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.



What I’ve been listening to lately


  • Nicole Mitchell, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds. Fantastic work from Mitchell, whose wonderfully expressive, vocalized flute fronts a mostly string-based ensemble (cello, guitar, bass, drums). The bits with poetry mostly highlight that the poetry is not as good as the jazz, but it’s not too big of a distraction. There’s more in this recent profile of Mitchell.
  • Jeremy Steig, Flute FeverOn this 1963 recording, Steig seems like he is setting out to prove that the flute is every bit as powerful and expressive a jazz instrument as the tenor sax, tackling a couple of Sonny Rollins tunes, Miles Davis’ “So What”, and some other jazz classics. He succeeds brilliantly.
  • Betty Harris, The Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul. A wonderful collection of singles from the Golden Age of New Orleans funk; Allen Touissant wrote many of the songs, and her backing band is the The Meters. Need I say more?
  • Yabby You, Beware DubThe Pressure Sounds label continues their heroic work of preserving Jamaican masterpieces. This 1978 dub album is a classic, consistently excellent all the way through.
  • Zhu Xiao-mei, Goldberg Variations. You can always go back to Bach. I am no specialist, but this recent recording sounds very good to my ears: wonderfully clear lines, and less melodramatic than Glenn Gould’s version.

And one recording that is not yet in rotation at my house, but certainly will be, is the new album from Ethiopian legend Hailu Mergia; Bandcamp has an interview.


The best music I heard in 2017

As with previous lists, this is based just on my own listening, rather than what was released this year, and there’s not a huge number of new releases here. Recordings are listed roughly in the order in which I heard them, not of preference:


  • Mary Halvorson – Away With You. More fantastic work from guitar goddess Halvorson, with an ever-growing ensemble to showcase her knotty, exploratory compositions. Also excellent is Paimon, where she tackles John Zorn compositions in a dual-guitar quartet.
  • Steve Lacy – Morning Joy…Paris Live. An absolutely ripping live recording by one of the best working jazz groups of the 1980s.
  • Art Farmer & Benny Golson – Meet The Jazztet. One of the best 1960s hard bop recordings, from a group that is often overlooked.
  • Tony Scott – Gypsy. Scott could play the clarinet louder and more forcefully than anyone before or since, and the energy in this short set of standards is amazing.
  • Gil Evans – There Comes A Time. A large-ensemble masterpiece from the 1970s, in which Evans’ quest for new sounds brings him into the territory of electric Miles and Sun Ra.
  • King Tubby – Shalom Dub. Classic early work from the master of instrumental reggae.
  • Philip Cohran – On The Beach. Although mostly known for his association with Sun Ra, Cohran’s own music is wonderful. This 1968 recording is probably his best work, but also check out the gorgeous African Skies, as well as the record he made with his children, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.
  • Nicole Mitchell – Awakening. Mitchell’s spectacular vocalized flute solos are backed by a tight small group of just guitar, bass, drums.
  • Craig Taborn – Daylight Ghosts. An unusual, atmospheric and complex recording, evoking minimalism as often as jazz.
  • Etta James – Tell Mama: The Complete Muscle Shoals SessionsAbsolutely essential soul, so good it’s embarrassing to admit I had not really appreciated Etta before.
  • Various Artists – Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes From The Horn Of Africa. Fresh and fascinating African music, with a great backstory.
  • Minutemen – What Makes A Man Start Fires. Decades after their brief early 1980s run, the Minutemen’s punky, jazzy miniatures still sound like nothing else in popular music, and the Watt-Hurley partnership remains one of the greatest rock rhythm sections.
  • Genius/GZA – Liquid Swords. My idea of what hip-hop should sound like was formed in the early 1990s by the dense, funky sound collages of the Bomb Squad, so I did not immediately appreciate the minimalist style of the Wu-Tang Clan; this album helped change my mind.
  • Django Reinhardt – Django In Rome 1949-1950. The last recordings Django would make with his great partner Stephane Grappelli, with some of their best interplay on record.
  • Sun Ra – Universe in Blue. The heroic work of the Sun Ra Arkive is making many long-lost recordings readily available for the first time in decades. I like this 1972 live recording much more than a lot of his stuff from the period; the title track in particular is great, a moody small-group workout with a strong John Gilmore feature.

What I’ve been listening to lately: clarinet choirs

There is nothing quite like the rich, woody sound of a mass of clarinets, especially when the lower-end members of the family join in. Yet few jazz ensembles have featured the combination of multiple clarinets. These are the ones that I know and like, a list that is not as long as it should be:


