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Moon Hooch performing at the Love Supreme Jazz Festival in 2016.  (Photo: Getty Images)
Moon Hooch performing at the Love Supreme Jazz Festival in 2016. (Photo: Getty Images)

A high-energy dance party of saxes and drums

Moon Hooch, a jazz trio, began by busking in New York City. It fuses jazz with funk and soul to make infectious dance music

Moon Hooch are a band like no other. Start with the trio’s line-up: two saxophonists and a drummer. Period. And then their sound: jazz mated with funk and soul to produce wild dancing music that is a brand of fusion with a unique soundscape. Of course, there is also the provenance of the Brooklyn-based band. Ten years ago, the trio began busking on the sidewalk in front of New York’s Metropolitan Museum. They used to play jazz but then moved to dance music and began busking in the Bedford Avenue subway station in Brooklyn. They quickly became a hit.

Their sets were so infectious and people began dancing so wildly that the New York police department had to stop them because commuters could run the risk of falling off the edge of the platform. But busking gave Moon Hooch (original line-up: Wenzl McGowen and Michael Wilbur on sax; James Muschler on drums and percussion) the opportunity to get noticed and start releasing albums. And they now have four studio albums, a couple of EPs and one live album. The fourth album, Life On Other Planets, was released this January. And it’s a good entry point to Moon Hooch’s unusual sound.

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The album’s nine songs (all instrumental) were each recorded in single takes in the studio, lending them the rawness of a live performance. Moon Hooch’s music is heavily improvised and the three musicians seem to have a near-telepathic connection when they play, segueing into each other’s solos with incredible ease to produce sounds that are so different that they can seem otherworldly and urge you to cross the aural boundaries you may be familiar with.

Many of Moon Hooch’s songs originate during their soundchecks before gigs. The band members jam and joust with each other during these sessions by taking a tune and riffing with it till a complete track emerges and, eventually, makes it to an album. Jazz remains the bedrock of the band’s music but influences such as funk, electronic dance music (EDM) and R&B abound. Sometimes their tunes begin innocuously. Old Frenchman, a track from Life On Other Planets, is a hook-laden melody that gets you tapping your feet and before long you are tripping with delight as two saxes and the percussion start their interplay, spontaneous, exuberant and so, so contagious.

In another track, They’re Already Here, it’s the percussion that leads the way and, unusually for Moon Hooch, there are brief vocal intonations that sound like a heavy metal vocalist’s stray scatting, with the saxes, tenor and baritone creating an upbeat tapestry that is almost (but not quite) free-form jazz. Because no matter how much they improvise and spontaneously push the envelope, steering their music to parts unknown, Moon Hooch’s sound is so uncompromisingly up-tempo that you will probably get up and dance…even if you, like me, are cursed with two left feet.

Early this year, shortly after they released their latest record, the band announced that drummer Muschler was leaving. He has been replaced on ongoing tours by Ethan Snyder.

Moon Hooch was formed when the members met at the School of Jazz at the New School in New York City. They began by busking, and garnered crowds before emerging as recording artists who now tour quite relentlessly. Improvisation is intrinsic to Moon Hooch’s music—and the band members frequently experiment with their instruments in rather crazy ways. Saxophonist McGowen is known to use a sort of elongated cone—several feet long—that emerges from his horn and modulates the sound in ways quite singular.

The remarkable chemistry between the band members is something to be witnessed live. In 2015, at a TEDx Talk in Atlanta, the band opened and closed the event with sessions. The videos of both sessions are on YouTube and it’s a delight to see the trio build up their high-decibel, adrenalin-charged performance. It’s the high-energy levels of their live shows that makes the band such a hit with audiences. It’s a pity, though, that they are not as widely known as they ought to be.

There are hidden nuggets as well to Moon Hooch’s story. The band is committed to sustainable living and conscious conservation of the environment. It runs a blog, Cooking In The Cave (cookinginthecave.net), in which it logs the way the members use locally sourced ingredients to make vegan food while on tour. “We travel with a pantry full of spices, a toaster oven, an electric skillet, a cutting board, a knife, and some other kitchen tools. Using this simple set-up, we’re able to turn local organic produce into delicious nourishing meals in green rooms across the country."

Last year, while touring in Norway, Moon Hooch hired a cabin with no running water or shower but with a well from which they sourced their water. And they bought ingredients from an Indian grocery store to make dal and rice, spicy saag and pulao over the three days they were there. The band documents these culinary adventures on its blog—photographs, recipes, etc.—and it’s fun to browse through the food they make and eat.

Innovative use of technology is yet another of Moon Hooch’s dimensions. At gigs, they play through what they call a “Reverse DJ" set-up, where live sounds from the saxes run through a computer program on laptops that process recorded effects for the output. In live performances, instruments such as a clarinet and, occasionally, an old-school synthesizer are added. But at the core, Moon Hooch are two saxophonists and a drummer making eccentric, exuberant music.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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