by carl wilson

'Once You Don't Know Nothin,
You Can Do Somethin'

The Sun Ra Arkestra.

In various editions of The Globe & Mail today, you'll find three efforts from me.

1. An essay on the social and musical significance of the late, superlative jazz eccentric Sun Ra - and the latterday Sun Ra Arkestra's struggles in trying to carry on his legacy. The piece includes an interview with Arkestra leader Marshall Allen, who brings the band to Toronto's Lula Lounge (a very cozy venue!) from Tuesday through Friday next week. [... Read it here ...]

2. A review of the new Tangiers album, The Family Myth. Three outta four stars: As Dorothy found out on her trip in the twister, sometimes you need to go away to understand where you're coming from. After their head-turning 2003 debut Hot New Spirits and the internal turbulence that scuttled the potential of last year's Never Bring You Pleasure, Toronto band Tangiers decamped to that latter-day Oz, New York, to record this third album. And while 1960s garage rock and the Clash remain templates, this set also suggests a savvy update of their home town's wide-eyed, jangling Queen Street sound of the 1980s. If Tangiers once seemed like a clique of bright boys declaring their presence in hooky fits and starts (attracting misleading Strokes comparisons), songs such as Dredging the Harbour and Classless and Green now paint broader landscapes in splatters of oil and musk. They're as worthy of note as Metric or Hot Hot Heat, but the risk is whether the tastemakers behind the curtain can be unfickle enough to embrace the second-last "next big thing" over again.

3. And in the Vancouver edition, a short piece on the Interference: Static X Static festival, which brings Quebec musique actuelle luminaries such as Jean Derome and Joane Hétu together with Vancouver improvisors and international figures such as Fred Frith, Janek Schaeffer and Kaffe Matthews. The piece reflects a bit on the two solitudes of improvisational strength in Canada, in Quebec & B.C. I didn't have space to raise a question often on my mind, which is why those scenes seem so much better nourished than the one in Toronto - if not necessarily in terms of talent, in terms of community and audience development, and also perhaps in the sense of a local stylistic exploration that seems more well-defined and distinct from other places. Some Toronto musicians have argued to me that Toronto does have that; as a more-than-casual but less-than-immersed observer, I don't feel that it's quite gelled, though it's emerging more clearly lately, now that there's more crossover for example between the Rat-drifting group of musicians and the more jazz-based improvisers. (See Zoilus entries past on the group Drumheller, for example.) Is such a coherence even desirable? Certainly Toronto's diversity is a plus. Yet there's something undeniably stirring and emotionally compelling about the Vancouver and Montreal scenes' sense of place and moment. I'd love to jaw more with people about these issues.

Marshall Allen.

Sun Ra's stream of consciousness still flowing into the future

The Globe & Mail
Friday, October 14, 2005

The reality of the "off-the-grid," shunted-aside mass of the African-American underclass rarely breaks through to popular attention. It happened during the Los Angeles riots of 1992, and again after the New Orleans hurricane disaster this fall. Each time, the reaction is as if the media's so-called observers had stumbled on a previously undiscovered planet of want in the western cosmos.

Turn that image on its head, to picture a new world of freedom and plenty for those same people, and you glimpse a strain of astro-Afro-utopianism that runs through 20th-century black movements, such as Garveyism, Rastafarianism, the militantly mystic Nation of Islam, and the music of Herman (Sonny) Blount -- legal name at his death in 1993 Le Sony'r Ra, and more familiar on this astral plane as Sun Ra.

Blount "arrived" on Earth circa 1914, in segregated Birmingham, Ala. -- en route, he maintained, from Saturn. Over his 79 years, dozens of musicians passed through his Sun Ra Arkestra in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and, for six months in 1961, Montreal. They recorded more than 100 albums and untold numbers of singles, with titles such as Heliocentric Worlds, Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy and Space Is the Place (also the name of a recent biography, and a documentary available on DVD).

The Arkestra also garbed itself in colourful robes and ram-horned headgear that seemed to come out of a Hollywood Cleopatra epic. It snaked through audiences chanting: "It's after the end of the world, don't you know that yet?" It played unheard-of chord changes, skronked and squealed, and sang "Rocket No. 9 taking off for the planet Venus, Venus, Venus."

In consequence, Sun Ra is often patronized as some sort of jazz Dr. Seuss by pot-smoking college kids intent on getting off on the far-out. Yet, the "myth science" taught by the former big-band and strip-club pianist went deeper for his musicians. They were the descendents of Africans who'd been brought into bondage by ship; maybe another ship -- a rocket, at least of the mind -- could get them out.

"You want a better world, play better music," says Marshall Allen, the 81-year-old alto saxophonist who now leads the Arkestra, which will hold court for four nights at the Lula Lounge in Toronto this week, still wearing its space gear and chanting its mantras.

