A Sampling of Sun Ra

sunraWe make a big deal out of David Bowie’s multiple musical personalities, but what about Sun Ra?

He’s an avant-gardist, but his catalogue also embraces pop: doo-wop, swing, and, sincerely, Disney showtunes. At the same time, some digging will reveal stuff that’s beyond even the usual scope of free jazz, like the sparse group improvisation “The Magic City” or the album Strange Strings, where Arkestra members improvise on exotic stringed instruments they hadn’t yet learned how to play.

Volunteering at KZSU gave me exposure to some of this music, and now I can explore it even further. A wealth of Sun Ra material came online this fall, available on Bandcamp and eMusic. In fact, it’s overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start.

sunra-otherDiving in almost at random, I gave a listen to Other Voices, Other Blues, a 1978 live session with John Gilmore on tenor sax and Michael Ray on trumpet. There’s no bass; Sun Ra provides basslines with his keyboards while Luqman Ali holds down the drum kit.

The 1970s synthesizers can be a dated distraction on tracks like “Bridge on the Ninth Dimension,” but all is forgiven when a Gilmore/Ray free-for-all emerges later. Even under the fluorescent glow of synths, that’s some heart-warming free jazz there.

One track that really caught my ear was “Along the Tiber,” a more traditional jazz piece. I think it was a matter of encountering that song at just the right time and mood for me; it clicked. That Sun Ra sticks to acoustic piano on this one helped.

I’ll probably delve into the 1978 funk of Lanquidity next. That album got re-released on CD by Evidence Music in 2001, part of a small Sun Ra block that was sent to us at KZSU. I never gave it the attention it deserved, and I can say that for a lot of Sun Ra’s catalogue.


Celebrating Sun Ra at 100

(UPDATE 11/15: Amanda at the Catsynth blog has posted a review of the show. Sounds like it was a great time.)

Sun Ra turned 100 this past spring, and Bay Area musicians don’t want to let the moment pass without doing something big around it.

So, there’s going to be a celebratory concert at the Center for New Music (55 Taylor St., San Francisco) on Wed., Nov. 12, at 7:00 p.m.

Source: Ransom Note (theransomnote.co.uk), although they probably got it from somewhere elseDetails are below, as listed on the BayImproviser calendar.

Of particular note is the big band that will play — and the fact that they namecheck Beanbenders, a venue and music series that contributed enormously to the local music scene in the late ’90s — and, on a personal note, a catalyst for me to start getting in touch with that scene. And Beanbenders did host the Sun Ra orchestra, back in 1996.

For a gathering of old friends to celebrate one of their great common influences, the Beanbenders name serves as a nice proxy.

As for Sun Ra’s Arkestra, it’s still going strong. You can read Marshall Allen’s thoughts in a recent Washington City Paper interview — and of course, the Arkestra played in San Francisco last year.

Friendly Galaxies – An Evening of Celebrating Sun Ra at 100

— Set 1: Reconnaissance Fly (Amanda Chaudhary: keyboard/electronics; Rich Lesnik: reeds; Polly Moller: voice, flutes, guitar; Larry the O: drums, and Tim Walters: bass/electronics) perform a mixture of Sun Ra tunes & originals

— Set 2: Techno-griots Electropoetic Coffee (poet NSAA + guitarist Ross Hammond) continue and extend Sun Ra’s tradition of Afro-Futurist poetry+music madness

— Set 3: UBU RA BIG BAND, assembled by laptopist/pianist Joe Lasqo from the luminous gas remnants of the Beanbenders supernova & other far corners of the universe, travels through the sonic space of Sun Ra’s repertoire, with video by Warren Stringer.

Sun Ra looking regal. Source: BayimproviserSteve Adams – electronics
Aaron Bennett – saxes/reeds
Myles Boisen – guitar
Phillip Greenlief – saxes/reeds
John Hanes – percussion
Joe Lasqo – keyboards/electronics
Lisa Mezzacappa – bass
Dan Plonsey – saxes/reeds
Jon Raskin – saxes/reeds
David Slusser – saxes

Space songtresses: Barbara Golden & Kattt Atchley
Astro-Terspichorean dancers: Evangel King & Nan Busse
VIdeo artist: Warren Stringer

Cost: $10 non-members, $7 members

Center for New Music (55 Taylor St., San Francisco).

