Moondog songs CA21192

Moondog (Louis Hardin) (1916-1999)
Songs and Symphoniques: The Music of Moondog
Ghost Train Orchestra
Kronos Quartet
rec. undated, various locations
Texts included
Cantaloupe CA21192 [62]

The Viking of 6th Avenue, Moondog was born Louis Hardin and if that’s already too much for you to take in, well, that just shows how highbrow you are. For the more open-minded amongst us, unafraid of contrapuntal rounds, free to embrace similar ‘freaks’ such as Sun Ra – with whom Moondog worked and recorded – this album brings good tidings. The field recording nature of Moondog’s art is underlined by street noises that run periodically throughout, most obviously in the opening Theme where percussive irregularity hints at Moondog’s methodology before a jazz-drenched clarinet solo, courtesy of Dennis Lichtman, infuses the music.

Folk and traditional songs, rounds, catchy repetitive rhythms, jazz and pieces predicated on classical elements are all grist here, courtesy of some splendid arrangements and personal responses by the musicians involved. The project was carried out via AudioMoves, a virtual real-time studio so that musicians separated by continents can record simultaneously.

Ghost Train Orchestra is active in the world of jazz reclamation and the Kronos Quartet are not just familiar exponents of cutting-edge quartet works but have played Moondog’s music – Synchrony No.2 was written for the group. So, consider this a reconsideration of Moondog’s music in the light of the individual and collective experiences of the orchestra, the quartet and indeed the individual singers enlisted. It’s undoubtedly the singers who will pique such public interest in Moondog that remains from counter-cultural days and the roster contains many a well-known name but of them, it’s only right to cite primus inter pares Joan Wasser (Joan as Police Woman) who has been with the project the longest and who embodies its idiosyncratic, personal appeal.

Rufus Wainwright, over pavement calls and Latino rhythms, leads off the vocal team with a jaunty life-affirming Be a Hobo where there’s a down-home funky feel to the New Orleans type sax and tuba of the Ghost Train Orchestra’s support – think Tuba Fats. High on a Rocky Ledge is an out-and-out beautiful romance and features Marissa Nadler who together with the Kronos and orchestra summon up a country-folk-pop feel.

The round Why Spend a Dark Night with You? complete with hand clapped rhythm suggestions is sung by Wasser, her voice resounding, and repeated on a loop before a jazz-rich central section celebrates the song’s implications via instrumental ebullience. Unforgettable. Karen Mantler, the late Carla Bley’s daughter, takes Enough about Human Rights in suitably interrogative fashion. For the passacaglia-like I’m This, I’m That, Jarvis Cocker mines later-day Leonard Cohen, deep, dark, dank and full of quixotic little vocal leaps and descents. The lyrical richness of the music is duly respected. The shifting rhythmic metre of Coffee Beans is emphasised by rich bass and expanded by the fugato-round lyrics sung wittily by Karen Mantler and Brian Carpenter (‘Coffee beans make the/Finest coffee of all…’) not to forget Mantler’s harmonica solo. Conjunctions between voices, high and low, and sonic colour are never far away in this album.

Folk meets bluegrass in Behold, sung by Sam Amidon – who also plays banjo – and Aoife O’Donovan and the generated spirit is inevitably a near cousin of jazz, as infectious as it is unstoppable. More singalong folksy Americana comes courtesy of the chugging railroad rhythms of Choo Choo Lullaby – Carpenter sings and plays harmonica to evoke the train in time-honoured fashion – and if a generous-hearted song such as this reminds you of the one-man-band folk hokum of Jesse Fuller, the Bard of San Francisco, then so much the better. Petra Haden co-arranges and sings See the Mighty Tree, a ripe, taut and compressed celebration of Yggdrasil. Appropriately it’s Wasser who ends the album with All is Loneliness, as interior as Why Spend a Dark Night with You? was extrovert and offering a final awareness that Moondog’s classical training fully equipped him in the business of conveying emotion within formal structures such as this – a haunting piece of great spiritual beauty.

Of the purely instrumental pieces, Caribea is a two-minute slinky swinger resonantly performed by the Kronos complete with Latin rhythms. The contemplative sadness of Speak of Heaven – music of simplicity, resonance and richness – is played with ardour by the Kronos, one brief extrovert moment offering a reminiscence of joy, underpinned by the double bass of Chris Lightcap. The Viking of 6th Avenue offers more sidewalk sounds and Matt Bauder’s baritone sax, soulful and fiery. The Orchestra’s pawky and individualist New Orleans sound can be savoured in Bumbo where Sara Schoenbeck’s bassoon is very much to the fore as is the strong bass playing of Chris Lightcap and the guitar of Brandon Seabrook.

The arrangers are principally Brian Carpenter who arranged nine songs, then Curtis Hasselbring, David Cossin and Maxim Moston with two each, and Matt Bauder and Andy Laster with one apiece.

It’s a shame that my copy has a reproduced page (the orange page if you’re counting) and this makes reading the notes a bit tricky but accidents happen.

Refashioning Moondog’s concise structures – classical, folk-based, or those relishable rounds – has provided a new way to experience his music, not least through the medium of those internationally-known singers. If his status has diminished of late, perhaps these elements will draw more people to Moondog’s music, and to learn to value and cherish his simple, timeless voice.

Jonathan Woolf 

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Be a Hobo (with Rufus Wainwright)
High on a Rocky Ledge (with Marissa Nadler)
Why Spend a Dark Night with You? (with Joan as Police Woman)
Enough about Human Rights (with Karen Mantler)
I’m This, I’m That (with Jarvis Cocker)
Speak of Heaven
The Viking of 6th Avenue
Down is Up (with Petra Haden)
Coffee Beans (with Karen Mantler and Brian Carpenter)
Behold (with Sam Amidon and Aoife O’Donovan)
Choo Choo lullaby (with Brian Carpenter)
Fog on the Hudon
See the Mighty Tree (with Petra Haden)
All is loneliness (with Joan as Police Woman)