The Arkestra sails on, Allen says, at Sun Ra's dying request: It was the last tune he called. And Allen composes new repertoire, despite the band's vast back catalogue, because "you have to stay with the vibrations of the day -- it goes around and it's constantly changing."

While Ra was alive, with his constant cosmic jive patter, even appreciative critics generally considered him an isolated sideshow. The story looks different in retrospect. Besides sketching the contours of free jazz a decade ahead of time, Sun Ra and his groups pioneered modal improvisation and the use of electric pianos and synthesizers. Even when they didn't have electronic instruments, Allen says, "you had to take those saxophones and make them sound like it."

The Arkestra adopted African and "world" elements to jazz before anyone else did, and Ra was an autodidact in Egyptology and other esoterica long before it became fashionable Afrocentrism. As Amiri Baraka wrote after Ra's death: "It was Sun Ra and the Myth Science Arkestra that marched across 125th Street with us . . . announcing the 60s cultural revolution and sparking a Black Arts Movement."

Sun Ra's tenor-sax player, the late John Gilmore, was an acknowledged influence on John Coltrane. Pharoah Sanders is a former Arkestra member. Sun Ra's mark is as visible on the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (including the likes of Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago) as on the 1970s funk-rock "Mothership" piloted by George Clinton with Parliament-Funkadelic and, by extension, on all jazz-fusion music.

It was no lark to be an Arkestra member. Sun Ra's rehearsals were marathon conditioning sessions that could last days, recalls Allen, who joined in 1958. "You got paid to come to rehearsal -- you might not get paid to play the gig." The edict was that a musician could not play what he knew -- he had to play what he didn't know. Allen puts it in a Socratic aphorism: "Once you don't know nothin', then you can do somethin'."

But the prohibitions went further. Musicians were required to abjure alcohol, drugs and the company of women. From the 1960s on, they were enjoined to live in the group's communal Philadelphia row house. Call it monastic or call it a cult. Sun Ra, who was jailed during the Second World War for his conscientious objection, sometimes described the Arkestra as a non-violent army.

Biographers dispute whether Ra was a traumatized person retreating into fantasy, or a sly satirist fully in command of his metaphors. I suspect it was both, at once escape and assault, just as he was at once an innovator and a traditionalist. Under Allen's more earthbound direction, there's stronger emphasis on the Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson swing standards Sun Ra always loved, plus the "simple melodies" Allen prefers to write, albeit with the Arkestra's "unique attack."

In his 1995 Sun Ra elegy, Baraka called Allen himself "a giant . . . There is no alto saxophonist I know today, or generally, hipper than Marshall." He added: "That this is not common knowledge is depressing."

The living Arkestra's position remains scandalously insecure today, despite wider recognition of its late leader's significance. The economics are punishing when you have to maintain a large band (such as the 14 players Allen hopes to bring to Toronto) as well as the legacy that resides in the communal Philly house where Allen still lives.

"You've got to suffer non-payment of rent in order to buy you an instrument or something you need to play," he says. "The music is for the future -- Sun Ra was saying that then. It was a good thought, that it'd come back around. But what about now?"

The old recordings have been reissued on CD and probably sell better than a lot of jazz does, but Sun Ra's management neglected to ensure any royalties would flow to the band. It's the perennial story of black journeymen abandoned by the music business. New Orleans floods, Sun Ra's roof leaks; the black Atlantis has yet to surface. But Allen will never yield.

"It's the size of your spirit. You can have all the material things, but then you've got to lift your spirit up to the height of the money you've got all stacked up there." He chuckles. "It's a balance thing in this world."

And if this one refuses to provide, you hold that vision of other worlds that will. It's a balance thing, but not, so far, a just one.

The Sun Ra Arkestra plays Lula Lounge, 1585 Dundas St. W., Oct. 18 to 21. $30. 416-588-0307.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 14 at 1:14 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)



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Posted by joestoe on November 4, 2005 5:01 PM



Maybe people just smoke more weed in B.C. and Quebec.

Posted by J-Lon on October 14, 2005 8:02 PM



st. john's has a great improv scene. there is a generation of young improvisors who have been born since the sound symposium started in 1983.

very healthy and vibrant and supported

there are a few regular monthly improv shows here.

Posted by kevin on October 14, 2005 3:47 PM



I liked your mini-review of the new Tang. How do you find this one rates against the previous two? Surely NBYP is a 4-star record. Being sixties-oriented myself, I always thought they kinda sounded like Love/Kinks with a little Leonard Cohen mashed in, but I had never considered the Queen West influence. But now it makes perfect sense. I now see what you mean when you say they are a very Toronto band. I had been thinking "as in Ugly Ducklings," and not Muffins.

Posted by marco on October 14, 2005 1:25 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson