For most of us, Sun Ra is a proto-psychedelic figure of the ‘60s avant-garde and later. But Ra’s roots (as Herman “Sonny” Blount) go all the way back to his days with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. And in the early days of his own Arkestra, he was making music that would have fit right in with the post-hard bop of Charles Mingus, George Russell, and many another outward explorer.
That’s the music Allan Chase’s septet presented at the Lily Pad on Wednesday night – music mostly from 1955 and ’56, with only one tune as late as 1960. This music suited the septet beautifully, the crosscurrents of Ra’s tricky themes split between brass (trumpet and trombone) and reeds (alto, tenor, and baritone). There were hints of the big band era in some of the declamatory themes, but also of the avant-garde that was soon to follow, and Ra’s own particular paths into the spaceways of multiple musical galaxies.
The occasion was Sun Ra’s “arrival” 99 years ago (he shunned the word “birth,” as Chase explained, with its suggestion of “be-Earth”). This was about as expert a presentation of Ra’s music as you were likely to find outside the surviving members of the Sun Ra Arkestra itself (now under the direction of 88-year-old Marshall Allen). Chase wrote his ethno-musicology masters thesis on Ra, and bassist Dave Clark and reed player Charlie Kohlhase have long played his music. Chase even had a couple of the Arkestra’s original arrangements by his late friend, Prince Shell.
But this was no fusty “historically informed performance.” There were anecdotes both funny and revealing. (Chase played with Pat Patrick, a founding member of the Sun Ra Arkestra who also happened to be the father of the Massachusetts governor.) And, oh that swing. Maybe it was the way Clark locked into the grooves with drummer Mike Connors or, specifically, the light rim-shot “tock!” on the second beat throughout the medium groove of “Kingdom of Not.” Or maybe it was the handclaps on the offbeats of the same tune. Then there was the inspired economy of Daniel Rosenthal’s solos, his subtle shifts in phrasing driving a tune into the turnaround. (Kohlhase seemed to pick up on Rosenthal’s energy whenever he followed the trumpet in the solo order.)
And there were the pieces themselves, with their beguiling mix of bebop swing and spooky off-center harmonies, voicings that drifted this way and that. With Rosenthal and trombonist Randy Pingrey deploying a variety of mute effects, and those criss-crossing lines, textures expanded and contracted. Backing choruses supported and commented on the solos. On “El Is the Sound of Joy,” a crooked descending horn figure was matched by an unhinged ascending piano line (pianist Joe Berkovitz was incisive all night). The Harry Revel tune “Possession” (in an arrangement for the Arkestra by Prince Shell) became a kind of mini-concerto for Kohlhases’s tenor. On the Pat Patrick/Charles Davis composition “Two Tones,” Kohlhase and Chase both picked up baritones and let it rip.
This was a show without the outlandish theatricality of a Sun Ra Arkestra performance. (Everyone was in street clothes.) But that only helped focus attention on the playing and the pieces, which made a cogent argument for Ra’s place among the great jazz composers, and his book a barely explored lode for standards. Chase said that in his first encounter with Pat Patrick, he pointed out that he’d heard the older player on records with Coltrane and Monk. Yes, and with Duke Ellington, Patrick pointed out. But of all of them, Patrick said, the heaviest was Sun Ra.
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