The Complicatist : from Sun Ra to Lightning Bolt

Brian Chippendale of Lightning Bolt talks about the original urban spaceman

by Gordon Campbell

Like Lee Perry, Sun Ra is remembered these days almost as much for his wacky costumes and spacey demeanour as for his musical genius. Ra may have been born into this world as Herman Poole Blount, but he became semi-famous in the 1960s and 1970s as the guy with the Egyptian head-dress who claimed to have been teleported to Saturn and back again along a beam of light, long before UFOs and alien abduction became regular tabloid fodder ( Typical Sun Ra poem – ‘Ra is El. Is El Ra ? Is Ra El ?’ )

The cosmic trappings always have overshadowed Ra’s role as a trail-blazing jazz composer, bandleader, and prolific recording artist. As many critics now acknowledge, he was also among the first to use electronic keyboards, particularly for their noise potential. In a sense, Ra’s career spanned the entire history of jazz and popular music in the 20th century. Classically trained, he started out writing charts for Fletcher Henderson’s big band before he joined the vanguard of the hard bop and free jazz movements and later on, of Afro-futurism as well. He ended up jamming at concerts with Sonic Youth in Central Park, just before his death in 1993. Just about every aspect of American music went into the Sun Ra blender and came out again, transformed.

Brian Chippendale the drummer / leader of the influential US noise band Lightning Bolt holds Sun Ra in high esteem – both as an inspiration and direct musical influence. While on tour in Wellington recently, Chippendale took time after sound check to talk about his fascination with the man from Saturn : “The main aspect of Ra’s music was this rigorous discipline, a schedule of writing and rehearsing. His whole life 12-16 hours a day, was working on music. It was all he did. He was almost more like a character rather than a real person. He didn’t have any family…I never heard of him having any relationships.”

Chippendale’s first got into the Sun Ra universe via the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival concert albums in the early 1970s. At that time, Ra was bringing huge groupings of up to 30 musicians together on stage. “There’s an influence on the music my band makes. I’m interested in what appears to be the freeness of it, but I wonder if it wasn’t like a calculated, disciplined freeness…It feels like its really falling apart and then – in a blink ! – it comes back together..”

Knowledge that doesn’t limit freedom, but expands its range. That’s what Chippendale hears and likes in Sun Ra, and what he brings to bear in Lightning Bolt. “ Not many people go out as far as Sun Ra did. His was a calculated decision to do genuinely wild exploration, and a conscious choice to leap off the cliff. “ Reportedly, Ra didn’t much like the term’ free jazz.’ To him, it undervalued the discipline necessary to reach the take-off point, and sustain the flight.

Chippendale agrees. “ His balance between the structure and the chaos is sort of interesting. A lot of the stuff has a weird kind of tension to it. You can feel the flows between stuff that is really discordant and with 20 players going out all over the place, and then coming back to a single voice. That’s really inspiring. “

There is a lot of Sun Ra music out there, some 150 albums in all. You can choose between featuring from his handling of jazz standards by Ellington’s arranger Billy Strayhorn, to wild experimentalism. “My favourites, are still those Ann Arbor concerts. The 1974 one in particular, ” Chippendale says. “ The 1974 set has his own standards like ‘Space is the Place,’ and ‘It Is Forbidden’ which is a really great song. It sounds at times like everybody is picking up drums say, and it’ll then go off into these drum tangents…but then it comes tightening back up again..”

The full 64 minute set from Ann Arbor is now finally available, from recordings that were retrieved off the mixing board after the sound recordist vanished with the proper recordings, in a huff over not being paid. The other album Chippendale picks out is Strange Strings, which Ra and his Astro-Infinity Arkestra recorded in 1966. “He gave everybody string instruments and forced everybody to play them, whether they wanted to or not. It’s a really spacey one, almost ambient and psychedelic – and at other times its like a precursor to noise. It gets blown out at times. On some of his records it sounds like a reverb switch has kicked in, and everything starts echoing around. I don’t know if he was in control of that or not, but the recordings have their own layer of texture that’s quite unusual.”

