (real name: Louis Hardin) writes "rounds." "Row Your Boat" is probably the "round" known best to most people; the process creates a repeating, overlapping cycle, which can build in intensity as more instruments (voices) are added in successive cycles. This is what "Theme" is. Technically, such rounds are "canonic." The problem is that "rounds" go nowhere. They do not evolve musically. They endlessly recycle. They do not offer tension and release, a bridge, or any natural conclusion. They go on and on until arbitrarily ended. Variety can be achieved only by adding or changing instrumental voices, increasing or decreasing volume, or advancing or retarding the tempo.
And this has always been Moondog's greatest musical limitation. He has written a few pieces which rely less upon canonic cycles, but "rounds" are his stock in trade.
After the Epic album (and several contemporaneous singles) Moondog recorded three albums in 1956 and 1957 for Prestige, the New York jazz label. These intermixed street recordings with studio recordings, catching Moondog "live" on the street in exchanges with passersby. On the street the musical emphasis shifted to rhythmic percussive instruments played in odd and complex time signatures and epigrammatic aphorisms tendered to those who paused to listen. All three albums are available on two CDs from Fantasy/Original Jazz Classics as MOONDOG and MORE MOONDOG.
It was not until 1969 that another Moondog album appeared. MOONDOG was a Columbia album ambitiously produced by James William Guercio - the fellow who gave us Chicago (Transit Authority). Here real orchestras played Moondog's music - including "Theme" - while he provided the complex rhythmic underpinning, acting as the "drummer" for the session. This has thus far been Moondog's best album -- best in terms of both variety and ambition, and very well produced and recorded. It was followed in 1971 by a second Columbia album, the unimaginatively (and incorrectly) named MOONDOG 2, which contained "26 Rounds and Canons" which unfortunately tend to blur together despite considerable variation in instrumental voices and timbres, and the use of actual voices/lyrics upon occasion. Both Columbia albums are available on one CBS CD.
In 1994 Moondog recorded a new album with "the London Saxophonic," SAX PAX FOR A SAX, which Atlantic has released on CD in late 1997. (Roof Music holds the 1994 performance & composition copyrights, but I don't know if that means a prior release in 1994 of the album.) "Bird's Lament" (for Charlie Parker) makes another appearance (it was first on the first Columbia album), but this time scored entirely for (classical) saxophones. There are 21 pieces on the album, and after listening to them all, I'm left with the feeling that Moondog's music should not be heard in album-length sittings, but interposed with other music, like seasoning, on a radio show perhaps. Or in the context of a short (less than 20 minutes) CD-single. Too much of one thing overpowers the listener, despite the considerable charm of individual pieces. Each piece needs to stand alone; they are smothered by their context in proximity. (And I say that despite my fondness for saxophone music, both jazz and classical.)
Still, it is a genuine pleasure to find Moondog still alive and still recording (he "drummed" for SAX PAX) after all these years. He still is, as he has always been, utterly unique in the musical landscape: his music is not jazz (although he is knowledgeable of jazz), not folk (although he is himself quintessentially 'folk'), and not classical (despite borrowing classical devices). Moondog is himself.
UPDATE: Moondog Has Died
Louis Hardin, better known to the world as Moondog, died September 8, 1999 in a German hospital after a heart attack. He was 83. As mentioned above, he made a number of albums for Epic, Prestige and Columbia and his most recent was released in the U.S. by Atlantic, but as many as ten others have been recorded and released in Europe since 1977.
Moondog once performed with Charles Mingus, Tiny Tim and Lenny Bruce and later with avant-garde composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
He moved to Germany in 1974. After a year of living on the streets in Recklinghausen he was adopted by a local family who became his patrons. One of the daughters in the family, Ilona Goebel, began working with him as his copier, editor, and working partner overseeing his compositions and performances. Moondog's collected works presently include 300 canons in the form of madrigals, 100 keyboard works, and his self-published four-volume work, Art of the Canon. His obituary appeared in the Washington Post on September 20th.