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In 1990, Sun Ra--the jazz innovator and native (he claimed) of Saturn--spoke of being "a pioneer going through the forest, not really knowing who is there or what's in the forest. That's all I know to be and I know what I'm supposed to be." Three years later, Ra departed his body, but he left behind a slew of apostles to carry on in his place. Trumpeter Michael Ray, whom Ra dubbed his "research tone scientist," is one of them, and as leader of the New Orleans-based jazz/funk band called the Cosmic Krewe, he's keeping the spirit of Sun Ra alive.
Appropriately, Ray seems to spend as much mental time in distant galaxies as did his late tutor. But that wasn't always the case. "I came upon him really by chance," Ray recalls. "I was living in Philadelphia and the band I was in shared a bill with his band. I noticed that they had suitcases filled with music, which is pretty strange. They had dancers and drummers and were singing 'Space Is the Place.' I'd never really heard of him before. But a week later, I saw him on the trolley and he asked me to come over and rehearse. I finally made it over there and saw the world."
Ray joined Sun Ra's Arkestra in 1978, and he remained in the fold for the next fifteen years. From 1979 to 1989, he also performed with the funk/dance band Kool & the Gang, but it's for his association with Ra that he remains best-known: Some fans still refer to him as "the Sun's Ray." Ray doesn't mind. "He is definitely my mentor," he purrs in a voice as smooth as Denzel Washington's. "He was a master musician. Also the Arkestra's John Gilmore and Marshall Allen--they were some heavy influences. Marshall, he's been my roommate since 1978."
Like Ray, Allen continues to pay homage to Sun Ra: He's now in charge of the Arkestra, which primarily consists of players who worked directly with Ra. Ray, who put down roots in New Orleans in 1988, occasionally sits in with the Arkestra, but he spends most of his time with the Krewe. Born in 1991 after Ray joined forces with percussionist Steve Ferraris (a teacher at New Hampshire's Dartmouth College), Krewe has featured, Ray says, "probably about 45 to 50 cats over the years. But, finally, we locked on a nucleus." The current Krewe is a widely scattered bunch: Keyboardist Adam Klipple lives in New York, drummer Bob Gullotti resides in Boston, and bassist Stacey Starkweather, saxophonist Dave Grippo and trombonist Don Glasgo call Vermont home. (Due to scheduling conflicts, Glasgo and Grippo aren't participating in the Krewe's current tour; area saxophonist Bill Murray, a part of the Air Force Academy's Falconaires band, will fill in during the Colorado dates.)
Other musicians with whom Ray is working include guitarist Trey Anastasio and drummer Jon Fishman, both members of the neo-hippie act Phish. A recording featuring all three should be available in late March. When not traveling with the Krewe, Ray also performs in various "theme productions"--extravaganzas keyed to Halloween, the equinox and so on--that include interactive neon sculptures created by artist Jerry Therio. He's also an educator who lectures about music. "I'm a firm believer that the children are the ancestors of the future," he says. "Just to help them to realize what worth they have on this planet is a good job for any teacher. It's enriching."
It's also more fulfilling than acting, as Ray learned after landing a small (read: minuscule) role in the film version of Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire. "I was a featured extra--slave number 72," he notes. "Ausetta Jackson, who did the choreography, is a dancer who works with me; she's the artistic director of the Kumbuka Dance Collective. She suggested I audition for the part, and I was kind of surprised I got it. It paid pretty well for my half-second of fame, as a matter of fact. I'm in that scene where the slaves are having an uprising and Brad Pitt comes out of the house carrying a dead slave. Well, there's three slaves standing on the porch, and I'm one of them. I'm pretty hard to find."
On stage with the Krewe, however, Ray is in the spotlight--and that's just the way he likes it. He sees the group as the vehicle in which he can accomplish many of his, and Ra's, musical goals. "I certainly pray so," he says. "Music is moving in so many directions and I'm a true believer that the people are the instrument.
"With our shows, all I can say is prepare to expect the unexpected," he continues. "And, by the way, space aliens are admitted free--with proper ID, of course."
Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe. 10:15 p.m. Friday, February 23, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $6, 322-2308.