The Healing Vibrations of Avreeayl Ra

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Avreeayl Ra (left) with Ed Wilkerson during a recent Elastic Arts’ Homeroom series show in Chicago.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Avreeayl Ra Amen, to put it mildly, is a stalwart of the Chicago scene and the creative music stratosphere internationally. At 75, he’s younger in mind and spirit than most folk a fraction his age and still working voraciously in myriad situations, despite prior challenges in his living situation exacerbated by the lean years of the pandemic (he was homeless/living in his car for three months in 2020). It’s not so often that Ra — an important member of the Arkestra of Sun Ra (no ostensible relation) for two years in the mid-’80s and on and off thereafter; a cohort of Professor Longhair during a sojourn in New Orleans in the mid-’70s; and collaborator with Chicago saxophone giant Ari Brown, his principal mentor, for the past 50 years — fronts a band of his own, but at Elastic on Feb. 3, the night belonged to him. The latter statement, however, belies who the inclusive drummer, né Arthur Lee O’Neil Jr., son of noted saxophonist “Swing” Lee O’Neil, really is.

After introductory remarks from Paul Giallorenzo, artistic director of Homeroom, Ra riffed about a documentary (produced by Homeroom and Andrea Rodea and Erik Mares of Mexico City based Rhizomes Films) that charts his residency at the venue from a year ago (homeroomchicago.org). The film featured Dream Stuff, the improvising quintet with guitarist/violinist Peter Maunu, pianist/Arp synth boffin Jim Baker, bassist Jason Roebke and saxophonist/clarinetist/didgeridoo multitasker Ed Wilkerson, which was set to perform after the screening.

Ra refuted the term “improvisation” in reference to what Dream Stuff does, however, preferring “spontaneous composition,” as generated through the accumulated wisdom of regular veteran cohorts in the realm of instantaneous music-making. But Ra doesn’t need to convince with such a manifesto; his open, beneficent aura speaks for itself. As he identified, he’s quick to tap into the vibe. “Music is already here. A vibration,” he said, pointing to the crowd. “You influence me as much as I influence you. We just become vehicles for the music that is already present.”

The 40-minute flick Tuning in to the Moment comprised livestream performances of several iterations of Ra’s ensembles at Elastic, including his Healing Arts Initiative with spoken word artist G’Ra and other collaborators Ishmael Ali, Cecile Savage, Dave Rempis, Frank Rosaly and Michael Zerang, alongside vintage video snippets, such as a fiery face-off with iconic Sun Ra saxophonist Marshall Allen. These were interspersed with recorded proclamation from Avreeayl over creatively collaged footage of painterly process and evocations of canyons and cosmos. It’s not the definitive story of this veteran musician’s career, but a worthy snapshot.

Ra has brought his versatile talent to bear with too many co-conspirators to mention, and Dream Stuff originated from late-’90s performances at Fred Anderson’s original Velvet Lounge with G’Ra, Wilkerson, Baker, bassist Harrison Bankhead and horn players Steve Berry and Rob Mazurek. Before hitting the live set at Elastic, Avreeayl attempted to tenderize the audience and banish preconceptions.

“It is important to learn to live life as a child, let your feelings out, heal the pain,” he exhorted. “So come on, give me something, let’s heal, let’s warm some hearts, free some spirits, create as much beauty as possible.”

Collectively the crowd let out cries and exhortations, echoed by Wilkerson, who widened his mouth, making a series of yodels before blowing alto clarinet. A longtime Ra collaborator, Wilkerson has presented ambitious projects, including his 25-piece Shadow Vignettes orchestra and long-running octet Eight Bold Souls, yet remains low key, never letting ego overtip. Indeed, he stifled the bell of both clarinet and saxophone with a scarf, choking his rich tone on tenor. “I think he likes the differences in textures,” Avreeayl commented to DownBeat later. “Reminds me of my father. I’d go to sleep with him subtoning, with a muffled horn.” During a dramatic moment Wilkerson took to didgeridoo, which he blows with varied strategy, as the leader whistled a fluorescent sound-tube above his head. Ostensibly a toy, Ra insists the ribbed plastic tube has an antecedent in the African bullroarer, which made its way to Australia via the diaspora.

Ra’s roiling mallet-driven toms gave way to Tibetan bells at one point — he can play with both crescendoing ferocity and great tenderness. But Maunu was perhaps most captivating, maverick on the guitar and more so with rule-breaking fiddle antics, strumming on the body of the thing, then investigating inappropriate portions of the neck.

Asking Avreeayl later about the experience, he talked about the importance of intention.

“It’s about re-adjusting frequencies. Often it’s not even the music itself but the intention behind it. Meditation in motion.” He confessed he wasn’t even sure what had happened, now beyond the moment. “I’m still trying to figure it out. I felt good about it. That’s what I love about this music. The discovery, the journey, the adventure. Something that never happened before and will never happen the same way again.” DB



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