Album review: Katia Labèque – Moondog (Deutsche Grammophon)

Most of Katia Labèque’s work consists of classical piano recordings and performances usually accompanied by her sister Marielle on a second piano, but her musical tastes are clearly broader than that. Moondog was an American composer who made a few seminal albums in the fifties and sixties. Blind and somewhat of an eccentric he was renowned for busking and just standing on the street in New York City, and was called the Viking of 6th Avenue because of the horned hat and cloak he wore. But he was also a friend of Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker among others with a remarkable talent for original composition. His music has influenced composers from Philip Glass and Steve Reich and been covered by artists as diverse as Big Brother and the Holding Company and Antony and the Johnsons, you may well have heard some of it on the Big Lebowski soundtrack.

A drummer from an early age Moondog invented instruments and wrote poetry which features in some of the songs chosen by Labèque. She plays piano and Wurlitzer organ and is accompanied by the band Triple Sun with David Chalmin on electric guitar, vocals, synths and electronics, Massimo Pupillo on electric bass and Raphaël Séguinier on percussions, drums and electronics. A broad array of sound sources than that gives Labèque a wide pallete with which to interpret this music. One feature of the originals remains and that’s the drum patterns that you would assume were machine made today, these form the start point on most of the nine tracks but quickly find themselves overlaid by variations on rhythm line by the other instruments. This is the case with Oboe Round which was a typically short piece when first recorded but is expanded to over five minutes with bells, synth chords and fast, high sparkling piano over deep bass notes. It gets heavy with pounding drums and builds to quite a crescendo before descending to the street sound interlude that bridges the tracks.

Moondog’s tribute to Charlie Parker, Bird’s Lament, is probably his best known piece with many artists sampling its drum sound, here the electric guitar and piano give it a new twist but largely stick to the original structure. All is Loneliness has been covered by quite a few people and it’s easy to hear why. This take is an absolute beauty that uses voices and instruments to create a round of considerable emotional power. It builds to a distorted crescendo in the middle then returns on guitar and drums in more meaty form to slowly intensify the pressure once again, ending with striking piano notes and sputtering out with considerable aplomb. Elf Dance is a more sombre affair with crisp piano and bass before Bumbo arrives with bombast, creating a raw, unapologetic blast before the short piano solo To a Sea Horse. The album ends with a quiet, beat free beauty in New Amsterdam that slows, swells and expands to overwhelm you with its serenity.
Labèque has produced a fitting tribute to a musical genius in Moondog, it makes you want to hear the originals which reveals both their originality and her inspiration in reworking them.

Jason Kennedy

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