Friday, March 03, 2006

Odd Spin 3/3: Empire Jazz

Empire Jazz
Leader: None credited, arranged and produced by Ron Carter
Trumpet, Flugelhorn: Jon Faddis, Joe Shepley
Trombone: Eddie Bert
Tenor, Soprano Sax: Frank Wess
Flute: Hubert Laws
Piano: Bob James
Guitar: Jay Berliner
Drums: Billy Cobham
Bass: Ron Carter
Percussion: Ralph McDonald
Label: RSO (1980)

The skinny: Veterans like Ron Carter, Frank Wess, Jon Faddis, and Hubert Laws swing John Williams themes. Not as crazy as it might sound, considering Williams performed early in his career as a jazz pianist, but he was not the John Williams who recorded a trio session for Emarcy. Although no musician is singled out as leader, Ron Carter might be given the de facto honor, as he is credited on the front cover in small type as arranger and producer.

Indeed, jazz had long been appropriate music for space travel, as the Alfred & Fisher song “Destination Moon” had become an established swing standard, performed by the likes of Illinois Jacquet and Nat King Cole. With the advent of bebop, jazz became self-consciously modern and deliberately experimental. Many boppers eschewed the term “jazz,” in favor of “modern music.” But no musician was more explicit staking his claim on the future than Ornette Coleman, with revolutionary forward-looking albums like: Tomorrow is the Question, The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century and later Science Fiction.

Science fiction has inspired several jazz albums. Fusion big band leader David Matthews recorded an album inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune. Australian John Sangster took his inspiration from fantasy, producing an epic four volume Lord of the Rings cycle, which ought to be available in the U.S., given the recent Tolkien craze. Chick Corea has produced work inspired by the fiction of his Scientology mentor L. Ron Hubbard. Well, more on that later.

However, nobody would ever challenge Sun Ra’s place at the pinnacle of jazz futurism. Actually born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, Ra claimed to be from the planet Saturn. He led an avant-garde big band, the Arkestra, which mixed cosmic and ancient Egyptian imagery in their costumes and set pieces. Arkestra sets covered the gamut from Ellington to collective free improvisations. Sun Ra created an elaborate cosmology that his devotees are still interpreting.

In his blaxploitation film Space is the Place, Sun Ra returns to Earth to battle a pimped-out Satan for the “fate of the black race on Earth.” No artist could compete with Sun Ra for science fiction myth making, but there were strange inspirations to be drawn from sci-fi.

The bottom line: Worth a spin, if you can pick it up for under $10.00. You might actually return to this LP more often than you might think.