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Celebrating Sun Ra at the Painted Bride Art Center

Victor L. Schermer By

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The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound and the Sun Ra Centennial Arkestra
The Painted Bride Art Center
"Still the New Thing"
Philadelphia, PA
April 19, 2014

This concert concluded a tripartite series curated by saxophonist, band leader, and composer/arranger Bobby Zankel entitled "Still the New Thing" honoring three icons of avant- garde jazz: Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Sun Ra on the occasions of their birth dates and anniversaries of key events in their careers.

Sun Ra's belief that he was from another planet, his frequent changes of personality and personnel, and his use of "intergalactic" costumes and musical themes, obscure his major contributions to modern jazz. As his Wikipedia entry states: "Sun Ra was a prolific recording artist and frequent live performer. His music ranged from keyboard solos to big bands of over 30 musicians and touched on virtually the entire history of jazz, from ragtime to swing music, from bebop to free jazz. He was also a pioneer of electronic music and space music. He also used free improvisation and was one of the early musicians to make extensive use of electronic keyboards." Partly through the intercession of Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra influenced John Coltrane's ground-breaking excursions into avant- garde jazz. Since his death in 1993, Sun Ra's associate, the saxophonist Marshall Allen, has kept the Sun Ra Arkestra alive and well, with recordings and numerous international appearances. The group continues to be based in Philadelphia, where Sun Ra resided after 1968.

To honor Sun Ra, his legacy. and his 100th birthday (he was born Herman Poole Blount on May 22, 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama), the "Centennial" Arkestra under Marshall Allen's direction was preceded by Bobby Zankel's Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, a big band ensemble consisting of virtuoso musicians playing primarily Zankel's outstanding compositions and arrangements. Since their founding in 2001, the Warriors have performed and stimulated the music scene in and around Philadelphia, issued several recordings, notably the highly praised Ceremonies of Forgiveness (Dreambox Media, 2006), and paired on various occasions with innovative musicians such as Uri Caine, Dave Liebman, Odean Pope, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Steve Coleman. The Warriors' way of operating is so different from the Sun Ra Arkestra's that at first one wondered whether they would fit in to this occasion. But there are strong reasons for this placement. Zankel and many of his associates were strongly influenced by Sun Ra, and the idea for the Warriors was inspired largely by the Arkestra. Both groups are members of a small and elite club of big bands that are truly immersed in the "new thing:" avant-garde musical culture.

The most obvious thing about this concert was the stark contrast between both the visual image and musical projection of the two groups. The Warriors looked like local businessmen on a shirtsleeve and sport jacket work break, while the Arkestra members were decked out in colorful interplanetary costumes. The Warriors performed with the seriousness of a disciplined classical ensemble, while the Arkestra used their stock-in-trade fun, parody, and occasional forays up the aisles to create a carnivalesque atmosphere. The Warriors performed Zankel's well-crafted contemporary compositions and arrangements, while the Arkestra carved out a musical excursion through jazz history with compositions and styles ranging from boogie woogie to post-WWII swing, all infused with liberal elements of free jazz.

The Warriors proceeded with four extended compositions, each of which provided ample opportunities for both ensemble work and solos: "Spirits Break to Freedom," "Trickster," "Acknowledgment" (from Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," arranged by Zankel); and "Next Time I See You." "Spirits Break to Freedom" was from Zankel's theatrical and dance performance by the same name, in which he collaborated with dancer/choreographer Germaine Ingram and a long-time friend of his, visual artist John Dowell, who recently had an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Next Time I See You" (Bobby Zankel Quintet: Prayer and Action, CIMP, 1997) is Zankel's tribute to Wayne Shorter's wife, Ana Maria, who died on the ill- fated TWA Flight 800 in 1996. "Acknowledgment" is Zankel's brilliant arrangement of the first movement of Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," using a broad palette of harmonic and rhythmic brushtrokes to express deep feelings of humility, ecstasy, and gratitude. All the pieces were characterized by Zankel's tight, clustered, rhythmic, and recurrent tonal arrangements that build in intensity and are structured to allow for maximum expression and elaboration by the soloists, even when the ensemble is playing full tilt behind them.

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