Album Review: Sun Ra – At the Showcase: Live in Chicago 1977-1978

Zev Feldman has applied his “jazz detective” approach to a dizzying array of artists, unearthing previously unheard recordings by landmark artists ranging from Bill Evans to Mel Lewis to Les McCann to Sonny Stitt to… well, you get the idea. But on his latest project Feldman heads to (metaphorically, at least) the outer reaches of the solar system. At the Showcase: Live in Chicago 1976-1977 explores the work of Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

As with all Feldman projects, this set is an authorized release, compiled with the cooperation of the Sun Ra estate. Other hallmarks of Feldman’s releases are also defining qualities of this 2CD set: superb audio quality, thoughtful packaging, knowledgeable and deep-dive liner note essays, lots of rarely seen photos, detailed information including personnel and recording info, and so on.

But as always, what makes a release from Feldman truly special is the music itself. Sun Ra isn’t among the most accessible of jazz artists; his work is, well, strange buy jazz standards. But there’s a playfulness, and delightful undercurrent of mischief in these recordings. Working with electronic keyboards at the center of “View From Another dimension,” Ra coaxes otherworldly sounds out of what sounds like a Farfisa organ. Some sort of (analog) synthesizer provides te brown notes. Wacky stuff, to be sure. It’s as much musique concrete as anything else. Not always jazz in a traditional sense, the music often sounds closer to some of hart Frank Zappa did in the early ‘70s, pre-big band/fusion era.

Free jazz? Sure, there’s some of that. But just when things have steered toward the weirdly atonal, Ra splashes some big band-meets garage rock (or something) on “Synthesis Approach.” Wild, wooly and wonderful, this is music unbound by convention. It deserves a close listen; approaching it casually might lead to hearing it as merely noise. Swinging wildly between catchy and out-there, the tunes are sometimes rooted in jazz, but the visionary Sun Ra and his merry band take the music places undiscovered. Enjoy!