Barbary Coast will perform tribute concert to Sun Ra

by Kourtney Kawano | 10/22/14 2:38pm

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Audience members are primed for the trip of a lifetime, as Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble will play a concert that delivers them to space, celebrating the influence of musician and philosopher Sun Ra on Saturday. Noted trombonist and composer Craig Harris, who once played with Sun Ra as a member of Arkestra, will join Barbary Coast on stage.

The tribute concert, Harris said, is particularly apt because it marks the centennial of Sun Ra’s birth. Harris has been on campus since Sunday preparing.

“It’s great to honor him,” Harris said. “Sun Ra didn’t just create beautiful melodies and harmonies. He was one of the great thinkers of the 20th century.”

During his lifetime, Sun Ra influenced the world of jazz with his unusual compositions and flair for the extraordinary, reflecting his belief that he traveled to Saturn. When Sun Ra composed music, rather than focusing solely on notes, he would create a story as the basis for his melodies, Harris said.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Sun Ra abandoned his birth name, Herman Poole Blount, and took on a new persona in the 1950s. He believed he was of an “Angel Race” descendent from Saturn and informed his music with cosmic philosophies that later inspired Afrofuturism.

Sun Ra founded and led “The Sun Ra Arkestra,” a traveling jazz ensemble known for its impressive improvisation skills and colorful costumes.

Barbary Coast director Don Glasgo said Sun Ra did a residency in 1990, and that the concert will include visual clips from a lecture that Sun Ra gave at Faulkner Recital Hall.

Listening to Sun Ra’s compositions and sound, concertgoers will explore the universe through his remarkable eyes, Glasgo said.

“It will be a great show because the audience will realize that Sun Ra was not only a brilliant musician but also an intellect,” Glasgo said.

Though Saturday’s program will allow for improvisation, the ensemble will perform pieces from a set of 12 songs that were either composed or arranged in part by Sun Ra. The songs from this period, Harris said, reflect Sun Ra’s extended harmonic and rhythmic structures.

“At first, everything would seem discorded,” Harris said. “But then you realize that everything’s connected and that this man just thought differently.

“Enlightenment,” which was originally released on Sun Ra’s 1959 album “Jazz in Silhouette,” is a particular favorite for Barbary Coast saxophonist Manav Raj ’15.

“It starts with a baritone saxophone solo,” Raj said. “A lot of the music is very eccentric, but this song is relaxing and has a cool vibe that the audience will like.”

While some of the songs, such as “Love in Outer Space” (1983) and “Pleidies” (1993), inspire thoughts of intergalactic travel through their titles’ references to celestial bodies, “Pink Elephants on Parade” (1988) is a piece that relies on its dynamic sound to cue the audience in on its theme.

“It’s a very interesting and funky piece,” trombonist Ned Feist ’18 said. “It changes from this dark march to a floating, melodic line and then a Latin groove.”

With just days to go before the performance, the band, Freeman said, is comfortable with the set and is focused on working with Harris to learn how to channel Sun Ra’s aura into Saturday’s performance.

“This last week of practice is centered on polishing the pieces and absorbing the wisdom of the visiting artist,” she said. “It’s an incredible learning experience.”

The concert will be in Spaulding Auditorium at 8 p.m.