Britten Sinfonia / Macgregor, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

The 29-volume Grove Dictionary of Music can't spare a paragraph for Kansas-born Louis Hardin, who took the name Moondog after being blinded as a teenager, but grander figures have given him his due. Stravinsky vouched in court for his greatness, Steve Reich and Philip Glass acknowledged him as their precursor, and Charlie Parker was planning to collaborate with him, before heroin got in the way. With his flowing beard, Moondog looked like William Blake's God the Father; his quest for the perfect canon, coupled with his experiments with rhythm, took him to a place where others now gladly follow.

When I interviewed him during his last visit to London for the Meltdown festival, he explained that his rhythms came from the Arapaho Indians: "The running beat, and alongside it the walking beat, which is also the universal heartbeat." Joanna MacGregor is his latest champion: introducing her arrangement of 14 of his pieces for the Britten Sinfonia - with saxophonist Andy Sheppard, plus a tabla player, bassist and percussionist - she expressed the modest hope that they'd do them justice. But from the first bright explosion of sound that justice was never in doubt.

The rhythm was everywhere in evidence, clothed in a medley of forms. Some pieces had brass and percussion all going on one note; others evoked foghorns on the Hudson, or sirens in the street. One wittily deconstructed ragtime, while another brought us to bebop. But nothing was swung: underneath it all was that cheerful heartbeat, keeping strict time as befitted this edgy, urban music. Each piece was completely different: the most arresting had - over a ritualistically repeated string phrase - a saxophone ballad that was at once lugubrious and sly. No wonder Parker had wanted to join in.

The first half of this concert was devoted to MacGregor's jazz reworking of that contrapuntal Everest, Bach's The Art of Fugue. The Britten Sinfonia - to whom I must apologise for inadvertently calling them the London Sinfonietta in a review last week - dealt adroitly with this extraordinary work, which required them to switch seamlessly between classical and jazz modes. This band can do anything, and make it look effortless fun. Much the same can be said of the dreadlocked MacGregor, dashing between piano stool and centre stage, to keep the evening's frantic pulse at fever pitch.

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