An interview with
Rory Magill

By Beppe Colli
Aug. 5, 2004

As I argued not so long ago in my review of their live CD titled Some Ra, the homage paid to Sun Ra by the large Canadian line-up called Rake-Star was a very pleasant surprise. Though it was a very risky business, the band fully succeeded in doing justice to the compositions by Sun Ra, which they have arranged with nice taste and played with the appropriate looseness and verve. They have also added - quite courageously, I'd say - a few original compositions, which sound quite impressive indeed. Nice solos, beautiful ensemble parts, an orchestral palette that's in a way "classic-sounding" but with a touch of bizarre (and three double basses!).

I decided I wanted to know more. I managed to get in touch with (trombonist, drummer and composer) Rory Magill. The conversation that follows took place by e-mail at the end of July.

Since this is the first time I've listened to Rake-Star, I'd like to know more about the line-up (which, by the way, sounds quite well-rehearsed): did you get together for this specific project or had the musicians already played together, in different situations?

Multi-reedist David Broscoe, drummer Jamie Gullikson and I have an improvising trio called Rake. Broscoe acquired some Sun Ra charts and we invited like-minded friends to try them out as a large band. We invited tenor saxist Rob Frayne - a local jazz star - and he brought in some friends. Rake plus star, hence the name, which is also an anagram.

We played once in 2000, had a great time, left it for a year, played again occasionally, then recorded a live show last year.

We are not really well-rehearsed. Usually one rehearsal per show, three or four shows a year. But we were fortunate to work with drummer and sound recordist Ross Murray who recorded the show as if we were in the studio - lots of close mics - so we were able to make adjustments to the mix after the fact, and sound well-rehearsed.

We've all played with various other members in smaller groups and those alliances are evident in the music. There are perhaps two over-all factions - the jazz and the anti-jazz - and little tensions and skirmishes arise, giving the group some of its juice.

Could you give me some background about you?

48, married, daughter, daycare cook, house, car. Piano as a young boy, then guitar, bass as a teen, drums as an adult, drumming in Ghana, lately trombone, but hernia now, maybe less trombone. Dilettante.

I saw from the CD liner notes that on the album you play trombone and also drums - are they those tiny things that one can see in the CD inner spread? Quite strange...

Yes, they are those tiny things. My full kit is much larger, just as strange, but no stranger than Jamie's. You should see his. There is never enough room with so many people on stage, and Jamie is the principal drummer, so he gets more space.

Though nowadays it's the whole avant-garde that's being kept under wraps, I'd say Sun Ra's music is pretty obscure. I mean, the "legend" is one thing, but the music is not heard so often. Would you mind talking about the way this project took shape? What did you find intriguing in his music - and his concepts about life etc.?

Everyone in Rake-star has been inspired by Sun Ra and his considerable creative legacy, each person taking it differently. The collective appreciation of his genius drew us together and gives some good guidance when we play.

Looseness is an important element in his music, or the appearance of looseness. He worked the Arkestra hard for long hours and had many skillful players and they managed to make lots of things sound just a little too loose, creating a wonderfully different sound. This takes some emphasis off the virtuosity so often associated with great jazz, and encourages more idiosyncratic musical expression. This appeals especially to dilettantes.

We have, in fact, straightened up some of the looseness in places, this helps give the music broader appeal. On the other hand, we do our best to subvert things elsewhere, and subversion certainly is a major element in Sun Ra's music.

Due mainly to geographical reasons, I only saw Sun Ra live once, in 1984 - I'd say a good approximation of the concert I saw is the 1980 concert that came out on Hat Hut as Sunrise In Different Dimensions. Did any of you got the chance to catch him live?

Many of us saw Sun Ra and his variously named Arkestras. I saw him twice in Toronto. The energy was terrific, the pageantry, costumes, dancing all fleshed out the music, creating a village on stage, reminding me strongly of village life and music in Ghana.

Also saw the Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen at Canada's premier avant/jazz festival, the Guelph Jazz Festival, in 2001. They paraded through the downtown playing We Travel The Spaceways and followed up with an evening concert. As I drove back to Toronto after the show, one of their grooves stayed with me and developed into a tune by the time I got home. Not to sound too silly, but it kind of wrote itself, in fact I would like to think Sun Ra was cruising overhead in the vicinity, watching over his touring Arkestra, and kindly sprinkled a few notes down on my car. These became Don't Do, which then merged with We Travel The Spaceways. By great good luck, Rake-star was invited to lead the Guelph Jazz Festival parade the very next year and we played the new merged tunes. I'd like to say we followed in the footsteps of the illustrious Sun Ra Arkestra, but we actually started from the other end of town.

The CD also features some original compositions. As the composer of some of them, what was your initial impulse when deciding to feature them alongside the pieces by Sun Ra?

We never set out to imitate Sun Ra, so it was quite natural that we would not only arrange his tunes, but also write new stuff - not in his styles, but with his inspiration.

Some members are more likely to bring in Ra tunes to try, others more likely to bring original tunes.

We sometimes layer Sun Ra compositions or add original music over top. Saves time in performance, of course. Also creates new time, and it's a nice simple recipe for increased density and greater anarchy.

Whatever direction the group takes, Sun Ra will always hover overhead, something like an ancestral spirit.

Do you have a favourite Sun Ra CD?

I had a copy of Heliocentric Worlds when I was thirteen years old. I couldn't say which volume. It may have been a shipping mistake from a mail-order house. That's how I remember it, but how likely is it that a mail-order house in the back of a family magazine would stock Sun Ra? I only listened to it once or twice. I think it frightened me, but it did bring an awareness of Sun Ra. Much later I started to listen to his music with real interest, enjoying his irreverence for convention and his love of wild experiment. Finally though, my favourite recording is one of his least avant-garde. It's Blue Delight, one of two CDs recorded for A&M near the end of his career. There is something very beautiful about winding down an outrageous life-long voyage with an elegant nod to the jazz traditions from which he started. Almost straight, but not really. The sound was all his and he was still messing with time.

You play trombone. I'd like to know more about your favourite instrumentalists.

I am primarily a drummer. Not a lot of training or experience on trombone, just fun. I like the sounds that come out of it, so I have enjoyed Wolter Wierbos, Mangelsdorf, the Bauers, Paul Rutherford, and a Canadian - Tom Walsh, a very creative player active in Montreal's lively scene.

How do you see the current situation when it comes to jazz?

As for the avant-garde end of it, there is certainly some great music in Canada, most notably in larger cities - like Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, in that order probably. Ottawa is smaller but we have at least enough interesting players to people a small orchestra of this nature, and the city manages to attract unusual acts from time to time. Sun Ra played here once, and he did enjoy a brief residency in Montreal.

Audiences are generally small for such music, but you can say the same about New York half the time. How is it in Italy?

© Beppe Colli 2004 | Aug. 5, 2004