December 27, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

I’m taking the holidays off and so should you! I'll continue with Sun Ra Sunday in 2010.
(Thanks to Lizzy for making my idea of Sun Ra in a Santa hat a reality!)

December 26, 2009

Playlist 12-26-09

* Monteverdi: Vespers (1610) (La Capella Reial, et al.) (Savall) (Alia Vox 2SACD)
* Buxtehude: Six Sonatas (Holloway/ter Linden, et al.) (Naxos CD)
* Corelli: Trio Sonatas (English Concert/Pinnock) (Arkiv Produktion CD)
* Vivaldi: Concertos and Sinfonias for Strings (VBO/Marcon) (Arkiv Produktion CD)
* Vivaldi: Concertos for 2 Violins (VBO/Marcon/Mullova/Carmignola) (Arkiv Produkction CD)
* Handel: Trio Sonatas, Op.2 & 5 (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol.1 (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2SACD)
* Cage: The Seasons (American Composers Orchestra/Davies/Margaret Leng Tan) (ECM CD)
* Sun Ra: Black Myth/Out In Space (d.2) (MPS/Motor Music 2CD)
* Sun Ra: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 11-9-70 (d.1) (AUD 2CDR)
* John Coltrane: Fearless Leader (d.1-3) (Prestige 6CD)
* John Coltrane: Side Steps (d.1-4) (Prestige 5CD)
* John Coltrane: The Ultimate Blue Train (Blue Note CD)
* Cecil Taylor European Quintet: Fasching, Stockholm 10-31-97 (FM CDR)
* Cecil Taylor (solo piano): Piazza Boves, Cuneo 7-28-76 (FM CDR)
* Miles Davis: The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions (d.1) (Columbia/Legacy 3CD)
* Herbie Hancock/Wayne Shorter/Stanley Clarke/Omar Hakim: Stuttgart 7-91 (FM CDR)
* Pat Metheny Group: Pat Metheny Group (ECM LP)
* The Beatles: Mono Masters (d.2) (Apple/EMI 2CD)
* The Beatles: The Complete BBC Sessions, Vols.1-4 (fan/boot 10CDR)
* The Beatles: From Then to You (Complete Christmas Messages) (fan/boot CDR)
* Elvis Presley: If Every Day Was Like Christmas (RCA CD)
* Emmylou Harris: Light of the Stable: The Christmas Album (Warner Bros. CD)
* Grateful Dead: Warfield Theatre, San Francisco 10-10-80 (acoustic) (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks Vol.5: Oakland Coliseum Arena 12-26-79 (GDM 3CD)
* Big Star: #1 Record (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Big Star: Radio City (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Big Star: 3rd (Ardent/4 Men With Beards LP)
* Chris Bell: I Am the Cosmos (Deluxe Edition) (Rhino Handmade 2CD)
* Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Deluxe Edition) (MCA 2SACD)
* The Flaming Lips: Zaireeka (Warner Bros./boot CDR)
* Guided By Voices: Universal Truths and Cycles (Matador LP)
* Guided By Voices: Half Smiles of the Decomposed (Matador (LP)
* Wilco: FIB, Benicassim 7-20-07 (FM CDR)
* Beck: Sea Change (MFSL 2LP)
* DJ Spooky: The Secret Song (Thirsty Ear CD+DVD)

Commentary:

Happy Boxing Day! I hope y’all had a wonderful Christmas! As you can see from the photograph above, Santa Claus was certainly generous with me!

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I’ve long been familiar with Dieterich Buxtehude’s (c.1637-1707) sacred vocal music but until recently, I didn’t even realize he wrote any instrumental music at all. In fact, he wrote very little -- but one of my favorite baroque violinists, John Holloway, undertook a survey of the extant chamber music for the Danish DaCapo label in the early nineties which have now been repackaged by the intrepid Naxos in fine budget editions. Wow, the music is absolutely sublime! The finest Baroque music intimates that human perfection may just be possible; it utterly lacks the self-doubt that plagues the post-Romantic age in which we now live. I look forward to picking up the first two volumes!

