Celebrating Sun Ra at the Painted Bride Art Center
Without exception, the Warrior musicians showed the highest level of competence both in ensemble work and solo improvising. Every one of them took marvelous solos. Elliot Levin, a reed player with a highly disciplined straight-ahead approach, rendered flute solos with remarkable technical facility and rich imagination. Trumpeters Stan Slotter and Josh Lawrence improvised with respective straight-ahead and gritty styles that provided a nice contrast to one another. Steve Swell, one of the most resilient trombonists of any generation, did superb solo work, especially in "Spirits Break," while John Swana's valve trombone renditions had the precision and brilliance of conception that characterized his trend-setting trumpet playing as a Criss-Cross artist. (Swana had developed embouchure problems on trumpet, and switched for several years to EWI: electronic wind instrument. Recently taking up valve trombone, he has swiftly moved to the front line of that instrument.) Bassist Lee Smith was given ample room for an astonishingly virtuosic solo. Pianist Tom Lawton attained a fusion of hard bop and contemporary maneuvers that enriched the musical lexicon of the band. Diane Monroe's electric violin added a special sonority. Mark Allen plunged with agility to the deeper registers of the baritone saxophone, while Julian Pressley and Bobby Zankel sang with controlled ecstasy up to the high end of their alto saxophones. Craig McIver and Francois Zayas waited until late in the set to emerge with powerful rhythmic intensity. It is impossible to praise these musicians too much. They represent the highest level of capability that jazz has to offer. The overall effect was electric from start to finish.
The Warriors are a hard act to follow, but the Sun Ra Centennial Arkestra succeeded by offering a combination of art, entertainment, and sheer acrobatics that was as close to the Cirque de Soleil as its possible to get without flying through the air. What they offered for this reviewer was temporary release from the entrapments of bureaucratic existence. From the standpoint of jazz as such, the Arkestra manifests the African tribal rituals and masks in which the music is rooted, as well as the journey to other worlds inherent in Brazilian carnivale and the trance-like states of Carribean healing rites, all transformed into "Interplanetary Music" in which "Space is the Place," as the opening and encore numbers were entitled. One of the creative features of avant-garde movement is the conjoining of music, art, dance, costume, poetry, and indeed whatever might be at hand, to create a total audio-visual emotional experience. The Arkestra perpetually has been one of the seminal manifestations of such integration of forms, all with a psychedelic sense of the fantastic becoming real. Without Sun Ra and the Arkestra, a lot of what has happened in modern jazz might never have occurred.
There were several notable solar flares generated by the Arkestra performers. Vocalist Tara Middleton achieved a unique blend of jazz and soul, especially in "Interplanetary Music." After her strong beginning, one wished she had continued on with full vocal numbers, but she seemed to take a back seat during the remainder of the set. However, when she did interject some singing into the subsequent pieces, she added a distinct flavor. Leader Marshall Allen took numerous solos throughout. His tenor saxophone exhumation of "Cocktails for Two" satirized the bourgeois pseudo-sophistication embodied in the lyrics. (He managed, through his use of rubato and glissando, to evoke the accentuations of a phony English accent.) Keyboardist Farid Barron stunningly resurrected boogie- woogie and stride piano and got the rest of the rhythm section going along with him in a masterful way. Charles Davis on tenor saxophone competently evoked Coleman Hawkins. As always, the Arkestra personnel showed exceptional musical ability, but the showmanship aspect of their work kept them from fully demonstrating their capabilities on their instruments. Guitarist Dave Hotep, however, managed to get in a couple of swinging solos.