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Special Concert Review: Generations of Jazz
Sun Ra Arkestra under Marshall Allen/Barbary Coast Jazz Bar, Hopkins Center Dartmouth, New Hampshire
Kurt Rosenwinkel/ Mark Turner, Regatta Bar, Cambridge, MA
By Benson Knickerbocker

In the intimate setting of both Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center and Cambridge’s Regatta Bar, fans of jazz music experienced the meeting of the jazz generations. The first event was a performance by the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center . This all student ensemble is led Don Glasgo, who in addition to unfaltering reputation as a jazz educator, is also known for his affiliation with the northern version of Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe and his work with noted New York City experimenters Oliver Lake and Joseph Bowie’s Defunkt. This special concert was not a performance celebrating Glasgo, but rather a night for celebrating his pupils – the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble. Consisting of seventeen Dartmouth students (most of whom are not even music major), the ensemble’s repertoire for this concert was the music of Herman Blount, the man more affectionately and popularly known as Sun Ra.

To prepare for this concert, the ensemble had a very special week of workshops in which they had two exceptional residents – saxophonist Marshall Allen and trumpeter Michael Ray. Allen, a member of the Sun Ra Arkestra for over 35 years, has now taken over the guidance of the Arkestra since Sun Ra’s death in 1993. Ray is an alumnus of the Arkestra as well as Kool and the Gang. His recent endeavor is Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe.

After practicing and learning throughout the week, the Barbary Coast Ensemble put on a fantastic show. Allen and Ray were present on the stage, provided anecdotes for many of the tunes selected and played an occasional solo, but the music was about Sun Ra’s compositional skills and the ensemble’s playing abilities. Sun Ra is often associated with his cosmic free jazz in which cacophony reigned supreme. That was the 1970-1990s Sun Ra. This concert was about the 1950s Sun Ra. During this period Sun Ra wrote brilliant be-bop compositions in the spirit of Fletcher Henderson in which he added just a little twist to each song. This made the listener realize that Sun Ra did things a little different. This nuances were sudden tempo changes and non-traditional chord sequences. Nothing to make the ear cringe but enough to recognize brilliance and innovation. The one exception to the predominance of 1950s compositions was the 1980s tune "Pink Elephants on Parade" which was written by Sun Ra for a Walt Disney tribute album. Although every student soled with mastery and it was hard to rate one song or solo against the other, the show’s highlight was the presence of Dartmouth vocalist Sarah London who performed Jerome Kern’s "The Way You Look Tonight" and the pleasantly surprising "Spaceways Incorporated", a vocal piece that was a staple in the Sun Ra set for years.

The Barbary Coast Ensemble’s set would have been more than enough, but for the second set, the folks got to see the Sun Ra Arkestra. The eleven piece Arkestra, donning their space age costumes, visited many of the tunes that can be found on the latest Arkestra release, A Song For the Sun which marks the first Arkestra release since Sun Ra’s death. This set journeyed beyond the Arkestra of the 1950s and more into the avant-garde. The solos were a ventured into the discordant and there was a dominating sense of polyrhythmic and syncopated drumming/percussion. After a brief set, the Barbary Coast Ensemble came back on stage for a 28-person jam session that ended with a parade and dancing around the auditorium. This cosmic second line parading brought the house to its feet and excitement as all witnessed the camaraderie of young and old.

The final thought from this event? To me, it really brought out the spirituality in music. The notes and chords were coming from an innate passion and the listeners could really share that passion. Twice before I have felt this way after seeing music – McCoy Tyner and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Now that the Sun Ra Arkestra has given me that same feeling, I realize that free-jazz/avant-garde jazz is much more than being different. It is about letting yourself go and letting the music take command.

