[ Music Index | Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

The Sun Ra Also Rises

sun ra
David Lee

Neck and Neck: Elliott Sharp is one of the many Sun Ra admirers represented on Rastacan's "Wavelength Infinity" tribute.

Local label explores the jazz avant-garde from Evan Parker and Beth Custer to a new Sun Ra tribute

By Harvey Pekar

SAN LEANDRO'S Rastascan label has just released three world-class recordings, which isn't too amazing when you consider how many first-rate, if underappreciated, musicians appear on them. The label focuses on experimental music and the imaginative genre-blenders who are putting together new hybrids. It's great that Rastascan is documenting the scene, because we're living in a period of wonderful innovation.

On Breaths and Heartbeats, Evan Parker, playing soprano and tenor saxophones, appears with bassist Barry Guy and drummer Paul Lytton (all three double on percussion). Long a leading avant-garde player, Parker created the album in an unusual manner. During a couple of sessions, the trio laid down some saxophone, bass and drum tracks. At another session, they recorded percussion interludes. Using the resulting pieces, they then put together a musical montage.

Stylistically, Parker seems to have evolved from the free-jazz saxophonists of the 1960s. A knowledgeable and creative improviser, he extended their ideas, developing an amazing array of effects in the process. His great range, speed, mastery of circular breathing and use of multiphonics, squawks, squeals, screams and honks allow him to produce a huge variety of tone colors and textures. His work in some respects seems to have influenced John Zorn's playing, particularly his quacking; in any event, Zorn expresses great admiration for Parker's improvisation.

The trio members' interplay also deserves close attention. Rather than function as accompanists, Guy and Lytton play in the front line with Parker. Their work is composed of brief fragments ingeniously fashioned into a mosaic. Sometimes it's violent; on other occasions, hauntingly beautiful. The percussion interludes are used to open the music, to let it breathe. Lytton plays with considerable sensitivity and imagination throughout, while the resourceful Guy produces a wide variety of effects by plucking, bowing and hitting his strings.

The Shirt I Slept In, by San Francisco's composer-clarinetist Beth Custer (a charter member of the Bay Area bands Club Foot Orchestra, Trance Mission and Clarinet Thing), displays a unique mix of influences, ranging from minimalist classical music to jazz to country to several forms of folk music.

The personnel on these pieces, written from 1990 to 1995, varies from track to track. Some of the songs were commissioned by performance groups. One comes from an opera; another was written for a stage production of 12 Angry Men; yet another is part of a film soundtrack. In addition to various kinds of clarinets and other instruments commonly encountered in jazz and Western classical music, Custer employs accordion, banjo, dumbek, gamelan, marimba and voice.

Needless to say, Custer's orchestration is unique. The selections are tightly arranged, and there isn't a whole lot of improvisation. Don't let that put you off, though; Custer's music has warmth, humor and charm.

A TWO-CD TRIBUTE to Sun Ra titled Wavelength Infinity features the jazz great's music being performed by a broad spectrum of progressive jazz and rock artists: Elliot Sharp, Eugene Chadbourne, NRBQ, the Eddie Gale/John Tchicai Sextet and the Thornhill/Chabot/Montclair Tri-School Arkestra, composed of hip elementary school kids. There are also Sun Ra poetry recitations, solo and accompanied by music, by Thurston Moore, former Sun Ra trumpeter Art Hoyle and others.

All of these performances have something to recommend them, and most are entertaining. Beyond that, however, the quality of the tracks varies almost as much as the styles represented. I was happy that the group of trumpeter Gale and Tchicai, who came to the fore on alto sax but plays tenor here, contributed a version of "An Island in Space." Not much has been heard from them nationally in some time, but they play thoughtful, satisfying solos here. Graham Connah's group turns in a strong performance of "The Satellites Are Spinning," highlighting collective improvisation. NRBQ, with Ra enthusiast Terry Adams on piano and Arkestra veteran Marshall Allen playing alto, offers a "Fate in a Pleasant Mood" containing substantive solos.

Sharp's "Disco 3000" illustrates his electronic ingenuity, while the Chadbourne-Jimmy Carl Black rendition of "Space Is the Place," with its bluegrass banjo and amusing dialogue, provides humorous moments, as does Miss Murgatroid's thunderous accordion work on "Nature's Law." Clarinetist Ben Goldberg and alto saxophonist Steve Adams offer an impressive duo version of "Transition," and baritone sax man John Raskin provides a full-bodied version of "Lullaby for Realville," actually a Richard Evans composition. Proceeds of this album's sale will be donated by producer Gino Robair to the Arkestra, which makes the whole project doubly worthy.

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of Metro

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
Copyright © 1996 Metro Publishing and Virtual Valley, Inc.