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Neil Rudish
Moondog: Sax Pax for a Sax
Atlantic 83069-2 (1997)

When I was a child, I was fascinated by a 10" record that my mother had. It was called "Moondog and His Friends", released on Epic sometime in the 1950's, and is no doubt today a collector's item. (And oh, how I wish for a better copy of it!) The jacket featured what my mother called "the world's first hippie", which turns out to be Louis Hardin, better known as Moondog, with long hair and a beard. Also pictured were some of Moondog's unique instruments, including the trimba, which is a set of small triangular-shaped drums played like bongos. And on the back, in tiny print, was a complete explanation of Moondog's music and his methods. As a multi-instrumentalist, Moondog often created his own unique percussion instruments, even going so far as to use a recorder as a percussion instrument, performing one entire song called "Tree Frog" by alternately opening and closing the holes on the recorder with his fingers to create a "popping" effect. As a poet, he would often sing and accompany his words with percussion and effects. And as a composer of music that never fit any one category, Moondog was never afraid to experiment. Moondog's music was my first exposure to odd time signatures and polyrhythmic concepts, as well as the musical "round". Moondog himself has long been a fixture outside the CBS building in New York City, attired in Viking apparel and sporting a long white beard.

Some years later (how naive I was), I was surprised to discover that he'd made more than one recording. He had one album on Columbia ("Moondog") that featured mainly symphonic works, while a follow-up ("Moondog II") was comprised mostly of "madrigals". He's also recorded for Fantasy, and over the years has recorded about 15 albums. This newest Atlantic Records recording is his latest American release in more than 25 years, having spent the last two decades living in Germany. Ever the innovator, the "orchestra" here is the London Saxophonic, comprised solely of saxophones of all shapes and sizes (from a bass to a soprano sax) and in groups of four, five, seven and nine. Moondog himself performs on bass drum and bongos (which fans will recognize), and is joined on a couple of tracks by vocalists Peter Hammill and Andrew Davis, and bassist Danny Thompson. Fans will also tune into Moondog's knack for clever song titles: "D for Danny" (dedicated to bassist Danny Thompson), "Present for The Prez" (tribute to Lester Young), "Bird's Lament" (for Charlie Parker, whom he'd encountered a few times in New York), "Mother's Whistler,", "Tout Suite No. 1 in F Major", "Dog Trot", and something called the "eee Suite" with the movements "Golden Fleece," "Hymn To Peace," and "eee Lied".

The music itself is typical, delightful Moondog as I expected. The music itself is difficult to describe, but is best described as employing jazz harmonies and rhythms within a Baroque choral structure, reminding me of a chamber orchestra. The disc opener, "Dog Trot", is prototypical Moondog. His bass drum undulates, and the saxes add a touch of "swing" to their performance, giving a jazzy feel to it. Starting off in unison, the saxes eventually break away in to point and counterpoint. The vocal track "Paris" is joyful, an ode to a favorite City. "Bird's Lament" was previously recorded on his Moondog album on Columbia Masterworks; the tempo is a bit lethargic in comparison, but the performance on saxophone is much better defined, the melody being alternated between alto and baritone. Moondog's polyrhythmic side is shown on "T4" a 5/4 composition. Two 5/4 solo piano tracks are also included here called "Fiesta" and "Sea Horse." "Present for Prez" would not be out of place on an old TV detective show.

It is pointless to describe the rest of the tracks without the reader hearing them. But overall, you'd find the compositions and arrangements witty, clever and occasionally playful. Many of his songs start simply, with a single instrument or a group of instruments in unison; instruments are added, or split off from the unison; into counterpoints or accompaniments to the original melody; at the end, all the instruments come together in a fanfare. In the background, Moondog provides his bass drum or bongo accompaniment, which serves as a rhythmic pace that keeps everything moving at a strict pace. But while it all appears to be a simplistic formula, the effect of the music is hypnotizing, often appearing to suspend time as you listen. Moondog is well aware of this effect the music has on listeners; he once dubbed his rhythms "snake time" due to the undulating, hypnotic effect it would have on the listener.

While uncredited in my release notes, the saxophones clearly have had some classical training, but have enough "soul" to convincingly play jazzy lines within this context. The only minor disappointment is that Moondog did not play more of his signature percussion parts. Once you've heard Moondog's percussion, you'll recognize it for life. The parts he plays here are so minor that anyone could have filled in for his bass drum thumpings ... although even those have an unmistakable effect that is felt more than heard. (I'd say it's a very very slight emphasis on the 1 and 3 beats in the measure.)

Moondog is a rare American composer who is often overlooked, but you would be well rewarded by not overlooking this gem and listening to a unique set of tunes that span many musical genres. In addition to this recording, I'd recommend searching for older Moondog recordings like his Columbia Masterworks disc (either LP or CD) entitled Moondog, or locating his two CDs on Fantasy wich showcase his music from the mid 1950's. And if you are lucky enough to find a copy of that long-lost Epic 10" EP ", I envy you!