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Published: 2003/08/28
by Brian Ferdman

Live @ Jimmy’s – Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe


Born out of a desire to blend the R&B and funk of Kool & The Gang with the
experimental jazz fusion of the Sun Ra Arkestra, Michael Ray & the Cosmic
Krewe boldly teeter on a risky ledge. At times, the trumpeter can lead his
zany band through incredibly danceable grooves, but the group can also delve
off into the weirdness of fusion exploration. The effect produced is a
strange dichotomy: invigorating yet occasionally alienating.

Recorded live at New Orleans' Jimmy's during Jazzfest of 1997, this album
showcases both the strict grooves and the limitless improvisations of this
diverse unit. Comprised of New Orleans musicians and Ray's Vermont friends,
the Cosmic Krewe has a huge lineup of improvisational wunderkinds. Joining
in for the party are Phish's drummer Jon Fishman and guitarist Trey
Anastasio. While taking perky solos where necessary and adding stimulating
accompaniment, both musicians easily blend into the group. In fact, it's
not so far fetched to assume that this early foray with a big band planted
the seed for the current assemblage of groove-minded musicians who back
Anastasio's solo tours.

The album requires a few listens, and it isn't helped by the fact that the
opening tracks are less than stellar. Kool & The Gang's "Champions" is a
bit of milquetoast '70s funk, while Sun Ra's expansive "Neverness" is an
obtuse and strange song that can't really be rescued by Ray's leading solos.
Every bandmember is lost in his own world, and even Anastasio chimes in with
a dissonant statement that inspires ennui. While certainly falling under
the realm of exploratory jazz, these odd riffs and passages often wander
aimlessly, and it's no surprise that the song fades-out after nearly 13
thirteen inconsequential minutes.

A nice change of pace begins with Sun Ra's "Astro Nation," dropping the
first signs of a heavy funk that gets the audience bumping. As Stacy
Starkweather's chunky basslines combine with a deep percussive backbeat, Ray
draws heavily on a sliding '70s synthesizer. The band locks into a solid
groove, giving members brief opportunities to make quick solo statements.

Trombonist Don Glasgo's New Orleans tribute, "Beans and Rice," is easily the
most captivating track on the album. A traditional Crescent City style beat
is laid down by the percussion section, and Adam Klipple gleefully pounds
out a two-handed piano boogie, ala Professor Longhair. Ray's trumpet
soloing energetically shoots into the stratosphere, while Glasgo's trombone
solo reaches into a Bourbon Street gutter. After a spirited Anastasio jaunt
that quotes "Manteca," Fishman and percussionists Steve Ferraris, Eddie
Dejean, and R.J. Spangler dive into an enthralling and hypnotic drum break
that eventually meanders before Klipple deftly guides the gang into the
satisfying coda.

The final song, "Earthrite," begins with some deep bass and synthesizer
funk. After moving through the pumping verses and chorus, Dave "The Truth"
Grippo throws down a nasty and soaring statement on his alto sax.
Eventually, every bandmember gets an introduction. The chart pulls into
quick 16-bar covers, giving each soloist a chance to shine. Ray is finally
introduced, and then the album inexplicably fades-out, leaving the listener
with a terrible case of musical blue balls. It's an awful ending for an
otherwise enjoyable live album that takes plenty of risks and still manages
to entertain.

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