While the Barbary Coast Ensemble consisted of non-music majors, the two musicians that headlined a performance at Cambridge’s Regatta Bar have dedicated their lives to the development of jazz music. Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and saxophonist Mark Turner met together at Berklee School of Music in 1988. Four years after their initial meeting, the two solidified their relationship even further. The last six months has seen two recordings – Mark Turner’s Ballad Sessions (Warner Brothers) and Kurt Rosenwinkel’s The Enemies of Energy (Verve). Although solo albums by title, they can actually be perceived as collaborations for both musicians contribute to each other’s recordings.

To coincide with these two releases, the two took their act on the road, which brought them to the Regatta Bar as part of the club’s "2000 Regatta Jazz Festival." During the first set at the Regatta Bar, drummer Eric Mcpherson and bassist Ben Street joined the two for a breathtaking hour of music. The first reaction upon entering the Regatta Bar was that "jazz is not dead." No, I am not referring to the new Grateful Dead jazz cover group. I am referring to the ever present fear that jazz has died by rock and roll suppression. In past jazz concerts, where I have seen old time acts such as Pharaoh Sanders, Jack McDuff and Mose Allison, the audience was primarily made up of old schoolers who probably saw these musicians during their heyday. Upon walking into the Regatta Bar, I was immediately amazed by the dominance of young fans. I am sure that a lot of this had to due with Turners and Rosenwinkel's close ties to Boston, but I am sure it also reflected that not every young music lover is spending their time and money on Limp Bizkit.

After being mis-introduced as Kurt "Rosenfield", the band opened with Rosenwinkel’s "Something Sometime" and I was immediately stupefied by Rosenwinkel’s playing. He style involved switching masterfully between quick fingering up and down the fretboard to well placed chords. His feet tapped away incessantly, his eyes fluttered with intense concentration and the sweat collected on his brow right at the onset. With his knit sweater and plaid shirt, Rosenwinkel looked more like an ad for an Abercombie and Fitch commercial than one of jazz’ young lions. It was his cap with the communist Red Star that made him look like a regular at Charles Bukowski’s bar.

With his intensity, Rosenwinkel was a joy to watch on the stage. On the other hand, Turner was very subdued. In a way, this was also a reflection of their two latest albums. Rosenwinkel’s album is full of vibrancy while Turner’s is a set of ballads. In no way should this reflect their skills, for they were a perfect compliment to each other. While Rosenwinkel worked up a frenzy, Turner played subtle well-stated solos and retreated. When Turner did come to the mike, he held the saxophone directly in front of him and projected his notes away from him and onto the crowd.

For the second tune, Turner’s "Lenny Groove", the two musicians’ time spent together was evident as the two dueled through a complicated orchestrated beginning and then broke into individual solos. Many minutes later, after witnessing beautiful work by both men, the theme was reintroduced and the crowd was reminded of their whereabouts. The rest of the set featured Turner’s "Myron’s World" and Rosenwinkel’s "A Life Unfolds". The set ended with the absolutely mind boggling "Hope and Fear", a Rosenwinkel original that highlighted the guitarist’s use of effects. By the song’s end, it sounded like you were listening to a keyboard and not a guitar. John Scofield once said, "Kurt Rosenwinkel is one of the finest and most creative jazz guitarists playing today". After seeing this performance, there was little doubt behind Mr. Scofield’ s remarks.

In a three-day period, I witnessed the breadth of jazz music. I heard the old time big band sounds of Fletcher Henderson. I heard the space age vocal of Sun Ra’s "Outerspaceways Incorporated". I heard the jazz of non-music majors. I heard the jazz from music major graduates. I saw bands with seventeen people, bands with four people, bands with twenty-eight people. I saw fans with canes and I saw fans with game boys. But it really isn’t about what I saw, it was about what I heard. I heard youthful enthusiasm from musicians in their teens. I heard unimaginable notes coming from players in their twenties. I saw men in their 70s and 80s showing the same passion and eagerness to play for a crowd that they did fifty years ago. The end lesson? It doesn’t matter how old you are or how often you do it or where you do it or what sounds you make; everyone possess an inherent passion and that was obvious in these two music halls.