Some Ra


A composer, arranger, pianist, and pioneer on electronic keyboards such as the Clavioline, the Ondioline and the Moog synthesizer; a philosopher, a mystic and a visionary; a leader of large ensembles and a fan of artistic independence (more than one hundred albums were released on his own label, Saturn); a lover of tradition, of experimentation, of improvisation; the focal point in concerts where music was combined with scenes and costumes which mixed both religious and "vaudeville from another galaxy" elements. Given those characteristics, it's maybe not too surprising that the music of Sun Ra was regarded with more than a pinch of skepticism even by most in the "jazz avant-garde" circles, on paper his natural field (quite differently from the point of view of those "young smokers" who in the '60s and '70s, both in Europe and the USA, put his albums near those by Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention).

Very large, and in many ways quite chaotic, his discography was given a nice treatment on CD by the Evidence label during the '90s. Those who don't own a single Sun Ra album can maybe start with The Magic City and Atlantis, then go on with the qualified critical assistance of Space Is The Place, the nice biography written by John F. Szwed. It goes without saying that no "formalization", no "school" can exist when it comes to such a personal musical language, while from time to time the media have directed their spotlight towards Sun Ra the character, his music always remaining in the dark.

So this CD, Some Ra, was a nice surprise for this writer: a very good album, it was recorded live in Ottawa, at the Bayou Blues And Jazz Club, on April 6, 2003. Rake-Star is the name of the quite large line-up (sixteen strong, including a dancer) who's perfectly capable of playing compositions by Sun Ra, things like Jerome Kern's I Dream Too Much (performed here with the appropriate amount of nonchalance), and "original compositions in the style of" (a risky move, I know, but the bet was won), all with the same amount of assurance. Judging from the pictures on the CD cover the concert would have definitely deserved a DVD; we can console ourselves with the excellent recorded sound, perfectly suited to make us dig those intricate arrangements.

The line-up features many wind instruments (brass and reeds), guitar, accordion, cello, violin, percussion and effects. Then, there are three (!) double basses - check their solo on Spectrum. All these elements mix quite well, creating exuberant riffs and nuanced chiaroscuros. Given the excellent quality of the arrangements and the musicians' extended familiarity with the compositions by Sun Ra, I have to stress the limpid sense of proportions that makes it possible for the ensemble to avoid a sense of overcrowding. We always get a clear sense of the relationship between the soloist and the collective, the opening up of the winds' arpeggios, those atmospheres that sound so traditional and yet so daring.

Choosing favourite moments in this (more than one-hour long) CD is quite difficult. There's the nice opening of Space Is Still The Place, Pt. III, the nice ensemble and solos (trumpet and tenor sax) of Somewhere In Space/Angels And Demons At Play; also noteworthy are the baritone sax and the basses on Spectrum, the Cobalt/Satellites Are Spinning medley, the whole group on Discipline 33, the closing medley of Don't Do (by trombone player Rory Magill, who reveals himself to be a very good composer) and We Travel The Spaceways.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004

CloudsandClocks.net | June 29, 2004