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John Coltrane’s Prestige recordings have long been a gaping hole in my collection, now filled with these recently remastered and thoughtfully assembled box sets. Fearless Leader groups together all of Coltrane’s recordings as a leader while Interplay (not pictured, but on its way!) and Side Steps compile all of his sideman sessions. In all, these three box sets contain sixteen CDs of Trane and his cohorts in a series of loose, spontaneous blowing sessions recorded by sonic-alchemist Rudy Van Gelder: = Bliss! I’ve barely scratched the surface of these box sets, but I was immediate struck with the profound beauty of Coltrane’s ballad playing on these recordings. The handsome packaging, first-rate sound quality, and detailed discographical notes (complete with reproductions of the original album art) make these a real delight for this Coltrane fan!

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Muhal Richard Abrams’s solo piano set on Pi, Vision Towards Essence, has been on my want list for ages, and (my sweet) Santa gave it to me for Christmas. Thank you, thank you! I haven’t listened to it yet, but will be doing so soon, tomorrow, I think; no doubt this will be challenging and stimulating record! Mr. Abrams is, of course, the godfather of the AACM and while I have a number of his albums, he also represents another giant hole in my (admittedly out of control) record collection. I gotta work on that (both).

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Finally, DJ Shadow's new album on Thirsty Ear is an epic journey combining cutting edge rap, avant-jazz (featuring Matthew Shipp et al.) and a couple of surprisingly evocative instrumental covers of two Led Zeppelin tunes. Interesting! I'm not even sure what's on the DVD, but this is one album that will definitely reward repeated listens. Fusion remains a possibilty, people!

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And also on the way is another gift to ourselves, thanks to some cash money that Santa Claus dropped down the chimney: the Beatles in Stereo box. I could not hold out any longer! No, I’m not all that interested in hearing the first four albums in stereo, but I do want the rest of it -- especially the final recordings not present on the otherwise exquisite Beatles in Mono box -- so the big box really is a must-have and definitive companion. Plus having all the mini-documentaries in one place will be nice...Not to mention the “limited” nature of the box itself which makes for a genuine collector’s item of sorts. And...and...Does it sound like I am justifying this purchase? Yes, it is expensive, but I am certain it will be worth it. After all, The Beatles are a source of great joy in our household, so we might as well have the best versions available, right? Right.

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So, thank you very VERY MUCH, Mssrs. Santa Claus (you know who you are!). MERRY CHRISTMAS EACH AND EVERYONE!

December 22, 2009

Night Sky 12-21-09


Night Sky 12-21-09b, originally uploaded by Rodger Coleman.

Inspired by Lizzy’s photography (and her blog), I decided to try some super-long exposures with the tripod last night. I got lucky with this shot of a starry sky (30 secs. at f/3.5, ISO 640, 18mm.). I love living out here in the country where on a cold, clear night you can see millions of stars and the photograph sort of manages to capture a little of the grandeur. There are other photos from last night on Flickr.

December 21, 2009

December 20, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Research Arkestra: Black Myth/Out in Space (Motor Music 2CD)

After a three-week layover in Paris, the Arkestra was well-rested (if hungry) when they appeared at the Berlin Jazz Festival at the Kongresshalle on November 7, 1970. Like the Donaueschingen concert on October 17th, it was recorded for broadcast by Südwestrundfunk (SWF) and some of the music appeared on It’s After the End of the World (MPS 2120746) in 1971. (See Campbell & Trent, p.168 for the gory details of how that album is cobbled together from the two concerts.) The extant eighty-minute broadcast reels were issued for the first time on this Motor Music CD and it is another fantastic performance from this first European tour preserved in truly extraordinary sound quality. However, Szwed describes this concert as a tense confrontation with a dour and skeptical crowd:

