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Sylvain Rifflet & Jon Irabagon: Perpetual Motion (A Celebration of Moondog)

Karl Ackermann By

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In 1932, when he was sixteen years old, living in the heartland of depression era America, a farm accident left Louis Thomas Hardin blind. For roughly twenty-five years spanning the 1940s to the mid-1970s, he was often found on some street corner in the vicinity of 52nd Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan, sometimes talking philosophically to no one in particular, often standing stock-still and silent and in full Viking regalia. At times, he slept in doorways though he had shelter in the city and in upstate New York. The streets however, were the place to absorb the sounds and activities that would feed into the creative process of this mostly self-taught musician. By the age of seventy-three (and by then a decade-long resident of Germany) he was conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra as a guest of his friend, composer Phillip Glass. A multi-genre composer, musician, poet and inventor Hardin (aka Moondog), should be renowned, but his history has been obscured by both the unintended and self-imposed circumstances of his long and resourceful life.

A native of rural Kansas, Hardin came to New York in the 1940s and, when not engaged in his unconventional street life, he might have been found jamming with Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus or Charlie Parker. While music legends including Leonard Bernstein—who taught Hardin to conduct—recognized his enormous musical talent, the passerby saw him as an eccentric street character; the "Viking of 6th Avenue." Hardin's inspirations were unusually broad, spanning island music, Native American, early European and jazz. It was this odd combination of influences and the natural rhythms of the New York street scene that ignited the imagination of French composer and multi-reedist Sylvain Rifflet. Teaming up with the first-rate saxophonist Jon Irabagon, Perpetual Motion (A Celebration of Moondog) was born.

Rifflet has worked with drummers Aldo Romano and Joey Baron, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and he leads an eclectic quartet—Alphabet—whose influences range from Tom Waits to the avant-garde composer Steve Reich. He has an extensive background that includes a range of work from big bands to an award-winning soundtrack. Irabagon is a pivotal member of Mostly Other People Do the Killing and the Mary Halvorson Quintet and he leads a trio featuring drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Mark Helias. The sextet on Perpetual Motionis rounded-out with Rifflet's colleagues from Alphabet and pianist Eve Risser.

Recorded live at the thirtieth Banlieues Bleues Festival in 2013, the album includes two Rifflet compositions among the twelve little-known Hardin works. Children's choirs from a number of schools in the Seine-Saint Denis area add innocence and exuberance to "Aska Me," "Maybe" and "My Tiny Butterfly." In contrast, Rifflet's compositions "Round Paris" and "From the jazz book extended" are edgy and more forceful. Field recordings augment "Heat on the Heather" with its cadence of the street—scraping shovels, a beggar's change-cup, traffic noises—replicated with electronics, chains on drums, prepared piano, a music box and less easily identified gadgets. It's a curiosity that "Bird's Lament"—Hardin's tribute to Charlie Parker—hasn't been widely recorded. Soulful and bold, it is the most moving of Hardin's more jazz-oriented compositions and—like many of his compositions—timeless in style.

There are numerous stand-out performances throughout Perpetual Motion. Rifflet (on clarinet) and Risser share a lyrical duet on "Santa Fe" and Igboran's extended solo on "Maybe" highlights his visceral tone and improvisational skills. Guitarist Philippe Gordiani adds jagged rock emphasis to "Oasis" while "Black Hole" takes a minimalist approach dominated by Risser. Percussionist Benjamin Flament does a masterful job of directing the frequent shifts in pacing and flautist Joce Mienniel creates beautiful pastoral effects. Hardin's fantastical mix of poetic narratives, simple melodies and soundscapes provide Rifflet and Irabagon with enough moving pieces to potentially lead into the weeds but in the case of Perpetual Motion we have a moving tribute to a virtually unknown genius and a small masterpiece of musicianship. The two-disc set includes a DVD of the Banlieues Bleues Festival performance.

Track Listing: Oasis; Heat On The Heather; Bird's Lament; Black Hole; From One To Nine; Round Paris; Aska Me; Fleur De Lis; Maybe; Nero's Expedition; My Tiny Butterfly; From The Jazz Book No. 2; From The Jazz Book Extended; Santa Fe.

Personnel: Sylvain Rifflet: clarinet, electronics, tenor saxophone; Jon Irabagon: alto/tenor saxophone; Benjamin Flament: percussion; Philippe Gordiani: guitar; Joce Mienniel: flute; Eve Risser: electric harpsichord, piano.

Title: Perpetual Motion (A Celebration of Moondog) | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Jazz Village


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