It’s like you’ve paid perfectly good money to hear your favorite band and — luck of luck — you have to end up at a table with the noisiest party in the club, especially this big-mouthed broad who’s nearly as loud as the loudest horn, way louder than the piano player. “You gonna take me out to eat?” she asks her date with a mugger’s grace. You want her to shut the fuck up. Only problem is that she’s sitting at the Wonder Inn on the South Side of Chicago in 1960, and you’re listening to the long-lost tapes 43 years later and you can’t figure out how to get your hands through the speaker to wring her neck. But give her a chance. Relax. She’s part of the ambience, and when she gets onboard with the music, yelling, “Sun Ra, Sun Ra,” you realize you’re just lucky to be listening in.
This is Sun Ra during his last months as an eccentric Chicago attraction, during one of his best ongoing gigs, 10 p.m.-4 a.m. sets with a sextet. In 1961, after 15 years in the Windy City, he’d head off to Montreal and then New York where he could more fully indulge in his self-styled cosmo-mythology. If his music would continue to go further out, its key elements are mostly here in a half-hour taped at the Wonder Inn and 40 minutes of newly discovered studio music from the same period. Ra is at once vanguard (given John Gilmore’s tenor solos alone, it’s little wonder the likes of John Coltrane and Rahsaan Roland Kirk showed an interest) and rearguard (at times to the point of camp). And although some great musicians heard here would be left behind, this record notably includes Gilmore and altoist-flutist Marshall Allen. Gilmore would be an Arkestran until his death in 1995; Allen leads the post-Ra Arkestra today.
It would be remiss to say this much without a hats-off to Unheard Music Series, which specializes in gems from the American and European jazz vanguards that have either A) never been commercially released or B) never been widely available in this country, if at all. From 1960s underground classics by Peter Brötzmann and Joe McPhee to never-before-issued material from the Globe Unity Orchestra, to Ra’s legendary ’80s near-hit Nuclear War, this project by the Atavistic label (www.atavistic.com) is without rival. Even in that context, this is a rare find, yakety-yak tablemates and all.
W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.