Music Reviews
Sun Ra

Sun Ra

At the Showcase: Live in Chicago 1976/1977

Jazz Detective

Chicago is where Herman Poole Blount metamorphosed into the cosmic being, Sun Ra. While still working in the straight ahead jazz world, Sun Ra was incubating the super eclectic big band known as the Sun Ra Arkestra. Sun Ra didn’t really emerge until they relocated to New York and ultimately Philadelphia. Chicago continued to be an important stop for the Arkestra. Playing Chicago was always something of a homecoming and often a chance to catch up with former members who didn’t make the trip east.

Zev Feldman, the Jazz Detective, assembled this set from tapes recorded at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase. The collection contains an opening set from November 4 and 10, 1977, and a closing set from February 21, 1976. Even though there is about a year between the sets, they sound like they could have been recorded on the same night. This is a testament to the discipline and consistency of the Arkestra during this period, when the group was at their prime.

The opening set begins with a couple of abstract pieces. “New Beginnings” is a workout for flutes and percussion. “View from Another Dimension” follows, with Sun Ra taking center stage with his futuristic electronic keyboard sounds. He is supported by percussion and low woodwinds. These avant garde pieces would have appealed to Ra’s devoted followers but left the more conservative Jazz Showcase patrons scratching their heads.

“Synthesis Approach” begins with more Sun Ra keyboard, before quickly morphing into a swinging big band arrangement. The rest of the opening set leans heavily toward Sun Ra’s love of swing arrangements, like those of his hero, Fletcher Henderson. There is room for some cool soloing from trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah and tenor sax man John Gilmore.

Second sets have a tendency to be a little looser, with bands taking some more chances. That is true of the 1976 closing set. They begin with a mildly cacophonous “Calling Planet Earth & the Shadow World.” The piece is classic Sun Ra in free jazz mode. The majority of the set is in free jazz mode with plenty of intriguing keyboard jams and cool soloing from the horn players.

The best part of the show for those in attendance is the weakest part of the recording. Sun Ra shows traditionally end with “Space is the Place.” It’s great fun when you see the band come down off the stage to parade through the audience chanting “space is the place” and clapping. Without that participatory element, the chanting is not that exciting. The encore, “Eban Speaks in Cosmic Tongues” is a combination of scat singing and chanting. The set closes with another sing and clap along number, “Greetings from the 21st Century.”

At the Showcase is a fine document of what the Sun Ra Arkestra was like in their prime.

At the Showcase: Live in Chicago 1976/1977 is a special Record Store Day release, April 20, 2024.

At the Showcase: Live in Chicago 1976/1977


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