By Bill Marx.
Sun Ra—legendary jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, poet, theatrical ringmaster, and lyricist of the extra terrestrial—would have turned 99 today. A number of the sidemen in his Arkestra also celebrate birthdays this month: Marshall Allen, Charles Davis, and Bill Davis. Tonight, from 9 to 10 p.m., the Lily Pad in Cambridge will present the Allan Chase Septet performing the early music of Sun Ra. According to Chase, the lineup will include “”Kingdom of Not,” “Space Loneliness,” “El is a Sound of Joy,” “Fall Off the Log,” “Super Bronze,” “Two Tones,” “Future,” “Planet Earth,” and, from Prince Shell’s original parts, his arrangement of “Possession” as heard on Sun Ra’s 1956 LP Be there or be square.
The extraordinary New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett—in the days when the magazine had a regular jazz critic—didn’t write often about Sun Ra, but here is his vivid description of an appearance by the musician and his big band at Newport in 1969:
. . . one of Sun Ra and His Space Arkestra’s cosmic Halloween parties. The band, carting hundreds of instruments onstage and dressed in hugoolie robes and tall elf hats, play an enormous number that included punctuating organ shrieks by Sun Ra, a neat parody of a Duke Ellington dreamboat number, some group singing reminiscent of the Modernaires, a passage in which everyone whaled away at a percussion instrument, and a shouting finale paced by Sun Ra striding regally across the stage with a couple of spiky sun symbols.
Balliett sounds vaguely dismissive of Sun Ra’s hijinks, but the raucous festival atmosphere, out-of-this-world, carney mysticism, and galvanic, post-modern big band riffs were pretty much still in place when I saw him and his energetic musicians in Cambridge’s Nightstage in the ’80s. It was an unforgettable experience, a unique sort of jazz hootenanny. We can only hope that Allan Chase and his musicians bring their hugoolie robes and elf hats to the gig tonight.