Graded on a Curve: Dustin Laurenzi,
Snaketime: The Music
of Moondog

Louis Thomas Hardin, better known to the world as Moondog, was one of last century’s most unique composers. This means that interpreting the man’s music is tricky business, at least in terms of results that are satisfying to those not directly involved with the endeavor. On Snaketime: The Music of Moondog, out now on vinyl as a co-release through Feeding Tube and Astral Spirits, Chicago saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi and his octet have overcome without a hitch the difficulties in paying tribute through translation, successfully transforming the source material in a jazz context while remaining true to Moondog’s vision. Released in an edition of 500, curious vinyl lovers shouldn’t procrastinate.

Dustin Laurenzi’s highest profile gig is as a touring member of Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver, though the main thrust of his musical activity finds him improvising; he’s a member of the trio Twin Talk and the leader of the group Natural Language and has additionally played in a variety of ensembles including Snaarj, the Marquis Hill Blacktet, Katie Ernst’s Little Words (featured on a 2015 CD inspired by the writings of Dorothy Parker), and the Dave Lisik Jazz Orchestra.

The baseline reason for Snaketime’s worthiness is probably the passage of years, indeed roughly a decade, between Laurenzi’s introduction to Moondog’s music while studying at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music and the making of this album, recorded live at Chicago’s Hungry Brain in January of 2018, through a group put together specifically for the purpose.

A first encounter with the works of Moondog, when absorbed together with his biography and his undeniably striking mode of self-expression, what Laurenzi calls the “lore surrounding him,” could easily prove seductive enough to inspire haste in creation. But not only did the saxophonist take a measured approach, he didn’t even have plans to release this recording, at least until it was played back. Upon listening, he discovered how exceptional it was.

Born in Kansas in 1916 and blind from his late teens due to a farm accident involving a dynamite cap, Louis Hardin moved to NYC in the early ’40s, where he adopted the name Moondog and spent decades as a street performer; with his long beard, cloak, and horned helmet, he was often called “the Viking of 6th Avenue.” Along the way he counted Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce, Benny Goodman, Leonard Bernstein, and Arturo Toscanini as fans and advocates of his performances and recordings.

The man’s releases include two albums for Columbia Records in ’69 and ’71, Moondog and Moondog 2, both produced by James William Guercio, though in the ’50s he had LPs released by Prestige and in ’57 collaborated with actress Julie Andrews and actor Martyn Green on the children’s album Songs of Sense and Nonsense – Tell it Again for the Angel label. In 1974 he settled in Germany, where he lived and continued to compose until his death from a heart attack in September of 1999.

In terms of image, Moondog is similar to the great 20th Century avant-garde classical composer and bohemian train-hopping traveler Harry Partch. The Moondog composition “Be a Hobo” tightens the association. Utilizing rounds (a.k.a. perpetual canons) and contrapuntal rhythms in an approach he dubbed “snaketime,” Moondog’s music can quickly hold receptive ears in thrall. Amongst those taken with his art were Minimalist composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

With the exception of “Lullaby” from Prestige’s ’56 album Moondog (itself a rerelease of the privately pressed Snaketime Series album) and “All is Loneliness” from More Moondog (issued the same year, also by Prestige), Laurenzi has focused on pieces from the aforementioned Columbia albums, with opener “Nero’s Exposition” deriving from Moondog 2.

In the spirit of its composer, the track immediately grabs the attention. As percussionists Quin Kirchner and Ryan Packard establish the rhythm, Jason Stein begins a tough-toned, ample excursion on bass clarinet. After bassist Matt Ulery deepens the foundation, the guitar of Dave Miller enters next, an addition that brought visions of a desert landscape to my mind more than the Nile river, but that’s cool.

Even sweeter is the eventual emergence of Laurenzi on tenor, Nick Mazzarella on alto sax, and Chad McCullough on trumpet as they elevate into a fiesta of free blowing that’s distinguished by the rhythmic underpinning’s unwavering attention to Moondog’s root thing. There’s a tangibly exotic feel throughout, though that shouldn’t be mistaken for Exotica; however, the earlier work of Sun Ra, another great 20th Century original, does apply.

On one hand, the measure of Laurenzi and group’s success here is most discernible in “Lament I (Bird’s Lament),” which is easily Moondog’s most well-known composition, from ’69’s Moondog, composed in memory of Charlie Parker. Sampled by DJ Mr. Scruff in 1999, this track was used in a number of TV commercials, including for Volvo.

An unbelievably catchy bit of business, here Laurenzi and crew take the piece at an initially slower tempo, and while the tunefulness is articulated and easily recognizable, they expand upon the original’s two-minute beauty move to fabulous effect, carrying the melodious bebop seed of Moondog’s inspiration into an unusually welcoming free jazz milieu.

The brilliance of Moondog’s work, Laurenzi’s abilities as an organizer (a bandleader), and the individual strengths of the contributors, who solo and interact like undisputed heavyweight champions (but agile!) is evident throughout, but it’s “Fiesta Piano Solo” that registers as Snaketime’s centerpiece. The playing builds to a raucous peak (befitting the free jazz atmosphere) but never crosses over into the formidable, with the audience applause heard at a few points on the record indicative of an evening of collective joy.

But it’s the emphasis on melody and the obvious respect for Moondog’s compositional structures that makes Snaketime: The Music of Moondog stand out all the more, as the pleasure in organized spontaneity (for the players and those witnessing) captured at the Hungry Brain easily extends to the stereo environment today and assuredly for more many tomorrows.


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