Celebrating the Sun Ra centennial | Bleader

Celebrating the Sun Ra centennial

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May 22 was the official centennial of the birth of the brilliant bandleader, composer, and keyboardist Sun Ra, but I'm thankful that the entire year is being used to celebrate his memory and particular brand of visionary genius. Chicago, where Herman Poole Blount (a native of Birmingham, Alabama) assembled the earliest versions of his Arkestra in 1953, has gotten in on the act in numerous ways, but some of the most exciting events are happening this week. Yesterday, as part of the Chicago Jazz Festival, saxophonist Marshall Allen (who took the reins of Arkestra after the death of fellow saxophonist John Gilmore in 1995, two years after Ra passed away), trumpeter Art Hoyle (who played with the Arkestra in the 50s), writer and Columbia University professor John Szwed (who authored the authoritative Sun Ra biography Space Is the Place), and writer, gallerist, and Sun Ra scholar John Corbett engaged in a lively, discursive panel discussion on Ra's legacy at Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall. And on Sunday, Allen will lead the Arkestra in a performance that will close out this year's festival, with an 8:30 PM set at Pritzker Pavilion.

Ra and his Arkestra recorded and performed prolifically during its entire run, so it's no surprise that we've been showered with great reissues and previously unreleased material. One of the most satisfying documents—and a stellar example of what a primo Arkestra set was like during the band's final decade—is The Sun Ra Arkestra in Nickelsdorf 1984 (Trost), a whopping three-CD set that captures the entirety of a multiset performance in Austria. The group moves easily between standards like Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," a raucous "Mack the Knife" (with what appears to be winds player James Jackson doing his best Louis Armstrong impersonation), and Fletcher Henderson's "Big John's Special" to originals like "Nuclear War" and "Fate in a Pleasant Mood" and disciplined but wild group improvisations—with especially excellent playing from Allen, John Gilmore, Danny Thompson, and the pianist himself. There's also a bounty of great call-and-response passages, with Ra improvising his lyrics and the Arkestra never missing a beat. The breadth, fluidity, and sense of fun are nothing less than breathtaking. I was lucky enough to see the Arkestra many times during the 80s and 90s, and I always came away from those performances certain I had just seen the greatest band on earth, and the most entertaining one too. Below you can listen to a typically charismatic, soulful take on another Arkestra classic, "Love in Outer Space."

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With more than 100 albums in the Arkestra discography, it can be a rather daunting proposition for a Sun Ra novice to know where to begin, but a forthcoming two-CD set called In the Orbit of Ra (due out on September 23 from Strut Records) might be the best single introduction to the music yet released. The 20-track collection was curated by Allen in collaboration with Peter Dennett, who operates the terrific British label Art Yard, which exists solely to release archival Sun Ra material. While a few tracks come from Art Yard's catalog, most are taken from the vaults of Saturn—Ra's own imprint—spanning from the group's first recordings in Chicago (1957 or '58; the documentation of those early days is sometimes vague) through 1978, when the group was based in Philadelphia, including a few previously unreleased tracks. During this period the group focused on its own music—the practice of blending in standards, as reflected by the Nickesdorf set, was to come later. The liner notes for the set include a lengthy interview with Allen. Below you can hear the classic "Plutonian Nights," with Ra playing a Wurlitzer electric piano, from the 1960 album The Nubians of Plutonia—recorded in Chicago between 1958-'59.

Today's playlist:

Anestis Logothetis, Electroacoustic Works (Le Coq)
Duke Ellington, Duke Ellington presents . . . (Bethlehem)
Moacir Santos, Carnival of the Spirits (Blue Note, Japan)
Gordon Grdina's Haram, Her Eyes Illuminate (Songlines)
Mat Maneri & Denman Maroney, Distich (Nuscope)

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