The audience on November 7 at Berlin Jazz Days at the Kongresshalle in West Berlin was not ready for what they saw. The Arkestra opened for the premier European-based free jazz big band Globe Unity Orchestra, led by Alexander von Schlippenbach, a German pianist. Globe Unity had established itself as a grimly serious representative of the new jazz, but one which also owed less to American musical tradition than European groups of the past. The audience was not sure that what they were witnessing with the Arkestra wasn’t a parody. The sermonizing and call-and-response declamations on outer space were unsettling to begin with, but the final blow came when Sun Ra peered through a telescope aimed at the roof of the hall, and claimed he could see his native Saturn. When some of the crowd began to boo, Sonny stunned them into silence when he told them that the noise they were making was the sound of the “subhumans” (the English equivalent of the word used by the Nazis to describe the Jews): “I don’t see any subhumans in the hall, but I hear them.” Then he turned back to the band “with fire in his eyes and signaled for a kick-ass space chord,” said [James] Jacson. “And he hit the same chord on the organ. Blam!” Then he called out to Pat Patrick, and baritone screams echoed through the theater, growing wilder with each chorus, producing the essence of what New York musicians were calling “energy music,” until the audience was subdued, if not entirely overcome (p.283).

That particular altercation is not documented on this recording (as far as I can tell), but there is certainly a lot of the usual “sermonizing and call-and-response declamations,” “kick-ass space chords” and New York-style “energy music” on display, but presented with deep roots in pre-and-post-war American swing and his sense of high-camp sci-fi infused theatricality. This stuff is far from the “grimly serious” and Eurocentric approach of Globe Unity and their ilk. I like their music OK, but let’s face it, Sun Ra’s is a lot more fun! In time, the Europeans of all stripes would catch on in a big way and the Arkestra would tour The Continent regularly for the remainder of Sonny’s life, even if many critics continue to dismiss him as a charlatan, a fake.

The CD opens with Alan Silva playing some brooding bass over tinkling percussion. June Tyson sweetly sings, “Out in space is such a pleasant place…a place where you can be free, truly free, with me.” After a while, Sun Ra signals a swelling space-chord and we’re off on an almost forty-minute conducted improvisation, centered around a long, dramatic synthesizer solo, punctuated with frenzied group improv, and ending with a series of unaccompanied solos by Silva (on cello), Eloe Omoe on Neptunian libflecto and finally John Gilmore on rip-roaring tenor sax. After this tumultuous journey into outer space, Ra moves to the piano to introduce another performance of one of the “Discipline” series compositions first heard on the Paradiso tape from October 18. The improved sonics of the Berlin recoding allows one to really hear the detailed orchestration of this beautiful, through-composed work. Utilizing a somber, quasi-ballad form, the piece moves through a series of richly voiced harmonies, sometimes sweet in an almost Guy Lombardo (or rather Duke Ellington) fashion, other times sour and dissonant, with a tonally vague conclusion. Very interesting. Ra moves to the twangy clavinet to introduce “Walking on the Moon,” which features a honking bari sax solo by Pat Patrick and some additional (perhaps improvised?) lyrics by Tyson (“If you fall down, get up and walk some more; You’re like a little a baby who never walked before; So take your first step into outer space…” etc.) The super hi-fi sonics make this rare live performance of this short-lived tune a real treat.

Sun Ra takes to the microphone to briefly talk about “Outer Space Where I Came From” before launching into the Afro-urban strut of “Watusa” which ends with some grafted on applause. Ra and Tyson then recite “Myth Versus Realty,” which poses the central questions: (1) if you are not reality, whose myth are you? and/or (2) if you are not a myth, whose reality are you? Sonny then elaborates his concerns amidst cued free-jazz freakouts:

