Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Planet D Nonet Travels The Spaceways

The musical legacy of Sun Ra continues to inspire many years after he made the transition from this planet. His pioneering blend of music, poetry, dance and theatre as well as the science fiction trappings of the performances may have led many to miss just how inspired a composer and arranger he was. Sun Ra visited Detroit in the mid-1970s and thereafter, and developed a substantial following there, like elsewhere. Included were musicians who have been and are performing Sun Ra’s music. The Planet D Nonet is a group of musicians from the Motor City who perform a range of music and have issued a double CD, We Travel The Spaceways: The Music Of Sun Ra (East Lawn Records).

For those familiar with Sun Ra’s recordings from the 1950’s such as has been reissued on Delmark or Evidence, the tenor of many of these performances (mostly recorded live) will not be surprising in the least. For those who attended performances by Sun Ra and His Arkestra, then one may be surprised by the performances absent the chants, heavy percussion and sun Ra’s electronic keyboards. Folks unfamiliar with Sun Ra from performance or recording might be unable to recognize the music here as coming from Sun Ra. This is music that has a touch of Tadd Dameron, intriguing harmonies, adroit tempo shifts and still sounds fresh.

The Planet D Nonet does a marvelous job in bring these compositions to life. While the personnel may shift, these are strong musicians anchored by R.J. Spangler on drums, pianist David Gadd and bassist Noah Jackson. Joshua James on baritone sax provides a presence while guest Salim Washington provides oboe and some holy ghost tenor sax on a few tracks, Jim Holder on tenor sax, James O’Donnell and Ken Ferry on trumpet to spotlight a few of the many folk who contribute in one way or another.

The notes from drummer Spangler and Rick Steiger provide a good overview of the compositions and the performances. The opening Velvet, described as a “‘Tadd Dameronesque’ swinger” opens with some robust baritone from Joshua James followed by Ken Ferry’s solid bop-laced trumpet. Trumpeter Herbert Dotson was an important member of Sun Ra’s groups in the 1950s and composed one of the leader’s signature numbers, Enlightenment, which in James’ transcription and arrangement, leads to some memorable ensemble playing with a short piano solo. Interstellar Low Ways is a moody-blues-tinged number a bit of exotic flavor captured in James’ arrangement with James Holden’s tenor sax featured followed by Salim Washington’s strong contribution on oboe. A studio performance has effective use of muted brass and different soloists including trombonist Tony Buccilli. The Kingdom Of Not, is a 1956 Sun Ra minor key blues with an outstanding solo from Justin Jozwiak on tenor (with some accenting by nice brass riffs) followed gutbucket some baritone sax from James that focused on the instruments lower range on the first of two performances of this.

Others tunes are heard in two or more renditions, including Ancient Aethopia. The first of the performances opens with a brief free ensemble chorus before Noah Jackson’s bass leads the statement of the main theme. Salim Washington takes the first of the featured solos, employing the tenor saxophone’s entire range, with honks, squeals and holy roller cries. After Joshua James explores the higher reaches of the baritone and its deep bottom, James O’Donnell takes off with a ’space trumpet’ solo. A second version of the tunes has guest saxophonist Kenny Millions conjuring up spirits with some fiery tenor sax with the rest of the band engaging in wild collective space-improvisation. The`final rendition is perhaps the most stately one although it has some fiery jazz tenor from James.

In addition to the fascinating explorations of Sun Ra’s book, there is a medley of the big band staples, King Porter Stomp and Big John Special, which were songs associated with Fletcher Henderson. The performances here evoke the charged, if slightly ragged, performances of the Arkestra this writer remembers watching 30 years ago. There is terrific high note trumpet from Patrick Hessian and stunning, spontaneous clarinet by Kenny Millions that connects the two numbers. It displays the same spirited ensemble playing and solos that characterize this salute to Sun Ra and his legacy. For more information on this, contact East Lawn Records at and they are on myspace at,  Its available on CD and download from and as a download from itunes.

I received a review copy from East Lawn Records. Here they are playing King Porter Stomp.

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