Sun Ra touches down in NW8
Everyone has their own Sun Ra. Mine is the one who made the Heliocentric Worlds albums for the ESP label in the mid-’60s, and whom I saw a few times in the early ’70s — at the Berlin Philharmonie, the Festival Hall and the Village Gate. Jez Nelson, the host of the monthly Jazz in the Round series at the Cockpit Theatre, had barely heard of him before interviewing him for Jazz FM in 1990, but quickly embraced the whole Sun Ra trip and gave us some lovely stories at the tribute evening he organised on Monday, as did Gilles Peterson, who came along with a bag full of rare Ra vinyl to play in the bar during the interval.
The first of the evening’s two performances was by Alexander Hawkins, who has studied Ra’s piano work and gave us a solo sequence at an upright instrument stripped of its casing. He begins with gentle strums of the strings and proceeded through a many-hued tapestry of Ra forms and sounds, with Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” at its heart, occasionally cutting to brief snatches of boogie-woogie figuration with great dramatic and emotional impact, and finishing by quietly singing the refrain of “We Travel the Spaceways”. Hawkins is now among the front rank of today’s improvising pianists and this was a stirring demonstration of his sensitivity to the tradition and its exponents.
After Peterson’s DJ set came Where Pathways Meet, a nine-piece band comprising Axel Kaner-Lidstrom (trumpet), Joe Elliot (alto), James Mollison (tenor), Amané Suganami (keyboards and electronics), Maria Osuchowska (electric harp), Mark Mollison (guitar), Mutale Shashi (bass guitar), Jake Long (drums) and Kianja Harvey Elliot (voice). Named after a Sun Ra tune, and dedicated to making music animated by a reverence for his spirit, they went about their work with energy and enthusiasm. Any rawness in the execution seemed unimportant by comparison with the good feeling they imparted.
This was a perfect example of what Jazz in the Round, which takes place on the last Monday of each month, has to offer: a selection of interesting musicians at different stages of their careers performing in close proximity to a respectful audience consisting of old listeners and new listeners and some in between, all sharing a 360-degree experience. The next one, on May 29, features the harpist Alina Bzhezhinska playing the music of Alice Coltrane, a new band called Project M led by the bassist Dan Casimir, and a solo set from Cath Roberts on baritone saxophone. Presented in a small, unpretentious setting by a warm and knowledgable host, it’s my favourite gig these days, by a long way.
* Gearbox Records, the vinyl-only label based in King’s Cross, celebrated last weekend’s Record Store Day by releasing an EP with Sun Ra playing solo piano in the Jazz FM studio in 1990 on one side, plus Jez Nelson’s interview on the other. It’s a limited edition, but you might still find one if you hurry.
thank you for the intense evocation of such special moments. I am still searching for my Sun Ra after 20 years, good to have your experience as a reference point
I too saw Sun Ra’s Intergalactic Research Arkestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 9 November 1970! A fantastic mix of theatre and great music so much so that i still have the programme as a memento of probably the best performance of Sun Ra,or anyone else,that I have ever seen.
I’m sure you already know that Transparency issued a double CD of this performance a few years ago with sound quality so terrible as to render it more or less unlistenable.An audience cassette recording probably and certainly one only for Ra completists of which I am not one!
I always enjoy your posts and appreciate their eclectic content.
Thank you, James — and QEH, then, not Festival Hall.
Listening to an incandescent set from Shabaka and the Ancestors a few weeks ago I found myself flashing back to a gig from the full Intergalactic Cosmo Arkestra – John Gilmore, June Tyson, and all including a couple of guys fighting with toy Star Wars laser guns – at the Navy Pier Ballroom in Chicago in 1980. Some wag had put Sun Ra on with a bunch of college big bands, and when we turned up late the sold out signs had gone up. Don’t worry, my seasoned companions assured me, just wait till he starts. Sure enough there was a stampede of middle-aged horror-struck middle Americans within minutes of the opening notes, only too happy to hand their tickets on. You don’t want to go in there, they said, those are crazy people. That Arkestra set was a life-changing moment, and it’s lovely to hear the spirit lives on with young musicians like Hawkins and Hutchings who weren’t even born then.
I first saw Sun Ra at Jazz Showcase in Chicago, everyone in the Arkestra marching around, swear there were more of them than there were of us…. At that point in time, the state of Illinois had changed the drinking age – and I was stuck in the middle. I remember timidly approaching Joe Segal and saying “Mr. Segal, I come here for the music, not the booze.” He laughed uproariously and said in that booming, smoky voice of his: “You’re okay, kid. Just stay away from the bar.”
Wonderful to read Sun Ra being honoured. I wish I and heard about
the gig in advance. I saw the band at Ronnie Scott’s in the late eighties or early nineties and was mesmerised by their costumes and sounds of authentic pure craziness, from some deep origin of inprovised jazz. Sun Ra himself coaxing exotic lines from a Korg M 1 and strange cry of the legendary John Gilmore’s tenor sax. I fell in love with and never forgot the refrain ‘the second stop is Jupiter’. Their longevity is something to be deeply grateful for in this ephemeral world and the opportunity to see them in recent years at the Cafe Otot the led by the redoubtable Marshall Allen whose fierce glares, trenchant sax interventions and crystal clear synth lines were a phenomenon all of themselves. Chatting in the break to their young vocalist, I learnt that she had to rehearse weekly with Marshall Allen for over year before she was permitted to gig with the band..