Sun Ra Arkestra Ought To Play Your Town

DSCN3230Seriously, this band should be working as much as they can stand. Their San Francisco concert, at the beginning of August, was amazing.

Maybe you’ve seen the Arkestra before, so maybe everything I’ll say is old hat to you. But I’ll bet there are tens of thousands of people in situations like mine: Never seen the Arkestra, would check them out for the music, and would be blown away.

The whole setup is classic Arkestra: Group-sung melodies with that 1940s swing vibe; the big-band decorum of standing up for solos; a featured female vocalist and a couple of dancers; and, of course, Disney tunes. “When You Wish Upon a Star” did make an appearance, early on. It was like an obligation fulfilled, leaving the last half of the set to soak in the more cooking, jamming numbers.

DSCN3233Marshall Allen conducted the proceedings and also contributed crazed, off-the-rails solos on saxophone and on his spacey sci-fi electric recorder. His sax would intentionally spasm and shred over the band’s steady rhythms and reverent melodies, like a Jackson Pollack frame around a gorgeous old black-and-white movie.

Many members of the ensemble are older, so there was a lot of shuffling of feet as they came on stage, but the music was tightly delivered. Some younger members are making their mark with the band as well — especially pianist Farid Abdul-Bari Barron, who was fast, fluid, and astounding. A few different songs showcased him.

The band wandered the crowd, then returned to the stage with the house lights up, encouraging everyone to dance.
The band wandered the crowd, then returned to the stage with the house lights up, encouraging everyone to dance.

Toward the end, one of the older saxophonists broke to the front of the stage and started doing cartwheels and flips. My first reaction was, “Aw, man, he’s drunk and he’s gonna hurt himself” — but as he kept going, it became apparent this guy can do cartwheels and flips. Real acrobatics, performed with strength and vigor. Again, maybe everybody else knew this about the Arkestra, but I didn’t. It was a huge surprise, and a random little bonus.

They deserved a theater better than the old Victoria, too. I can see why people would love the old place, as it hearkens back to an early 20th-century time when the cinema meant so much more.  But it’s cramped (less legroom than most airlines), and the snack bar isn’t equipped for much more than popcorn and soda — nor is it positioned to handle a long line.

The band is showing its age, of course. The older members are, well, older, including the dancer and vocalist. Their presentation might seem haphazard for television, if that were even an option. But as a jazz big-band, they’re still tight, energetic, and entertaining. All jazz fans talk about the need to see the “old cats” while they’re still around. Don’t leave the Arkestra off that list.

It was quite a line outside the theater. A sellout was never in doubt.
At its heart, the Arkestra is a traditional big band, with the regimen of standing up during solos.
sfSound opened with two half-hour pieces — well executed, but a very different mood.
Hans Grusel’s Krankenkabinet opened the evening with oddball electronic noise/song in the fine tradition of Caroliner Rainbow.

Playlist: May 22, 2009

KZSU playlist for Friday, May 22, 3:00 p.m. to 5:50 p.m.

A trainee named Leigh was helping me out with this show, doing much of the engineering and planning one full set on her own (that’s the pop grouping with Belle and Sebastian in it).

Steve Adams of ROVA Sax Quartet fame is doing a CD release show this weekend for his trio disk. ROVA themselves are also having two performances at Kanbar Hall in San Francisco. We played some tracks to note those shows, as well as little nods to Sun Ra’s birthday and the 50th anniversary of Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz To Come (the album with “Lonely Woman” on it, although I opted to play a lesser known track).

Continue reading “Playlist: May 22, 2009”

Playlist: March 13, 2009

KZSU playlist for Friday, March 6, 2009, 3:00 p.m. to 4:50 p.m.

Items of note:

  • The Dolmen Orchestra is some great Euro-fare from Leo Records, with a big orchestral sound, Italian soprano singing, and (for this track) a tuba solo from guest Michel Godard. Very theatrical with a good amount of crazy-jazz soloing.
  • The Jon Jang track is part of his “Reparations Suite.” Great modern big-band work.
  • Ended the show with a 17-minute Sun Ra archival track. Go Sun Ra!

Continue reading “Playlist: March 13, 2009”