Cult / MOONDOG Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
If Moondog's music was anything like as odd as his life, it would be, well, quite odd. To sum up: the son of a travelling minister, whose first memories include playing the tom-tom while sitting on the lap of an Arapaho chief; blinded by an exploding dynamite cap at the age of 16, he still managed to teach himself composition. He sprang to fame while living rough in New York, with recordings of his music overlaid by street sounds; he is the inventor of the Oo, the Trimba and many other outlandish sounding instruments. All in all, he has been an eccentric, magnetic figure.

On stage he looks the part: tall and wiry, if at 79 a little stooped, dressed in plain black silk shirt and trousers, the ensemble topped off by an Old Testament mass of shaggy silver hair, with matching beard and eyebrows. But the music, at any rate in Saturday afternoon's concert by London Brass and London Saxophonic, is a good deal less striking.

You get the basic idea from the second number, Heath on the Heather, named in honour of Ted Heath (the band-leader, that is), and introduced by Moondog as "a 25-part canon on an eight-part ground": what we're getting is fairly conventional big band music, distinguished by obsessively contrapuntal writing and Moondog's incessant pounding on a bass drum (his way of conducting). Moondog may proclaim his allegiance to European classical traditions, but the real inspiration behind this tightly corseted jazz is surely Duke Ellington.

Most of the pieces last three or four minutes, and that seems to be their optimum length; a few last rather longer, and work proportionately less well. The problem is a lack of real development: underneath all the frantic hammering and fugal rushing about, it doesn't always get anywhere, and what's happening musically isn't nearly as interesting as the thinking behind it - encapsulated by Moondog in some fairly excruciating verse by way of programme notes.

Black Hole and Cosmicode, for example, the two most European-sounding pieces, are described by Moondog as representing, respectively, a message from the "Megamind" and mankind's response. Black Hole (where "The gong, which has the most important part, creates an atmosphere for me / to contemplate in fear the awesomeness of Density's propensity") is based on a pattern of ascending and descending scales, punctuated by some big, almost Wagnerian chords. The drama keeps descending into B-movie bathos, though: where you're expecting Gotterdammerung, you get "Invaders from Mars". In Cosmicode, the echoes are of Strauss - Also sprach Zarathustra crossed with "Three Blind Mice".

But if none of this is as startling or challenging as you might hope, it's impossible not to enjoy the furious solo writing in Bird's Lament (Gareth Brady on tenor sax) and the roistering fugues of Blast Off and New York. You gather, too, that the players are having fun, given the amount of toe-tapping and grinning going on. Set aside the pretensions, and it's solid, good-time music.

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