Concert Reviews

Cosmic Ascensions

By Brian L. Knight


This autumn featured two great musical events that left every music fan happy as an clam. As part of its 1998 Get On To The Bus Concert Series, Gamelan Productions sponsored two legendary jazz performances. The first performance was Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe and the second was labeled Ascensions of Boston, which was an unofficial tribute to John Coltrane. Both events took place at the Middle East in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In addition to Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe, the first musical evening featured the Addison Groove Project and Blind Man’s Sun. The Addison Groove Project is one of the many latest jazz-rock phenomena to arise from the Boston Music scene. Like the Miracle Orchestra, who also graced the pages of this issue, the Addison Groove Project have everything going for them: they are young, they are energetic, they have captured an excellent groove and they are damn good. The AGR consists of Ben Groppe (tenor saxophone), Dave Adams(Dave Adams), Andrew Keith (drums), John Hall(bass), Brendan Mcginn(guitar, trumpet, vocals) and Rob Merscher(vocals, piano). The band members have all headed off into different directions to attend to college but it not keeping them from playing the occasional gig. Check the out this Halloween at the Somerville Theater with Oteil Burbridge and the Peacemakers and Percy Hill.

In an age where musical eclecticism is the norm, Blind Man’s Sun seems to take it the extra step. Through an amazing blending of funk, the Caribbean Islands and contemplative lyrics, this New Brunswick, New Jersey sextet has taken the jam band formula beyond existing limits. The Blind Man’s Sun secret equation for creating musical eclecticism is their diverse background. The band is led by the vocals and classical guitar of Mark Femino. As he throws all of his energy into his feel good lyrics it is hard to locate his Megadeth and Metallica background. Femino’s long time friend, guitarist Dave Chiappetta is a classical trained Pink Floyd freak who also serves as the band’s legal advisor. Pianist Jonathan Daddis was classical trained at both Temple and Syracuse Universities. Jumping around the stage like a crazed tribal worshipper is Kevin Romanski, who not only has the unique position of being one of the few marimba players in rock and roll today, but also studies macrobiotics. And as for drummer Darren Gage and bassist Bob White, they simply like doing what they do best – having a good time and laying down the funkiest of rhythms.

After these two rousing sets, Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe took the stage for the Middle East and once again brought his unique blend of space jazz and funk. Ray is a frequent visitor to the area and maintains a steady group of musicians for his performances. The Cosmic Krewe this time around featured Bob Gullotti (drums), Steve Ferraris (percussion), Peter Apfelbaum (saxophone), Adam Klipple (keyboards) and Marty Ballou (bass). A Cosmic Krewe concert is somewhat of a funkified tribute to the world of Sun Ra Arkestra and since both Michael Ray and Adam Kipple are alumnus of the Sun Ra Arkestra, the influence of Sun Ra is rather apparent.

The highlight of the Krewe’s trip to Boston this time around was the presence of multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum. Apfelbaum is the leader of California’s Hieroglyphics Ensemble in which Vermont’s own James Harvey was a long time member. The evening was also highlighted by a guest appearance by trumpeter Cecil Brooks and local saxophonist, Phillippe Chrettien. Chrettien leads his own quartet in the Boston area while Brooks is a fellow veteran of the Sun Ra Arkestra. As in most of their shows, the Krewe’s evening performance began each band member being introduced to the stage and their subsequent solo. Once the full cast was assembled, the music transferred from spacy jams to a funky rhythm. The Krewe did an unofficial tribute to jazz pianists with slight teases of Dave Brubeck’s Take 5, Herbie Hancock’s Rocket and Page McConnell's’ Magilla. In the grand tradition of Ray’s hometown, New Orleans, the band threw in a rendition of When the Saints Go Marchin In.

One way to describe Michael Ray and The Cosmic Krewe is that they are "Sun Ra Arkestra meets Kool & The Gang". Their music is a perfect synthesis of space-jazz and funk. Considering that Michael Ray was a member of both outfits, the term makes even more sense. This combination of musical elements came to fruition with a cosmic rendition of Kool & the Gang’s Champions. Michael Ray and The Cosmic Krewe are releasing a new album this fall called Funk If I Care in which they played the title track at the show. Since the Cosmic Krewe take pride in re-creating their live sound in the studio, this new album should be fantastic.

If Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe represented the funky sides of life, Bob Moses’ Ascensions of Boston embodied the ethereal elements of music. Local legend Bob Moses, not to be confused with the famous civil rights leader from the 1960s, has been involved with the music scene for some time now. Over the years, Moses has been a pioneering the jazz-fusion movement with his talented drumming and percussion. During the 1970s, Moses teamed up with Larry Coryel to form Free Spirits, which was one of the first jazz-fusion bands. In 1975 he sat in with Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny to record Metheny’s first album. This relationship continued with Pat Metheny as the two were part of the Gary Burton Quintet. Moses has recently been involved with the Louisiana band, Plunge, which plays a blend of Latin, New Orleans and Hip-Hop.

For the Ascensions of Boston performance, Moses paid tribute to every jass-fusioner's influence – John Coltrane. This tribute was hardly a one man show, as Moses collected an amazing cast of musicians who shared a similar respect for the master. Ascensions of Boston featured Moses and Bob Gullotti on drums; a dual bass section of Don Pate and John Lockwood; the tandem saxophones of George Garzone and Stan Stricklan (Stricklan also pulled out the flute); a special appearance by John Medeski on the acoustic piano; and the truly amazing guitar of Tisziji Munoz. Munoz, a Canadian by birth, blew the audience away with his John McGlaughlin meets Jimmy Page attack of the fretboard. Munoz played with the great Pharoah Sanders who was both a bandmate and disciple of John Coltrane. The influence definitely carried on to Munoz. Although the concert was extremely loose in structure, Moses acted as the band’s leader, prompting the others to take leads and head into new directions. Like so many Coltrane sets, the Ascensions performance was characterized by loose, free jamming and an aura of spirituality. Each set began with a loosely structured but highly rhythmic introduction, which then segued into a free jazz session in which the artists displayed their instrumental virtuosity through extended solos.

The beautiful aspect of both the Michael Ray and Cosmic Krewe and Ascensions of Boston performances was the interchangeability of all of the musicians. Although two separate and distinct concerts, they was a unique bond between the two. The one unifying element between the two performances was Boston drummer Bob Gullotti. Through his band, the Fringe, Gullotti has been a major player in the Boston jazz scene for over twenty-five years. The Fringe also consists of saxophonist George Garzone and bassist Lockwood who also comprised the Ascensions session. The Fringe hold the distinct honor of being New England’s longest running jazz outfit and their exciting improvisational music can be heard in Boston every Monday night. In addition to their work as a trio, the members of the Fringe have shared the stage with Mose Allison, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Stitt, Gil Evans and Miroslav Vitous.

In addition to the Fringe, Bob Gullotti is also a member of the Northeast version of the Cosmic Krewe. With Steve Ferraris, Gullotti has been providing the rhythmic punch for Michael Ray for many years. Gullotti also teamed up with Michael Ray for Trey Anastasio’s Surrender to the Air album which marked the guitarist’s temporary departure from the world of noodling rock and into the realm of free jazz. Another contributor to these sessions (which also featured Marshall Allen from the Sun Ra Arkestra) was New England Conservatory alumnus and fellow Ascensions participant John Medeski. John Medeski grew up in Florida but reached his musical formative years at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music where he studied under Bob Moses. It is Medeski's piano and keyboard playing with the trio Medeski, Martin & Wood that has given jazz-fusion its second arrival. Bob Moses is also linked to the Medeski, Martin and Wood as he recorded Drumming Birds with Bill Martin. This 1987 album, most likely out of print, features the two master percussionists on a wide array of instruments.

Another interesting correlation between the two performances was the tribute that was being paid to two great influences. The Ascensions show was a tribute to John Coltrane while the presence of Sun Ra can always be felt in a Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe show. Besides being both Impulse Recording Artists, Sun Ra and John Coltrane shared similar playing styles. They both had an incredible amount of spirituality in their music. They both experimented highly with free jazz and chordal explorations. Their live shows also resemble each other as they were treated as musical journeys that needed to be experienced from beginning to end. In addition, their sets were characterized by endless segues of jamming. With these similarities in mind, it is easy to see the influence that Coltrane and Sun Ra had on the musicians from the Cosmic Krewe and Ascensions. Both evenings were tremendously energetic and there was an obvious love of music on the stage and in the audience. As for Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe, we will enjoy this sound as the Krewe releases a new album and will continually make live appearances. As for Ascensions, we can only hope that there will be some sort of habit forming for their performance was one definitely worth hearing again.