I don’t expect to be a citizen of this planet.
It takes too long.
So I hereby proclaim you citizens of my greater universe!
In my greater universe there is no equality.
It’s according to what you are.
That is why we don’t have walls in our universe.
Because everyone is allowed to be themselves,
But on this planet you don’t have time to be yourself.
Hence, what you are & what you do!
Ra informs the audience: “this is Danny Thompson to tell you how Jupiter looks” and “this is Danny Davis, who’s going to tell you about my home planet, Saturn,” each soloist unleashing a torrent of notes while the whole thing climaxes with a bashing group blowing blowout complete with Silva’s wiry “Strange Strings” scraping and the furiously pounding Thunder Drum. Whew! Ra states the “Theme of the Stargazers” on the clavinet and Gilmore and Tyson sing the verse once before Ra signals the group space chant “The Second Stop is Jupiter” which quickly moves to some jaunty swing with “Why Go to the Moon?” which suggests a number of alternative destinations, including but not limited to the various planets -- or alternatively, why not “just be your natural self?” This was certainly a pertinent question in 1970, as it is today. A quick edit moves us to the concluding “We Travel the Spaceways,” sung by the Arkestra and Tyson as they parade out through the audience to warm but less than totally enthusiastic applause.

The next day, the Arkestra would travel to the British Isles for concerts in London and Liverpool before returning to the United States.

December 19, 2009

Playlist 12-19-09

* The Tallis Scholars Sing Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585) (d.1) (Gimell 2CD)
* Hesperion XXI & La Cappella Reial de Catalunya (Savall): Vienna 1-27-08 (FM 2CDR)
* J.S. Bach: Cello Suites (ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Charles Mingus: Freebody Park, Newport, RI 7-4-59 (FM CDR)
* Sun Ra: Paradiso, Amsterdam 10-18-70 (FM 2CD)
* Sun Ra: Black Myth/Out in Space (d.2) (Motor Music 2CD)
* Miles Davis: The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (Columbia 4CD)
* Wayne Shorter Quartet: Folkets Hus, Umea 10-28-06 (d.1) (FM 2CDR)
* Miroslav Vitous Group: Museum Tinguely, Basel 11-15-09 (FM CDR)
* Anthony Braxton: 4 Compositions (Ulrichsberg) 2005: Phonomanie VIII (Leo 4CD)
* Rudresh Mahanthappa - Mauger Trio: Teatro Fondamenta Nuove, Venezia 3-23-09 (FM CDR)
* Rudresh Mahanthappa - Indo-Pak Coalition: Teatro Romano 6-27-09 (FM CDR)
* ECM All-Stars (Towner, Abercrombie, et al.): Village Gate, NYC 1-19-76 (Pre-FM 2CDR)
* Free Form Funky Freqs: Urban Mythology Vol.1 (portions) (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions: The Anthology 1961-1977 (d.2) (MCA 2CD)
* The Beatles: Live at the BBC (Apple/EMI 2CD)
* The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (mono) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour (mono) (Apple/EMI CD)
* Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol.8: Tell Tale Signs (d.1) (Columbia 2CD)
* Led Zeppelin: Antrabata (d.11) (boot CDR)
* Soft Machine: De Doelen, Rotterdam 1-16-70 (FM CDR)
* Grateful Dead: McNichols Arena, Denver, CO 8-13-79 (set 1) (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: McNichols Arena, Denver, CO 8-14-79 (end of set 2) (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Rainbow Theatre, London 10-3-81 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Civic Center, Philadelphia, PA 4-20-84 (SBD 3CDR)
* Chicago: “Mystery Disc” (mix CDR) (see below)
* Robert Pollard: Waved Out (Matador LP)
* Robert Pollard with Doug Gillard: Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department (FCS LP)
* A Perfect Circle: Mer de Noms (Virgin CD)

