Moon Hooch review: danceable complexity

New York trio combines jazz/experimental music techniques with pop accessibility

by PATRICK MCCULLEY

As a saxophonist, I am immensely grateful for the amount of respect brought to the saxophone by its resurgence in popularity through pop music. But in pop and rock music, the saxophone usually plays a very small and limited part, one that could easily be taken up by many other wind instruments. It’s a very small facet of a very large gem.

Is there a band that effectively combines masterful techniques and tones usually associated with jazz, classical, and experimental styles of the saxophone with the form, style, and danceability, of popular music? There’s a two word answer to that question: Moon Hooch.

Moon Hooch’s name doesn’t sound like a band with saxophonists in it as much as it sounds like a old-timey bluegrass band from Appalachia, but these guys are full of surprises. The New York-based trio (saxophonists Mike Wilbur and Wenzi McGowen and drummer James Muschler) has married many of the technical complexities found in jazz saxophone approaches with the form and function of pop and electronic dance music. They’ve taken advantage of the peculiar times we live in, where popular audiences are willing to take unusual instrumentations seriously, and operate as trio of drum set and saxophones.

Moon Hooch, which performed in Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge last month, has effectively reverse- engineered EDM (electronic dance music) from a primarily electronic format into an acoustic one. There’s even a word for this genre that combines percussion and brass instruments to effectively translate EDM to the acoustic world: brasshouse. (Another well-known band in this genre is Too Many Zooz.) Through that creative mashup of saxophones, drum set, musical skill, and dance music, they’ve brought together audiences that range from academic saxophonists to danceaholics.

Moon Hooch. Photo: Kenneth Kearney.

What sets saxophonists Wilbur and McGowen apart from the usual is their use of multiphonics, altissimo, honks, squeaks, growls, and screams while playing. Often more associated the intensely idiomatic improvisations of free jazz or the carefully constructed noise of modern chamber music, these techniques, when given rhythmic context and structure in Moon Hooch’s playing, convey a staggering emotional intensity. They mix and match instruments often; sometimes both on tenor saxophone, but often on a combination of tenor and bari or contrabass clarinet.

All this is underpinned by drummer James Muschler’s dynamic, unceasing drive into rhythmic glory. Seriously, I think the guy stopped playing once in the entire one and a half hour set, effectively turning his musical art into a physical one as well.

You can tell the band tours a lot. This is the second time that they’ve been to Portland at the Doug Fir Lounge in less than as many months, and they’ve been performing like this for a while. Most of the songs they played in their set were off their albums Moon Hooch, This is Cave Music, and Red Sky. I strongly suspect that there were more than a few songs they played that are as yet unrecorded. They’ve crafted their set into an unstoppable machine with tremendous momentum. Song after song blends one into the other until you’re not sure where endings and beginnings are anymore.

Musically, this set-craft momentum works against them in certain areas. Many of their songs are melodically and structurally similar enough to each other that the lack of a break can make listening monotonous. Maybe they anticipated this to a certain extent because every so often, something strikingly different would happen: a drum solo, a saxophone solo, rapping, vocals, the low thump of beats played by the contrabass clarinet, McGowen playing an EWI, or a ballad that avoided the usual driving techno beat.

And there’s a well-coordinated light show, by Sean Coats. The beginnings and endings of many of their songs, made up of hip-swaying, dance-inducing, rhythmically diverse melodies, are usually met with a contrasting middle section (involving a solo or directional change in melody). This made for a great opportunity for the creative use of the Doug Fir’s lighting, following cues in the music to create bright and busy lighting during musically complex moments, and cool colors and stable motion during less busy moments.

As with the lighting, there is more to Moon Hooch than just their music. Like a lot of bands these days, they are aware that they have a responsibility to promote what they feel is morally right and are strong proponents of the cruelty free raising of livestock and veganism, using their shows as a platform to do more than just entertain but also hopes to inform and educate.

Through Moon Hooch we are seeing the dawn of a very interesting and specific kind of  popular music. Not just a specific genre or subgenre, but a kind of music that fuses technical virtuosity with accessible, danceable forms and rhythms — music as fun to listen to as it is to dance to, music that effectively bridges a very real gap between genres. You could see the effect of the music on the people in attendance, a sold out crowd at the Doug Fir jumping up and down for joy during the entire set. Not necessarily what you’d expect from a band that uses the sophisticated techniques they do. It’s proof that style and accessibility can matter just as much as technical prowess. I hope that Moon Hooch and other bands continue to create exciting, accessible music without sacrificing their complexity or virtuosity.   

Currently touring Europe, Moon Hooch returns to Oregon August 21 at Prineville’s Oregon Eclipse Festival. Patrick McCulley is an Oregon-born saxophonist, educator, and composer with an M.M. in saxophone performance. He is the saxophone instructor and director for the Portland Music Collective. His non-musical interests include tea, cats, rain, science fiction and international travel.

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