Although he rubbed shoulders with a remarkably varied group of 20th century cultural figures, including Janis Joplin, Mr. Scruff, Charlie Parker, Philip Glass, Igor Stravinsky, Bob Dylan, Artur Rodzinski, Mouse on Mars, William S. Burroughs, Lenny Bruce, Alan Freed, etc., etc.... Louis "Moondog" Hardin -- the composer-busker-percussionist-philosopher himself -- remains a largely misunderstood and sadly under-recorded musical genius.
Rare Material is actually the second double CD set of this blind, Viking-garbed, counterpoint-obsessed composer's "rare material" released by the German ROOF Music label, which thankfully seems dedicated to documenting Moondog's musical legacy -- albeit in a rather scattershot manner.
The German Years (1977-1999) has fancier but flimsy packaging, with one of its discs compiling some extremely hard to find recordings from Moondog's time in Europe along with several selections from the widely available (though apparently now out of print?) Sax Pax for a Sax Atlantic album. The second German Years CD is a revelatory, previously unreleased recording of his final live performance in France (not Germany...) with pianist Dominique Ponty on August 1, 1999.
This new Rare Material ROOF collection has less luxurious but sturdier packaging and an almost identical cover image. It mines much of the same territory and unearths even more riches, although the decision to include several long tracks from the far-from-"rare" Prestige albums Moondog and More Moondog is as regrettable as the extensive sampling of Sax Pax for a Sax on the earlier collection.
The first CD resurrects the rare and out-of-print 1995 Big Band album in its entirety (one track was also included on The German Years.) Like Sax Pax, Big Band also highlights John Harle's London Saxophonic and even includes some of the same compositions.
These performances, however, feature... well, a "bigger band," augmenting the saxophones, clarinets, and vocals with a brass ensemble and more percussion. This results in a fresh, striking sound even on familiar pieces like "Paris" and especially "Shakespeare City," which has an amazing extended second half not performed on the Sax Pax album. Every other tune is a winner too, from the exuberantly jazzy "Blast Off" to the stately processional "Torisa" to the maddening and/or compelling "Invocation" -- a ten minute "16-part canon on one tone." Yep, one tone. Literally.
The second disc is a hodgepodge of Moondog recordings spanning about forty years, and other than those previously mentioned Prestige tracks, this additional "rare material" was all new to my ears and completely fascinating.
Hardin's early years are represented by Moondog's Symphony (1949!), tracks from Moondog and his Friends and Moondog on the Streets of New York (both from 1953) and most of the remarkable 1955 EP Moondog and his Honking Geese (only "Bumbo," a tune re-recorded on Big Band, is missing.)
Jumping forward in time, a pair of rather pedantic pipe organ pieces from an obscure 1978 Musical Heritage Society LP are included, as is a one-off instrumental with the Swiss pop singer Stephan Eicher from 1989.
Best of all, appearing on CD for the first time here are four substantial selections from the 1986 album Bracelli. One tantalizing track from this ultra-rare release also appeared on The German Years, and this is unquestionably some of the greatest stuff in the Moondog... uh... canon. Performed by a violin-less string ensemble and percussion, these complex and appealing pieces weave mesmerizing yet often surprising strands of counterpoint and harmony around a percolating foundation of infectious rhythm.
My only wish is that the entire Bracelli album was included here instead of the not-very-"rare material" from the Prestige LPs. A few more of the H'Art Songs would have been nice, too. Then there's Kenny Graham's long lost Moondog Suite. And what about that mind-boggling 1957 children's album, Tell It Again -- an unlikely collaboration between Moondog and Julie Andrews (yes, that Julie Andrews!)
Let's hope ROOF Music has these Moondog rarities and many more waiting in the wings for future releases. In the meantime, we should be grateful that this remarkable music is at last readily available on CD and at a fairly reasonable "import" price to boot.
The merely curious and/or uninitiated might also be tempted by the very fine new single disc Moondog compilation The Viking of Sixth Avenue, but Rare Material -- especially when paired with The German Years -- paints a more vivid (if still incomplete) portrait.
Am I dreaming? Two excellent Moondog CD collections appearing within months of each other? Perhaps his time is finally coming...