A close encounter of the Sun Ra kind

The next rehearsal was Friday, the day before the show. Surprise, surprise: Sun Ra opened more musical cans of worms. Songs he’d written hours before—or made up on the spot.

Don surely sensed our collective nervous anger, and his anxiety must’ve dwarfed ours. Ticket sales were beyond any previous concert (by show time, the hall would be sold out), and we had virtually no charts prepared. Diplomatically, Don suggested we work on tunes we’d tried before, and Sun Ra, without much fuss, agreed. But even when we summoned forth the riffs as we remembered them, something inevitably wasn’t to his liking. The closer we came to repeating what we’d learned in previous sessions, the faster Sun Ra switched what he was doing.

“Y’all seem so worried,” he said, “about playing the notes. But you can play more than just notes on a page, you know. You can play the wind or the river. You can play the sun rays.”

A cop-out, I thought. If anything goes, nothing needs perfecting.

But fine. He was the visionary.

And so when, with a toss of his hand, as if scattering birdseed, he signaled for the next song to start, I decided to play precisely nothing the way we’d learned it. I’d find a novel way to mutate every note: coming in a millisecond ahead of or behind the beat, tonguing hard or slurring through a half-valve. I’d like to say I did this out of open-minded virtue, but cussedness was closer to the truth. If he was hell-bent on undermining our book-learned perseverance, it seemed only fair to try to beat him at his game.

But, strangely, my mischief-making failed to wreck the music. Sun Ra was accompanying us, as usual, on piano, and for every note I sabotaged, he seemed to change his playing, widening the song’s sidelines so I always stayed in bounds. Could it be? I tried again—a purposely sharpened note—and Sun Ra’s fingers danced into a new configuration, his chord seemingly built on my suggestion. Back and forth we went in our loony musical leapfrog, till I was convoluted with amusement.

Sun Ra flashed a smile at me—not gloating but in gratitude—and now I saw this kind of sport was the goal. You’re right, it’s a game, I imagined him saying, but all of us are on the same team. I couldn’t say we sounded great, or that I fully “got” it; I still searched for handholds in the din. But now I was attuned to, not tuning out, his whimsies.

That is from Michael Lowenthal’s Face the Music: My Improbable Trip to Saturn (or Close Enough) with Sun Ra, a charming set of anecdotes about Sun Ra’s 1990 visit to Dartmouth College (it is a magazine-article-length Kindle Single published in 2016). His recollections are particularly poignant, and perhaps particularly insightful, because he gave up trumpet playing for writing not long after this encounter.

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