  • John Carter’s Clarinet Summit. If there ever was a trend for clarinet choirs, the recording that started it was probably this group’s 1981 Concert At The Public Theater. In a response to the then-current fashion for saxophone quartets, Carter brought together the New Orleans modernist Alvin Batiste and Ellington alum Jimmy Hamilton to join him on clarinet, along with David Murray on bass clarinet. It’s a great listen, moving from lovely Ellington arrangements to a solo feature for Murray to more adventurous Carter compositions. Unfortunately the album is not readily available these days; the follow-up studio recording Southern Bells is, but to me is a bit less compelling.
  • Hamiett Bluiett’s Clarinet Family. True to its name, this grouping featured every member of the clarinet family, from the massive contrabass all the way up to the tiny sopranino, backed with the great rhythm section of Fred Hopkins on bass and Ronnie Burrage on drums. Bluiett himself, better known as a baritone saxophonist, plays the seldom-heard alto clarinet. This 1984 concert recording is possibly one of my favorite jazz records of all time, not just for the great clarinet sound, but for its high-energy drive and exuberance, reminiscent of Mingus at his best.
  • Douglas Ewart’s Inventions Clarinet Choir. The multi-instrumentalist Ewart is responsible for one of the greatest recorded bass clarinet solos, his feature on George Lewis’ 1978 Homage to Charles Parker. But he also led his own clarinet ensemble starting in the 1980s. I have only heard a few of these recordings, but they are very high quality indeed; mostly they are available through his website.
  • Mark Whitecage’s Licorice Factory. I know less about this group, which produced only one 1985 album. It’s a clarinet trio with the great Perry Robinson on soprano, Whitecage on alto and Mike Morgenstren on bass, backed by a standard rhythm section. The recording is actually pretty traditional despite the avant-garde background of Robinson and Whitecage, featuring several lively swing tributes; there’s also a nice arrangement of Oliver Nelson’s classic “Stolen Moments.”
  • Wendell Harrison’s Mama’s Licking Stick Clarinet Ensemble. In a slightly different format, this group features two soloists – Harrison on standard soprano clarinet and James Carter on contrabass clarinet – backed with a clarinet section and rhythm. Their 1994 album Rush & Hustle is fresh and lively, and Carter’s low-end rumblings are excellent. 


What I’ve been listening to lately

    • Sun Ra Arkestra – Live in San Francisco. I caught the closing night of the Arkestra’s summer residency in SF, and it was, of course, great. Although I know the Sun Ra repertoire very well, the show was constantly surprising: for instance, “Tapestry from an Asteroid” was enlarged from its original incarnation as a two-minute instrumental miniature to a long, dreamy jam with (newly added?) lyrics. The 93-year-old Marshall Allen continues, amazingly, to lead the band from the stage. His saxophone playing is somewhat diminished, and is now mostly an avant-garde special effect–squawking and screaming while pawing at the keys. But he deploys it in very effective contrast to the more swinging horn section and the ferocious groove from the expanded rhythm section.
    • Augustus Pablo – Africa Must Be Free By 1983 Dub. The dub version of the 1978 Hugh Mundell album is arguably better than the original. In any case it’s another minimalist instrumental reggae masterwork by Pablo.
    • Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes From The Horn Of Africa. This amazing new reissue landed at the right time for me, just as I was going back to another African treasure, the moody Ethiopian jazz of Mulatu Astatque. There’s been plenty of good writing on the historical context of these recordings; the music itself is fresh and fascinating.
    • Minutemen – What Makes A Man Start Fires. This album (half of the Post-Mersh Vol. 1 compilation), which I had somehow missed hearing before, is a predecessor and a worthy runner-up to their great epic Double Nickels on the Dime. Decades later, the Minutemen’s punky, jazzy miniatures still sound like nothing else in popular music, and the Watt-Hurley partnership remains one of the great rock rhythm sections.


What I’ve been listening to lately

Been a while since I’ve done one of these–life has been getting in the way.

    • Philip Cohran – On The Beach. May he rest in peace. Although mostly known for his association with Sun Ra, Cohran made wonderful music on his own: I love the gorgeous African Skies, as well as the record with his children, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. But I had missed this classic 1968 recording, with a vigorous large ensemble and a great feature for Cohran’s “Frankiphone.” Random fun fact: the New York Times obituary notes that he picked up the Muslim name Kelan, rather unusually, in China (it’s the Chinese transliteration for the Quran).
    • The Skatalites – Foundation Ska. This was the first recording of Jamaican music I ever purchased, and it sucked me in immediately. I’ve been going back to these tracks recently, and they are still absolutely entrancing and, yes, foundational. Active for only about two years, The Skatalites created their own musical world with a combination of propulsive rhythms and moody, interlocking horn parts.
    • Miles Davis – Bitches Brew Live. The classic Bitches Brew album is a long, sprawling mess, clearly a work of genius but still rather exhausting. These versions of the same tunes, performed by stripped-down ensembles, are tighter, punchier, and may actually be better.
    • Joe Henderson – The Elements. The peaks of the “spiritual jazz” subgenre of the 1970s can be pretty wonderful, but the valleys between those peaks tend to be long and deep. But I’m happy to report the ratio is quite good on this rather obscure album. Henderson has a killer band including Alice Coltrane, Michael White, and Charlie Haden, and their peaks are very high indeed.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Nicole Mitchell – Awakening. Jazz flute often gets a bad rap, but recently I’ve been appreciating how amazing it is in the hands of a master–Rahsaan of course, and the wonderful James Newton. Nicole Mitchell is right up there in the pantheon, and here performs some spectacular vocalized solos in a tight small group backed with guitar, bass, drums.
  • Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression. Just found out that Iggy Pop put out a new album last year–and surprise, it’s actually good! The backing band is spare and effective, reminiscent of some of his 1970s classics, and Iggy’s mournful baritone is still great.
  • Craig Taborn – Daylight Ghosts. I hadn’t heard Craig Taborn before, but was drawn to this recording because the group includes Chris Speed and Chris Lightcap, who are among my favorites in this generation of jazz musicians. While I haven’t fully digested this unusual, atmospheric and complex recording yet, it’s very worthwhile, evoking minimalism as often as jazz.
  • Steve Lacy Meets The Riccardo Fassi Trio – Dummy. It’s unusual to hear Lacy in the relatively traditional context of a piano-bass-drums backing group, and they do help sand down some of his rougher edges. This is a great, lively recording, often quite lyrical but also with a punchy version of “This Is It,” one of my favorite Lacy tunes.