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My friend (and drummer extraordinaire), Sam Byrd, sent me a CDR in an unlabeled jewel box with the instructions: “Trust me on this one – just put it on & play loud! Ha Ha!” How could I resist? I put it on and was confronted with a five-minute distorto guitar feedback solo. I thought, “WTF is this?!” At times I almost thought it sounded like me, way back in the UYA days! But I know I never sounded that good – and I couldn’t ever imagine the guys letting me go on and on like that without interjecting something. Plus the sound of my amplifier frying out – I would have remembered that, I think. Anyway, next up is some art-folk number…and I’m still totally confused. It’s not until the big hit single, “Colour My World,” that I realize that I am listening to Chicago – Chicago?!?. Boy, did it bring me back to my wee childhood days…Except of course, I didn’t really start listening to Chicago’s albums until 1975’s Chicago VII, which explains why I didn’t recognize “Free Form Guitar” from their very first album, Chicago Transit Authority from 1969. Sure there’s a healthy dose of cheese here and there, but Terry Kath’s guitar playing and singing still sounds pretty freaking awesome! Makes me think I should try to track down the original LPs…Thanks for a fun listen, Sam!

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When Columbia/Legacy released The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions in 1998, it was a revelation for fans of this classic album. Purists might carp about the re-mixing (and the digital echo is noticeable), but to my ears, the improved clarity of these large, dark-toned ensembles (two basses, two drumsets, three keyboards, bass clarinet, etc,) is worth any loss of “atmosphere” in the original mix. Heck, I still have my old LP, if I want to hear it. I hadn’t listened to Bitches Brew in a long time and I was immediately captivated by the hypnotic grooves and densely interwoven instrumental textures. Wow, this really is one of those truly timeless albums; it sounds as fresh and unique today as the first time I heard it, probably around the same time I was digging Chicago! But this sprawling double-album is not by any means easy listening, and it still blows my mind that Bitches Brew was Miles’s first gold record, selling over one million copies! I mean, if you’ve actually heard it, that figure is just astounding. What were all those people hearing back in 1970? What were they responding to? Miles’s cachet? Well, it was different time, I guess…The previously unreleased tracks on the box set are extremely interesting, but they are mostly experiments (many featuring guitarist John McLaughlin) in mixing elements of the “In a Silent Way” approach of the year before with the Indian elements of sitar and tabla that would follow in 1972. Thankfully, Columbia/Legacy finally released The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions in 2003 and The Complete On the Corner Sessions in 2007 to fully document this fascinating, transformational period in Miles Davis’s art. I’m looking forward to delving into those box sets again in the near future.

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I also wound up listening to all four discs of Anthony Braxton: 4 Compositions (Ulrichsberg) 2005, a smorgasbord of Braxton’s incredibly diverse compositional approaches. Disc One consists of a recent solo piano piece (Composition 301) performed by Genevieve Foccroulle, who has recorded the entire corpus of piano music on a nine-CD set, also on Leo (no, I don’t have it, although I do have the four-disc survey on hatArt admirably performed by Hildegard Kleeb). Discs Two and Four features an ad hoc large ensemble playing Braxton’s orchestral music in the Tri-Centric fashion, that is to say, with three conductors with a collagist approach to the vast range of compositional material. Disc Three features (a variation of) the Diamond Curtain Wall Trio with Taylor Ho Bynum on brass, Aaron Siegel on percussion and Braxton on a variety of reeds and the Super Collider computer program. What appears to be a severely daunting program is brought off with dazzling aplomb; the musicians’ love and respect for Braxton’s music is readily apparent, making this a particularly satisfying overview of (some of) his most wildly inventive and intensely challenging works. Despite my best efforts to read and understand, I find it difficult to say anything intelligent about Braxton’s music. All I know is that so much of it moves me in a way that no other music does – or possibly can. Deep down, I believe Braxton is probably one of the world’s greatest living composers, surely an artist with a capital-A, the real deal and the proof is, as they say, in the pudding. Despite the obfuscation and deliberate obscurantism of (some of) his proselytizers and (yes, at times) the man himself, the music is singularly beautiful and infinitely rewarding to listen to. That’s all anybody needs to know.

