ROCK-FUNK-JAZZ: SUN RA AND DR. JOHN AT CLUB 57
By ROBERT PALMER
The New York Times
February 3, 1981, Tuesday, Late City Final Edition
Section C; Page 5, Column 1; Cultural Desk
DR. JOHN, the New Orleans born rock-and-roll pianist and singer, and Sun Ra, the big-band leader and jazz visionary, have more in common than one might suspect. Dr. John was born in 1941, and the generally accepted birthdate for Mr. Ra is 1915, but both made their first recordings as band leaders in the second half of the 50's. Both are firmly rooted in musical traditions, but both have been tireless experimenters. They are both interested in esoteric philosophies, and their performances often have ritualistic overtones.
Club 57, East 15th Street and Irving Place, has strayed from its new-wave rock orientation before, most notably with James Brown, but presenting Dr. John and Mr. Ra on the same bill last weekend was a particularly inspired move. The booking attracted members of New York rock and funk bands, a few black jazz fans, some dazed-looking hippie holdouts and enough Club 57 regulars to pack the dance floor and make for an interesting cultural mix.
Mr. Ra performed first. His musicians' colorful costumes glittered in the spotlights, and several times during the set his horn players jumped off the stage and mingled with the audience. His music has always included plenty of potential sing-alongs and dance rhythms along with hard swing, free-form episodes and bursts of electronic noise, and the audience seemed utterly comfortable with it.
Mr. Ra doesn't play short sets, and by the time his musicians had packed up and Dr. John's band had set up it was 2:30 A.M. But the crowd was still large and enthusiastic, and if Dr. John's set got off to a slow start, it was mostly because he had misjudged his audience.
He began with some recent funk numbers and with hits from his most successful albums, and although the New York-based band he has been leading for the past several months has developed an admirable New Orleans strut, the tunes weren't really right for the crowd or the hour. Thirty minutes into the set, he hit a strong, socking groove on ''Junco Partner,'' the Louisiana prison song and rhythm-and-blues classic. It was just what the time and place demanded.
But ultimately, the evening was most memorable for Mr. Ra's triumphant performance. The nucleus of Mr. Ra's band has been with him for more than 20 years now, and the group has played all over New York, from Central Park to Carnegie Hall to the Lower East Side.
Recent performances at the Squat Theater have won the band a new audience on the city's dance-club circuit, but if Mr. Ra and his musicians are surprised, they don't let on. They keep playing Mr. Ra's music with their customary inventiveness and dedication; at Club 57 they even tried out some of their vintage Fletcher Henderson swing-band arrangements, and people danced. When August Darnell of Kid Creole and the Coconuts sang that ''Club 57 is my idea of heaven,'' this must have been what he had in mind.
GRAPHIC: Illustrations: Photo of Sun Ra