How do you know that I’m real? I’m not real. I’m just like you. I don’t exist in this society. If you did, people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real.. So we are both myths. I do not come to you as a reality. I come to you as a myth, because that is what black people are – Sun Ra. ‘Space Is the Place’ 1974.

The personal transition from Herman Blount to Sonny Lee to Le Son’yr Ra to Sun Ra was not an overnight thing. In college during the 1930s, Sonny Blount had dreamed one night about being taken to Jupiter by robed figures. By 1948, as Robert Campbell recalled in his memorial lecture on Ra, the pianist/arranger regular job with Fletcher Henderson had dried up, and this left Ra on the brink of forming the first of many ‘Arkestras’ of his own. Even back then, he was also experimenting with electronic keyboards :

Around this time, Sonny performed for two weeks with Coleman Hawkins and Stuff Smith. And on his very first tape machine, a device called a Sound Mirror, he recorded Stuff and himself playing in his tiny apartment. They played a duet featuring the Solovox, a primitive electronic instrument that Sonny had picked up while still in Birmingham. Sonny had a thing about purple (he thought people would be healthier if they ate more purple food). He released ‘Deep Purple’ many years later on his Saturn label, and the tune remained in his repertoire for the rest of his career. It was featured on his very last recording session with Billy Bang.

The trip to Saturn that became a defining moment in his life seems to have occurred in Chicago, around 1952 in the wake of a bout of depression. Later, there was a (possibly apocryphal) story that John Coltrane heard Ra’s great saxophonist John Gilmore playing at Birdland in the early 1960s and ran up to the stage after his solo yelling, “He’s got it! Gilmore’s got the concept!’ Allegedly, Coltrane was so moved by Gilmore’s style that it inspired him to create the classic ‘Chasin’ The Trane.’

Chippendale has heard the same stories.. “ Supposedly, Sun Ra heard John Coltrane and started getting into the free jazz stuff. But in [Sun Ra’s] bio it was Coltrane who came and saw Sun Ra play with John Gilmore, and it was Gilmore’s free playing that influenced Coltrane. I think Ra was pioneering that stuff, and not necessarily always gaining credit for it.”

These days of course, freedom can be its own cliché. Much noise music using electronics follows a similar pattern. It starts quiet and low, and builds and builds the right up to the pain threshold, where your body is vibrating and the sound is definitely having physical effects. How does a band like Lightning Bolt which has been doing this for 15 years now, avoid the clichés that the noise genre trails in its wake ?

“Its tough, “ Chippendale says frankly. Over those 15 years, he and his bandmate Brian Gibson have become better musicians. ” But with a lot of abstract noise music I don’t know how to critique it very well. What’s a good Merzbow track, and what’s bad Merzbow ? It sounds like he’s shredding elephants the whole time. Its tough. Less so now, though. In my part of the States in the 90s, sort of every other kid had a vacuum [tube] player, a distortion pedal and a microphone or whatever. It got kind of tedious.”

As an alternative outlet, Chippendale also paints and draws. Three years ago, Pitchfork found him in Los Angeles, talking optimistically about the potential for crossover between galleries and experimental music. That scene has kind of fizzled out, Chippendale says. ‘Galleries are so concerned these days about trying to sell something that there’s actually less room now, for that sort of thing. Back then you could put anything – a lump of coal – out there, and if that coal made sound, all the better. Its not like that now. I’m not an established artist, though. And maybe its simply that I don’t have as much control in that world as maybe I’d like to.’

Like Ra, does he expect to be still doing this kind of music at say, the age of 73 ? “ Maybe not with this band. But I’ll still be playing music, playing drums. I can’t imagine not doing that, every day. And making art.” Along the way, the free jazz musicians continue to inspire him. Has he, for instance, heard very much of Sonny Sharrock’s work ? “ Yes ! Sonny Sharrock was amazing. I’ve got two albums of his. I’m always dipping into the jazz world, and coming out with something.” As Sun Ra proved over the course of decades, life is a constant stream of influences, and surprises.