December 13, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Research Arkestra: Paradiso, Amsterdam 10-18-70 (FM 2CDR)

After the (semi) triumphant appearance at the Donaueschingen Musik Festival, the Arkestra traveled to Amsterdam to perform at the famed Paradiso on the following evening, October 18, 1970. The “Cosmic Relaxation Center Paradiso” was opened in a decommissioned church on March 30, 1968 as a publicly-sponsored cultural institution which, amazingly enough, continues to function in that capacity to this very day. The significance of this formerly-sacred now publicly-funded venue was no doubt meaningful to an exhausted Arkestra who managed to deliver a ragged yet truly inspired performance. Campbell lists a thirty-five minute audience recording (p.166), but ninety minutes of the original VPRO radio broadcast has recently surfaced in fairly decent sound quality and it is definitely worth seeking out.

The recording begins with the radio announcer introducing the musicians (in Dutch, of course) and a spirited rendition of the strutting “Watusi,” including a long percussion segment featuring the booming “thunder drum.” No doubt all of this accompanied dancers and parading musicians, film clips and slide projections -- perhaps even some fire-eating as well. While not much seems to be happening musically, the audience is clearly enjoying the visual spectacle. Up next is perhaps the first (or rather a prototype) of what would later be called the “Discipline” series of compositions. Both Szwed (p.285) and Campbell (p.170) state that Sun Ra did not begin work on the “Discipline” series (which numbered over one-hundred compositions) until the Arkestra’s brief move to California in early 1971; but this (and another two works performed at Paradiso) is conceptually similar enough to indicate that the idea was germinating at least as early as the fall of 1970. Szwed describes the “Discipline” series as “tightly conceived exercises using minimal material […] built on hocketed horn lines, with each horn playing within a two- to three-note range, a cyclical melody developing out of the fragments, each person playing his parts scrupulously with no deviation whatsoever” (p.285). Sun Ra told journalist Robert Palmer in 1974 that “the slightest variation would destroy the whole thing” (Id.), emphasizing that these pieces are completely through-composed, the epitome of the kind of freedom-through-discipline Sonny constantly espoused to his musicians and to anyone else who would listen. This particular example is slow and stately, building monumental edifices of strange and beautiful harmonies, reaching toward the heavens and ending with a tension-filled chord, straining at the limits of the instrumentalists’ ranges.

After that arresting prelude, Ra introduces the bouncing bassline of “Enlightenment” on an ultra-distorted keyboard and the whole group chants the lyrics with June Tyson providing her echoing response. Suddenly, there’s a short outburst of free-jazz skronk before Ra and Tyson urgently announce to the audience that “It’s After the End of the World!” This version is taken at a faster clip than at Donaueschingen, with the voices dropping down to a stagey whisper, the tempo maniacally accelerating until a final, dramatically slowed down exhortation of “don’t you know that yet?!” This signals another blast of high-energy group improv which quickly segues into the lilting “We Travel the Spaceways,” complete with clanging bells and gongs and some nice Xenakis-like portamento bowing from Alan Silva while the Arkestra moves about the audience, chanting the theme.

A wave of applause swells over the continued chanting while another Afro-percussion groove sets up a squealing, multiphonic tenor solo from John Gilmore – by now, the audience is way into it, whooping and hollering with pure delight! Trumpet and Neptunian libflecto spar over crazy polyrhythmic percussion and free drumset pummeling, until Ra enters with a dissonant organ chord, grinding over and over until moving direction into some two-handed polyphony. A wheezy synthesizer signals the band to drop out, leaving Ra to improvise a wandering, descending keyboard solo, full of white noise generators and melodramatic organ chords. Just as things start to get crazy, percussion enters along with some swooping trumpet. More horns enter the fray only to be interrupted by the radio DJ who once again introduces the band personnel. Obviously, things continued in this vein for some time; oh well! Applause fades up and Sun Ra has moved to the acoustic piano for a series of duets with Silva’s cello, (possibly) Eloe Omoe on Neptunian liblfecto and (probably) Akh Tal Ebah on trumpet. Sonny is at his most aggressively avant-garde at times, bringing to mind the ferocity of Cecil Taylor’s piano attack, but with his own “old-timey” rhythmic sensibility and romantically rhapsodic lyricism. After about six minutes, this directed improvisation coalesces into what appears to be another “Discipline” series composition, with Ra leading the way with a series of harmonically ambiguous piano chords. The ensemble sounds a bit tentative, but the haunting beauty of the composition is affecting nonetheless.

