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Moondog - Viking of Sixth Avenue / Rare Music

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Artist: Moondog

Album: Viking of Sixth Avenue / Rare Music

Label: Honest Jon's

Review date: Oct. 27, 2006

Louis T. Hardin used to howl at the moon alongside his dog. After the canine passed, he christened himself Moondog in tribute to his dead pet. Blinded by a dynamite accident as a teenager, Hardin wrote all his music in braille. The incident enabled him to study at various schools for the blind, initially determining chord structures strictly by ear. He was deeply influenced by attending native North American dances as a child and recalled playing the buffalo skin tom-tom, a memory that would mark his compositions for life. Claiming his cyclical, percussive rhythms were entrenched in the Native American spirit, he likened his music in terms of harmonics to that of Bach, Beethoven and Brahm.

In 1943, he was drawn to New York by the 20th Century classical music scene. Supplanting himself near some of the legendary jazz clubs on the corner of 6th Ave. and 54th Street (now Moondog corner), he earned his living as a street performer, playing homemade instruments that included a Trimba (triangular drums), an Oo (string instrument struck with a clave) and the Yukh (a log hung from a tripod knocked with rubber mallets) in Viking garb. With a beard near his waist, patchwork robe and pants, helmet, sandals and spear, he told crowds he was from Sasnak (Kansas spelled backward.)

As the story goes, musicians from Carnegie Hall spotted Moondog and persuaded conductor Arthur Rodzinski to let him hang around rehearsals. From there, his celebrated acquaintances and connections mushroomed. He sat in on Leonard Bernstein's first performance as a conductor. Charlie Parker suggested they perform together but died before a session was realized. Bob Dylan wrote a poem about him. Janis Joplin covered one of his songs. Philip Glass and Steve Reich pegged him minimalism's originator (which he refuted). He appeared on stage with Lenny Bruce and was championed by Igor Stravinsky, Lester Young and Zappa.

After living (often in the streets) of New York for 30 years, in 1974 he was offered a chance to play in Europe and wound up relocating to Recklinghausen, Germany, for the remainder of his life. The period turned out to be the most prolific of his career, due in large part to his amanuensis, Ilona Sommer, who transcribed his work and published his compositions. He died in Münster in 1999, age 83, but continued playing and composing until his death.

The 36-track Viking of Sixth Avenue, the first of two compilations released this year, culls from different labels (Brunswick, Folkways, Prestige, Moondog's eponymous imprint, Columbia) and nearly all of his recording periods. A slew of 78s and other hard-to-find pieces are reissued for the first time here, including the entire 1953 EP On the Streets of New York. Aside from three longer pieces (most noteworthy the magestical "Chaconne in G Major") most of the songs are under two minutes, with a handful not even reaching a minute. The lack of development in many of these themes is a testament to Moondog's relentlessly inventive spirit, and his fashioning of an almost indescribable tapestry of jazz, classical composition, pre-rock, primitive folk, tribal and traditional music.

Most of these tracks are brief, melodically prominent, rhythmic expeditions (he wrote in 27 different tempos) colored with saxophone, flute, oud, violin, and pipe organ, alongside the homemade instruments. What's most striking is the range of ground covered. "Rabbit Hop" and "Dog Trot" are perfectly-titled bop frenetics. "Enough About Human Rights!" melds pathos and humor with Moondog pondering the rights of other living and non-living things. And it's easy to see why the magical madrigal "All Is Loneliness" is his signature and most-covered tune. Two standouts step even further outside the ring. "Oboe Round" sounds like an Arabian processional with brass notes swaying like palm fronds on a desert night, whereas "Lullaby (2 W 46th Street)"s first third sounds like Charley Patton before a flute and heavenly soprano voice demark its origins.

Viking focuses primarily on his earlier output. The year's second reissue Rare Material on Germany's Roof Music flips the script, focusing predominantly on his later material with select early cuts. A few songs overlap ("All Is Loneliness", "Avenue of the Americas", "Rabbit Hop") but for the most part the works are exclusive to each release. The two-disc set reissues even more "lost material," the first collecting 14 compositions from his 1995 "Moondog-Big Band" project produced by John Harle, who among others has worked with Paul McCartney.

Four-Part canon "Blast Off" ignites a set that grows progressively darker and culminates in closer "Invocation," said to be about communication between the living and the dead. In between we get "You Have to Have Hope's" lush tenor sax, "Bumbo's" spotlight on the Trimba and "Heath on the Heather," where at eight-bar intervals the parts perpetually enter for amplification. Besides some of his early work, Disc 2 features compositions Moondog realized as the conductor of the Swedish string quartet "Fläskkvartetten." Early standouts include the frisky "Friska" and "Magic Ring," where the pizzicato of the double bass signals a recurring climax.

Moondog's overriding goal was to create "The art of concealing art, maximum effect but with minimum means." A couplet from his book The Milleniad, written in the form of numbered verse, works neatly as his epitaph: "I find the greatest freedom in the stricture of a form / that paradoxes abnormality within a norm."

By Jake O'Connell

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