JAZZ: Sun Ra: a perfect orbituary

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The Independent Culture
SO THE SUN ain't gonna shine any more. The legendary band-leader Sun Ra, alias Herman "Sonny" Blount - recently the subject of a Radio 3 series, and of a wonderful biography by the American academic John Szved - died five years ago, although "left the planet" is the more favoured description. And yet, his sunbeams just keep on coming. Last Sunday night, at the Fez club in New York's SoHo, Ra's big band, the Sun Ra Solar Arkestra, was reincarnated for the first date of a new weekly residency led by the Sun's most reliable satellite, saxophonist Marshall Allen. Appropriately enough, it was a very strange occasion.

Wearing a gold-foil beanie hat topped off with a sculptural arrangement of coiled wire that looked suspiciously like a recycled coat-hanger, Allen led the 18 members of the newly regrouped band on to the small stage in a grandiose parade, the Bacofoil-clad troops sidling into the lights like aliens emerging from their thrift-shop starship. As the raggle-taggle army of extravagantly cloaked and costumed musicians moved into the hall chanting, "The Sun is gone, an ocean of darkness covers the earth", over and over again, the calls were answered by impromptu responses of "Darkness, darkness, darkness!" from deep within the ranks. Allen, who looks and acts a little like free jazz's answer to Larry Grayson, makes for a most unusual leader. True, there were sheets of music with dots on them for the musicians to refer to, but Allen mostly used them to stroke the head of the nearby vocalist, in an engaging pantomime of the band-leader's customary duties.

Strict attention to the dictates of a written score was never the Arkestra's strong point. And, as directed by Allen, the music was even looser than it was under their late leader. But although the arrangements were often played rather approximately, the band - which included famous Ra alumni like trombonist Dick Griffin and baritone saxophonist Charles Davis - still made an incredible noise. And, as they riffled through a typically eclectic mix of old-timey standards and avant-garde improvisatory warblings, a caped dancer flapped his golden wings between the tables of the club, coming dangerously close to toppling them over. It was a marvellously deranged performance.

Although acclaimed as an apostle of weird music by his fans, Ra was actually a kind of chronically displaced version of Duke Ellington. His music represented an uneasy alliance between the showbiz traditions of big-band swing and the black-consciousness ideology of a fondly imagined Nubian resurgence. The two strands were somehow yoked together in arrangements which recalled the 1930s Harlem modes of Fletcher Henderson as well as the outer-space weirdness of Fifties hi-fi lounge music, the whole thing couched within a flamboyant, high-camp aesthetic. With Allen at the helm, the Ra band is now camper still.

The performance was chaotic from first to last, but if the musicians seemed unsure about who was to do what and when (and they got little help from Allen, who seemed to be on another planet entirely), the music somehow prevailed. Monumental ensemble riffs, heroic individual solos and a couple of completely mad vocals (a version of the standard "This is Always" was despatched in a New York version of Vic Reeves's club style), combined to offer a fascinating glimpse into the old Sun's inimitable world. The evening ended uproariously, with the musicians trekking back out of the hall singing the childish jingles of Ra's Disneyesque composition, "Fate in a Pleasant Mood". Which was nice.

In contrast, the orchestra of Maria Schneider, who performed at the Visiones club in Greenwich Village last Monday, was unerringly tight and stunningly effective.Schneider's an archetypal white thirtysomething from Minnesota, but she's also something of a throwback. A disciple of the great arranger Gil Evans, she uses tonal colours as complex as that deployed by any classical composer.

In a tiny club with a stage small enough to cramp a quartet, the 16 pieces of her orchestra created a truly symphonic effect. The music just flew, buoyed up by hard, punchy horn stabs, unusually restrained reeds, and an unerringly intelligent rhythm section. Schneider - a red- headed, drily humorous and incredibly relaxed leader - sat at the front, as if doing time as an extra in Cheers, and conducted the band with a subtle tic-tac of polite gestures. The sound was just about perfect, if rather cerebral. With the addition of a few carefully placed Bacofoil suits amongst the preppie daywear of the orchestra, Schneider could yet create a band to conquer the universe.

David Sanborn and Maria Schneider: Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891), 4 Feb.

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