Dustin Laurenzi ~ Snaketime: The Music of Moondog

True to the spirit of one of the most unique composers of the last century, Dustin Laurenzi and his collaborators have rerouted a few of Moondog’s most recognizable pieces away from the stories of the artworld and back towards jazz and its improvisational tradition. His arrangements emphasize the brass so beloved to the composer, and lets the players flow in and out of jagged modernist tones and amicable jazz melodies alike. The vocal textures of pieces like “Remember” are replaced with instrumental ones, giving them a different life in which the clarity and minimalist qualities of originals are reborn as fiery, messy, complex approaches to rhythm and counterpoint. By giving primacy to just another of Moondog’s many voices, Laurenzi’s interpretation has reordered their heterogeneity into something new.

My favorite example is “All is Loneliness”. The original finds a perfect balance between the sad, moving, almost whispered song and the entrancing rhythm of the percussions, granting it a power that lasts way more than its roughly minute-and-a-half duration. The version in Snaketime: The Music of Moondog begins with a multiple-instrument brass lament whose sadness is not the quietude of inner life but the dramatic expressionism of a saxophone blues. The high-pitched, individual aspect of the original’s vocals is reinterpreted as a distant and grave song that, matched with the repetitive style of the percussions, highlight the Native American roots that the composer absorbed from his 1920s experience with the Arapahoe. The communal foundations of jazz serve as parallel to the original’s sweet isolation, developing the piece into a tragic elegy that speaks not of inner but of social life in disconnection, a tradition in the throes of being forgotten. The slithering, adaptive characteristics of the ‘snaketime’ are applied here as an overarching concept: every compositional element is bound to flow and sway from one identity to another, the old becoming new and the new revealing the marvels of the old.

Something like this happens to “Lament I (Bird’s Lament)”, in which the speed and ultimate stridency of the original – a bridge that classically constrains bebop while the bebop frees the uptight bounds of the classical – become a slowly building exercise in sheer jazz expressionism. Written after the death of Charlie Parker, the 1969 version reflects an adventurous, if slightly restrained composure that Laurenzi’s version completely detonates for a new audience. Parker’s sax was once a weapon of wildness, of uncompromising force, and what Laurenzi does is to recover that power and let the structure be carefully torn down, element by element, the entire band coming in by the end to make noise. Not literally, of course, but the kind of noise that earned both Parker and Moondog their radical reputations.

This is how Snaketime brings the composer’s jazz voice to the fore, and by emphasizing its wild side it brings forth aspects of the music that in the original contexts serve a different function, which is how the story usually goes when it comes to associating him to the classical avant-garde. Here, “Fiesta Piano Solo” slithers from a cheery and sweet little piece to a platform for improvised and noisy interactions between multiple instruments, a multiplicity of voices providing a maximalist experience of an inner celebration, articulating it through calls and responses, passionate riffs and solos from each voice, turning, once again, something individualized into something communal through jazz. Not even Sax Pax at its noisiest sounds as raucous as this, as fundamentally jazzy and vibrant as Laurenzi’s interpretations of material mostly composed between 1969 and 1971, about mid-point at Moondog’s long and fascinating career. (David Murrieta Flores)

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