Sun Ra’s Centenary: Space is Still the Most Colorful Place

Remis Auditorium, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, 5/11/2014

To commemorate the 100th birth anniversary of jazz composer, leader, and keyboardist Sun Ra, an accomplished ten-member ensemble performed some of his best-known works at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The ensemble included leader Ken Schaphorst, chair of jazz studies at New England Conservatory, on keyboard and flügelhorn; Evan Allen on piano; Robin Baytas on drums; Allan Chase on alto sax; Tim Hagans on trumpet; Jerry Leake on percussion; Tim Lienhard on trombone; Bob Nieske on bass; Jason Palmer on trumpet; Hery Paz on tenor sax; Nedelka Prescod on voice; and Austin Yancey on baritone sax and bass clarinet. All the musicians have a connection to the Boston area through current or past performing, teaching, or study.

As the program’s title indicates, space was a central theme of Sun Ra’s music and philosophy. He also looked to ancient Egypt as a source of inspiration, and to help the audience appreciate Sun Ra’s Egyptian side, the program included an introduction and some performance participation by Lawrence Berman, the museum’s Senior Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art. To open, Berman touched on the museum’s extensive collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, showing projected images of Museum of Fine Arts researchers in Egypt in the 1930s and of the Graf Zeppelin airship over Egypt in the same era, an amusing reference to the space theme. He then gave an overview, illustrated with photos of artifacts, of the Egyptian sun god called Ra, among other names, with whom Sun Ra associated his performing persona. Ra ascended into the sky or heavens at sunrise and descended into the underworld at night. For part of the several thousand years of ancient Egypt, rulers identified with Ra, who was symbolized by a golden or red disc worn on his head. Ra was also associated with the falcon, which ascends to the sky. Egyptian paintings showed Ra traveling by boat with his retinue, who protected him from dangers such as snakes.

From the figure Ra, Sun Ra borrowed accoutrements such as the golden disc headdress, as well as more abstract concepts such as peace and happiness in the afterlife. Showing the cover of the recorded soundtrack of the 1972 film “Space is the Place,” in which Sun Ra wears a golden, U-shaped headdress holding a disc, Berman remarked that as well the ancient Egyptian influence, Sun Ra seemed to have borrowed some costume elements from the Freemasons. He also noted that the headdress prongs were striated like feathers, which conflated Ra with Isis, a female deity who wore plumes. The Sun Ra cover was juxtaposed with a photo of Elizabeth Taylor as the title character of “Cleopatra,” wearing a headdress with similar prongs. Through his good-natured observations, Berman seemed to imply that Sun Ra’s appropriation of elements from another deity, from Freemasonry, and even from Hollywood was in keeping with the complex, polytheistic world view of ancient Egypt.

The ensemble, wearing brightly-colored robes and golden hats resembling round mortar-boards, opened with “We Travel the Spaceways.” Prescod sang the elemental lyrics, “We travel the spaceways/From planet to planet,” which Schaphorst and other players echoed. Hagans took a trumpet solo with a descending scalar line. Chase’s solo on alto sax had an active, pentatonic character.

The instrumental “Call for All Demons” started with a Latin, cumbia-like groove that gave way to a New Orleans sound with tambourine. The arrangement was in big-band style with a succession of compact solos, including Lienhard on trombone, Palmer on trumpet, Paz on tenor sax, Baytas on drums, and Leake on percussion.

Schaphorst introduced “Enlightenment” as one of his favorite through-composed Sun Ra works, which Ra recorded a number of times. This version was arranged in a solidly big-band style. The song’s melody and lyrics are pensive and somewhat bittersweet, with a melodic sequence that sounds Baroque. Prescod sang in an intimate manner, using a slightly breathy voice with a touch of vibrato. Hagans took an outstanding trumpet solo.

Congas and other percussion started an improvised-sounding background for “Egyptian Spell,” which centered on a text that Berman had mentioned in his introduction as an excerpt from a Book of the Dead. The printed program included the English translation and a transliteration of the hieroglyphics, shown in a projected image. Prescod recited the four-line translation, which started, “You will go up and go down, you will go down with the sun, one of the dusk with One Who Was Cast Down.” Berman read the transliteration, which started, “perek haek haek hena ra senekek hena Nedji.” Like the hieroglyphics it represented, the transliteration is strikingly compact, and in both translation and transliteration the first half of each line is largely repeated.

The percussion background led to “Love in Outer Space.” Prescod sang the lyrics, which similarly to the Egyptian Spell was a four-verse incantation concerning the sun and, in Sun Ra’s words, “celestial rhythms.”

After recognizing the ensemble members, Schaphorst introduced “Saturn” as significant in light of Sun Ra’s claim of origin on that planet. Schaphorst opened on keyboard to set a Latin groove. Prescod sang in a scat style with some vocal participation by band members. Among the solos were Lienhard’s on trombone with a repeated motive, Hagans’s very active trumpet solo and Palmer’s relatively laid-back one with striking high notes, and Allen’s percussive piano solo.

Nieske bowed sustained tones in dissonance, joined by Yancey on bass clarinet, in a segue to the closing “Space is the Place.” Prescod sang the lyrics, confirming that “Outer space is a pleasant place,” and other musicians sang a response, “Space is the place.” Chase played a moving alto sax solo in a free and expressive style that used both fluid sustained tones and short high notes, joined by Nieske on bass obbligato. Schaphorst on keyboard and Leake on metallic percussion ended the concert with sounds that suggested the spacier side of Sun Ra’s music.

Briefly transporting the audience to Saturn and to ancient Egypt, the entertaining yet intense performance was an uplifting celebration of the music and spirit of Sun Ra.

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Virginia A. Schaefer