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American music has rarely produced a more eclectic figure than Van Dyke Parks, the thinking person’s Phil Spector. A man of many talents (among them expertise as composer, lyricist, arranger, singer, multi-instrumentalist, actor, writer, film scorer, and musicologist), Parks is best known for his collaboration with Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys’ aborted Smile project. Song Cycle, his 1968 debut album, is arguably the Great Unacknowledged Pop Masterpiece, drawing on a vast network of cultural influences, including Charles Ives and James Joyce. His sporadic subsequent efforts have explored other sourcesTrinidad steel-band music (Discover America, 1972), the Br’er Rabbit stories (Jump!, 1984), and Japanese-American relations (Toyko Rose, 1989). Moonlighting, a live album recorded Sept. 7, 1996, at Santa Monica’s Ash Grove, is as idiosyncratic and nearly as impressive as Song Cycle. The singer-pianist has scored a program of his own material, supplemented by two compositions by 19th-century classical piano virtuoso Louis Moreau Gottschalk and songs by John Hartford and Lowell George, for a 17-piece ensembleseven violins, two violas, two cellos, two basses, drums, percussion, guitar, and harp. (The concert master is Sid Page, who played the incendiary violin solo on Dan Hicks’ classic “I Scare Myself.”) A mixture of sweeping instrumentals and high-pitched vocals with enigmatic lyrics, linked by a sagacious spoken commentary and a reading of Robert Frost’s “Provide, Provide,” Moonlighting defies classification. Whatever you choose to call itAmericana, classical music, pop, art songit’s weirdly wonderful.
Joel E. Siegel