A dynamic octet puts a propulsive spin on the music of the idiosyncratic street musician Moondog | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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A dynamic octet puts a propulsive spin on the music of the idiosyncratic street musician Moondog


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Plenty of ensembles in jazz and new-music circles have put their spin on the idiosyncratic compositions of the blind New York composer Louis Hardin, aka Moondog, who died in Germany in 1999. Self-taught and usually homeless, he was derisively known as the Viking of Sixth Avenue for the eccentric headdress and spear he sported. Moondog was a sui generis presence among the city’s jazz and classical communities during the 50s and 60s, hanging out with musicians at the New York Philharmonic by day and jamming with beboppers in clubs by night. His idiosyncratic music reflected the same disregard for stylistic borders. Although he eventually attained a level of notoriety and respect—Janis Joplin recorded his “All Is Loneliness” for her 1967 debut with Big Brother & the Holding Company, and he later signed to Columbia Records—he wasn’t taken seriously for most of his career. A new Chicago octet organized by reedist Dustin Laurenzi is the latest outfit to tackle Moondog’s repertoire, and judging from a live recording Laurenzi shared with me, this superb group does something compelling with his music. The group focuses on pieces from the New Yorker's two Columbia albums, 1969’s Moondog and 1971’s Moondog 2. Most of its selections are sweetly tuneful, concise little gems with springy rhythms and, often, sing-song vocal chanting, but the octet deftly sands away some of the naive treacle. Percussionists Quin Kirchner and Ryan Packard add propulsion, and the band—which also includes saxophonist Nick Mazzarella, bass clarinetist Jason Stein, trumpeter Quentin Coaxum, guitarist Dave Miller, and bassist Matt Ulery—reshapes the writing with sharp arrangements bristling with puzzle-piece constructions.   v

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