This year’s Jacksonville Jazz Festival is already looking like a full weekend– with performances from Sonny Rollins, Madeleine Peyroux, and Chick Corea among the highlights—and yet, one late breaking piece of news really makes the weekend for me. Orlando-area improviser/composer/jazz scholar Jim Ivy is going to stage a musical commemoration to Sun Ra and the Intergalactic Arkestra! Joined by the cream of avant-jazz musicians from around the state, Ivy will lead his ad-hoc Angel Race Big Band through a selection Of Sun Ra’s most dizzying works as part of the opening of the +Solo Gallery and in recognition of the Man From Saturn’s life and work. Any attempt on my part to sum up the cosmic life and work of Sun Ra, a man whom the New York Times hailed as “open of the great big-band leaders, pianists, and surrealists of jazz,” would fall pitifully short. So let’s leave it to Jim Ivy…
I hear tell you’re doing a full-on Sun Ra/Arkestra commemoration for the grand opening of +Solo? This is incredibly exciting. How did it all come about?
Jacksonville’s own Jamison Williams, saxmaniac extraordinaire, and founder of +Solo, invited me to perform at the grand opening of the +Solo Gallery. I tend to challenge myself in conceiving performances that are very different from each other. This gives an edge of unfamiliarity that calls for fresh eyes and ears to each new approach. I’m not really interested in covering the same grounds.
The grand opening of +Solo sort of coincided with the anniversary of the passing of Sun Ra (May 30, 1993). Now, I realize that the nineteenth anniversary celebration is not as typical as the twentieth, but I’ve never been one to be patient. So I notated a few themes that I felt fit nicely together and were themes Sun Ra used often in performances, then sent out a call for participants.
Who are some of the players involved? Are there any particular albums you’ll be focusing on? The Arkestra was very much a visual experience as well as a sonic one, will you be approximating their costumes as?
The ensemble consists of musicians from all over Florida: Steven Bristol, piano, keyboards, and Jeff Abbott, drums, percussion, are from Miami, Kris Gruda, guitar, is from Winter Park, Jason Dean Arnold, baritone and tenor saxophones, trumpet, and Joseph Arnold, drums, percussion, are from north FL, A.J. Herring, trombone, is from Gainesville, and Jamison Williams, soprano saxophone, is from Jacksonville.
We will be concentrating on pieces that Sun Ra wrote between the late 50s to mid 70s, but performed throughout the lifespan of the Arkestra. I wanted the themes to fit together in a single semi-conducted piece and be fairly familiar themes, as they will be used more for jumping points.
The Sun Ra Arkestra is a very visual experience. That said, I’m not impersonating the Arkestra and will not be dressing in costume for the event. If the participants wish to perform “in character” they are certainly welcome to, but not required. Besides, I could never pull off that style. Sun Ra was one of a kind.
However, a more pertinent aspect of Sun Ra performances that I will try to simulate is his method of conducting the ensemble. I was very fortunate to have witnessed over a dozen Sun Ra shows before his passing and have a pretty good feel for what I’ll attempt. Unfortunately, as the musicians are from all over, there will be no opportunity to rehearse, so I will need to keep the conducting to a minimum and simplify the methods.
Whenabouts will you be hitting the stage that evening? And are you doing any other performances either solo or in smaller ensembles that night?
The Sun Ra set will be at 8pm Friday, May 25th. I wanted to give it plenty of time before the Sonny Rollins gig, as we will all be going to see him. I’ll also be part of the Trapbomb set later that evening. Everything else is still up in the air.
Why, to you, is Sun Ra such a pivotal figure in music?
Sun Ra, in all his glory, is unique to all music, not just jazz or avant garde. His influence is felt far beyond those categories and can be heard in music from Sonic Youth to John Coltrane to the MC5 to Moondog to Hieroglyphic Being to the Beastie Boys to George Clinton to The Residents to Public Enemy.
His uniqueness saturated not just the music he wrote, but all aspects of his life, from his philosophy to his cultural stance, even his approach to race relations, all of which made him not only unique, but controversial.
What was it that first hooked you about Sun Ra? How long have you been a devotee?
I first heard of Sun Ra in the early 1980s but the experience of seeing him for the first time in 1986 at the Tropical Heatwave Festival in Ybor City sealed the deal for life. I became a passionate collector of Sun Ra rarities, I’ve got all but two of the original Saturn LP releases (those two are now available on CD), and traveled good distances to see him whenever I could.
Is there a particular album or piece of music you’d recommend to the uninitiated?
That’s like asking what food I would recommend to a hungry tourist. It depends on the flavor you are seeking. A few Sun Ra releases stand out for me, personally: Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy, The Nubians Of Plutonia, Landquidity, and Art Forms Of Dimensions Tomorrow. But really, it’s well worth diving deep into that history.
Will you be checking out Sonny Rollins at the Jazz Festival as well?
Yep. Gotta see the great legends anytime you can. Rollins is more traditional post bop that I prefer, but he has always been a phenomenal reedman and did, albeit rarely, dabble in the experimental, take East Broadway Rundown or Our Man In Jazz for instance, where he gathered the likes of Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones around him.
Jim Ivy is an improviser and composer currently residing in Apopka, FL. His main form of expression is using reed instruments (in particular, saxophones) but he can also be found performing on shakuhachi, electronics, balloons, and an arsenal of game calls and whistles. He has worked with such International artists as Davey Williams, Wade Matthews, Simeon Coxe III (Silver Apples), David Dove, Emily Hay, Jill Burton, and Doug Mathews. For more information, visit – jimivymusic.com.
The +Solo Gallery is located at 107 East Bay Street in downtown Jacksonville. The event will begin in the early evening and feature free jazz performances late into the night. There is no charge for admission. For more information on the +Solo Gallery, visit sologallery.org.