When booking a jazz group for a European tour, conventional wisdom is the weirder the better. Audiences there have had a voracious appetite for improvised music for decades. On this side of the pond, some of us forget that American crowds also have a history of being open to creative music: back in the 1960s, Charles Lloyd once sold out the immense New York Ethical Culture Society auditorium for an evening of free improvisation. So the Jazz Standard booking Scott Robinson’s sextet the Heliotones, with drummer Matt Wilson, trombonist Frank Lacy and Gary Versace on piano and organ, might actually be less brave than it is plain old good business sense. They’re there tonight playing the release show for their new Sun Ra-inspired album Heliosonic Toneways, Vol. 1, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25.
Whether you see Sun Ra’s 1965 album Heliocentric Worlds as paradigm-shifting creative jazz or sixties stoner excess, it’s one psychedelic record. Robinson’s purpose in making the new album was not to replicate it but to use the same unorthodox instrumentation. The result is very entertaining: imagine Esquivel conducting the AACM. It says a lot about this band that they’d have the sense of fun to tackle this at all. The lineup is killer: Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen opens it with a ghostly murmur on the original bass marimba that his Saturnine bandleader played on the original album. The rest of the band comprises his longtime Sun Ra bandmate Danny Thompson on tenor sax, with Lacy on trombone, Wilson on drums, trumpeter Philip Harper, bassist Pat O’Leary, saxophonist Yosvany Terry, bass trombonist Tim Newman, drummer Matt Wilson and bass clarinetist JD Parran. It’s hard to figure out what Robinson is playing: one of the world’s most sought-after multi-reedmen, the list of what he doesn’t play is probably a lot shorter than the list of what he does. For verisimilitude, he even brought in recording engineer Richard Alderson, who helmed the original Sun Ra session more than a half-century ago,
The music is best appreciated as a suite, with lots of high/low pairings, conversations that range from the droll to the frantic, and slowly massing, microtonal tectonic shifts. Wilson plays timpani for extra grandeur as the reeds chatter and scatter. There’s the rustle of a passing train and oscillations toward the top of the beanstalk, acid Lynchian swing. indignant squalls over subterranean rumble, a coy wolf whistle or two, innumerable echo effects and valves popping every which way. Warpiness exudes from Allen’s EWI (electronic wind instrument), or a vintage Clavioline synth. Dazed Frankenstein piano anchors reeds fluttering like a clothesline in the wind. It helps to understand this stuff – or try to, anyway – if you close your eyes. And no going out with this in your earbuds unless you have shades on.