Sun Ra

At the Showcase Live in Chicago 1976-1977

(Jazz Detective)


It’s not only hats, umbrellas and litter that blow around the windy city of Chicago: the draughts mess with the music, too, obscuring sources and encouraging invention. Chicago nurtured the blues’ acoustic-to-electric 1950s upheaval, and then fostered a uniquely holistic take on jazz espoused by the likes of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra: artists who dealt in the music’s history and future simultaneously.

Composer/keyboards player Sun Ra had been part of that history. Born Sonny Blount in Alabama in 1914, he had a vision in 1937 that led to his claiming to be a visitor from Saturn. No one blinked. A conscientious objector during WWII, he then became arranger for the once-great Fletcher Henderson’s fading big band – which proved far too limiting for his boundless ideas. The 1950s saw him form bands – Arkestras, he called them – that covered a gamut from doo-wop to the earliest jazz-based investigations of free improvisation. In fact, all elements of African American musical history were options for Sun Ra, alongside many uniquely his own.

John Gilmore. Top: sun Ra. Photos: Tom Copi.

This thrilling double album was recorded live in Chicago in 1976 and 1977, long after he’d taken his Arkestra to New York and then Philadelphia to live and work as a music-focused cultish community. He attracted some of the world’s finest musicians – including tenor saxophonist John Gilmore and alto saxophonist Marshall Allen – by virtue of his imagination, artistry and wisdom, and because the Arkestra didn’t narrow their possibilities.

The never-before-heard material represents a celebratory homecoming of sorts, and features Gilmore at this most potent – and this from arguably the sole John Coltrane contemporary to scale vaguely comparable heights on his instrument. Allen is typically stirring throughout, too, providing the white caps to Gilmore’s great waves of sound.

Just as striking are Sun Ra’s playing and wildly diverse compositions. He concentrates on organ here, an instrument that he could make sound cheesy one moment and volcanic the next. On the groovy Moonship Journey and boppish Velvet he follows Gilmour’s storming solos with childlike fantasies.

At first glance the decision to program the 1977 concert before the ’76 one seems almost as bizarre as the man, himself, but in fact there’s a logic here, because the ’77 material comprises that night’s first set, while the ’76 concert contributes that night’s second. The latter begins with an ominous organ introduction to Calling Planet Earth & the Shadow World, a piece which represents Sun Ra at his zany, eccentric, ingenious best, with the notes at one point cascading from the keyboard like a shower of coins. Meanwhile, Marshall Allen’s alto solo will rearrange your viscera, even as it lights up long-dormant parts of the brain, and there’s also a wildly exuberant version of Space Is the Place. No Sun Ra collection is complete without this treasure, and for the uninitiated, it’s a mind-expanding doorway to his intergalactic world.