Album review: Sun Ra, Gershwin, and the symbiosis within American jazz

4/5 stars

The essence of jazz lies in the merging of two different Americas – one European and one African, one in Tin-Pan Alley and one in Harlem. It is in Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Summertime’; it is in Sun Ra both chanting ‘Nuclear War’ on top of a bebop rhythm and reimagining Gershwin’s orchestral compositions.

Unlike Gershwin, the cosmic philosopher and the eccentric avant-garde jazz legend Sun Ra had never achieved mainstream success. Sun Ra Plays Gershwin explores the artist’s lesser known recordings within a short 38-minute-long album, allowing both a closer look at artists’ interpretations of Gershwin’s classics and perhaps even a glimpse of a unified view to the juxtaposition of sounds and ideas that is jazz.

So where does Gershwin end and Sun Ra begin? The best example of the symbiosis is the first track, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. It is clear that Sun Ra’s language of rhythm is completely different from that of Gershwin’s: the clean syncopation is taken over by emancipated bebop-like rhythm sections and all the classical elements by improvisation. Yet it is the sound of piano that ties it all together and perhaps is the strongest link between the two composers, both masters of the instrument.

The other tracks carry a similar vibe, but it brings out more of Duke Ellington, or perhaps early Sun Ra than his later, more unconventional sound. Instead of the usual experimental instrumentation, the album contains quite a few vocal pieces with traditional harmonies, such as ‘Foggy Day’. ‘The Man I Love’ is one of the examples of the sentiment that is carried throughout the album, here with the help of a slow piano improvisation that is eventually joined by other instruments, notably flute, to create an illusion of a continuously dissolving orchestra.

On a similar note, the record ends with an instrumental version of light, yet touching ‘I Loves You Porgy’. Coming back to the analogy of two worlds it is in the early version of ‘S Wonderful’ with Hattie Randolph that they merge, through the rhythm, the vocals and the carefree melody with which America fell in love.

Image: Martijn Van Exel via Flickr

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