Energy and intellect

Boston Globe, March 19, 2010

A pair of star charts, the kind used in astrology readings, adorn the cover of the latest recording by the almost decade-old, New York-based Respect Sextet. One chart is for Karlheinz Stockhausen, the avant-garde composer, born in 1928 in Germany. The other is for Sun Ra, the jazz visionary and leader of the Arkestra, who was presumably born in Alabama in 1914 – although there is ambiguity on that score.

Sun Ra’s birth certificate was never found, explain Respect trumpeter Eli Asher and saxophonist Josh Rutner in a conversation in a Manhattan coffee shop. With the specific time of Sun Ra’s birth unknown, the chart they had made for him is half blank, while Stockhausen’s has the full set of symbols and web of connecting lines.

Astral concepts were important to both composers. Sun Ra said he came from Saturn, and he left jazz and the broader world with a mantra, “Space is the place.” Mysticism and esoterica were also forces for Stockhausen, who was known to claim Sirius as his origin. “He never denied that he came from outer space,” Asher says.

The extraterrestrial allegiances allowed both to stretch far from the boundaries of jazz, classical music, or conventional understandings of music at all.

So when Asher and pianist Red Wierenga floated the pun-driven concept of a record called “Sirius Respect: The Respect Sextet Play the Music of Sun Ra and Stockhausen,” the rest of the band – fellow composers and free spirits who trained together at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester – signed on happily.

“Sirius Respect” is one of last year’s under-the-radar jazz gems, an example of how good improvised music makes something with flesh and dynamics from laconic, even cryptic starting points. The members of the sextet, whose raucous stage energy makes them the opposite of experimental-music obscurantists, play from this and their earlier works at the Lily Pad on Wednesday.

One doesn’t need to know the work of Stockhausen or Sun Ra to appreciate this music, which is full of swing and drones and interesting meanders, and contains plenty of legible elements like solos and repeated themes. And if the two composers seem daunting at first, that is a normal reaction, says Rutner.

“I was always afraid of Sun Ra’s music,” Rutner says. “I think it’s analogous to a lot of things in life, authors who seem opaque and difficult, and then you read them and it’s just so joyous. A lot of it was just the output: There’s so much of it, where do you begin?”

For “Sirius Respect,” the band – which includes Ted Poor on drums, James Hirschfeld on trombone, and Malcolm Kirby on bass – picked items from Sun Ra’s catalog with plenty of swing, like “Angels and Demons at Play.” The Stockhausen pieces are mostly from his 1975 zodiacal suite, “Tierkreis.”

Other Stockhausen pieces pose the challenge of working with no music cues at all. “Some are improvisations guided by text alone,” Rutner says. “They are like, `Play sounds in the rhythm of your body. Play sounds in the rhythm of the universe.’ It is so abstract, almost absurd, that it becomes, how will you deal with this impossible situation?”

“It has these musical connotations – like talk about vibrations, shimmering energy – that as free jazz artists, we can relate to,” says Asher. “He coached his ensemble to play those pieces. Would he like what we’re doing? I really couldn’t say.”

In their treatment of Sun Ra and Stockhausen, the Respect Sextet’s members apply some of their hallmark methods, particularly with instrumentation. On paper this is an orthodox sextet with a three-horn front line. But they also play alternative instruments, including Wierenga’s weird electro-acoustic creations, as well as toys and miscellaneous items.

Some Respect pieces have Rutner manipulating an old transistor radio. “It’s such a wonderful thing to have, a battery-powered device that produces unexpected sounds,” he says.

Sometimes they will play fewer instruments instead. Asher recalls a snowy-day gig when drummer Poor brought only what he could carry on the subway. “He brought just a snare and cymbal, no bass or high-hat. I only noticed halfway through the set, and that was the best feeling.”

In these and other habits – which conceal much method in the madness – the sextet members say they follow the lead of great improvised-music units like the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Netherlands-based Instant Composers Pool Orchestra.

Do they think of their work as difficult? “No,” says Asher. “We may play in a crazy way, a dissonant way, for stretches of time, but our musical aesthetics aren’t about something inaccessible. Sun Ra, Stockhausen – they’re energy musicians, they’re soul musicians. They put their whole self into it, their emotions, their intellect on the table, and that’s what we do.”