The impossibly difficult “Shadow World” gets a rather perfunctory reading here (compared to the hair-raisingly intense performance the night before), but opens up for a series of exciting a cappella saxophone solos from Gilmore, Danny Davis and Marshall Allen and some edgy, “Strange-Strings”-styled bowings from Silva. Ra interjects a crashing organ chord to introduce the infectiously swinging, “Walking On the Moon,” one of those “space-age barbeque” numbers first heard on My Brother the Wind, Vol.II. Unfortunately, this song was only performed a handful of times in 1970 and 1971, presumably because the Apollo moon landings were still fresh in the cultural memory, and thereafter permanently dropped from the repertoire. Too bad, as it was clearly a fun tune live, full of joyous riffing by the Arkestra and, of course, June Tyson’s soulful vocals. Ra brings it to an end with a rubato solo on the buzzing Rocksichord, concluding with a weirdly unresolved chord. The DJ then interjects a quick announcement over a smattering of applause.

After a tinkly Rocksichord introduction, another “Discipline”-type composition follows, a sequence of richly orchestrated, contrapuntally derived chords, sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, ending ambiguously with a dense block of widely-spaced pitches. A spacey, conducted improvisation arises within the harmonic space established by the composition, featuring a massed oboe choir, of all things. You don’t hear much jazz oboe, but its pinched, exotic-sounding wail is an integral element of Sun Ra’s Arkestra and this is great example of its surprising versatility. Later, Ra takes over with one of his lengthy, “mad scientist” organ/synthesizer solos which is overlaid here and there with full-blown ensemble freak outs. Out of the murk, the Arkestra chants, “The Second Stop is Jupiter!” in crazy antiphony, leading to further free-jazz skronk that is eventually reined in by Ra’s sing-songy organ, prompting Gilmore and Tyson to sing the “Theme of the Star Gazers.” After a quick recitation of the song, another quiet, spacey improvisation follows with some more lovely arco playing from Silva. Sadly, the tape abruptly runs out.

This recording is clearly several generations from the master, so it’s possible a better-sounding (and more complete) tape will surface in the future. It’s also possible the original pre-FM reels still exist at VPRO and would make for a welcome official release some day. In the meantime, this will have to suffice.

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The Arkestra returned to Paris but promised gigs in France never materialized due to the failure of French drummer Claude Delcloo to line them up. Adding insult to injury, a planned recording session for BYG/Actuel also fell through, leaving the Arkestra stranded without work (paying or not) for almost three weeks. The situation was so dire that Gilmore wound up playing his last session date as a sideman outside the Arkestra, recording with Dizzy Reece, Siegfried Kessler, Patrice Caratini and Art Taylor on Futura LP 23 (Campbell p.166). The Arkestra barely managed to hang on until their next scheduled performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival on November 7th (see Szwed p.283). We’ll take a listen to that concert next week.

December 12, 2009

Playlist 12-12-09

* Dowland: Complete Lute Works, Vols.3-5 (O’Dette) (Harmonia Mundi 5CD)
* Vivaldi: Cello Sonatas (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics CD)
* Vivaldi: Violin Concertos, RV331, etc. (VBO/Marcon/Carmignola) (Arkiv Produktion CD)
* Venice Baroque Orchestra (Marcon/Carmignola): Concerto Veneziano (Arkiv Produktion CD)
* Feldman: String Quartet (The Group for Contemporary Music) (Koch CD)
* Feldman: Triadic Memories (Liebner) (Oehms Classics 2CD)
* Feldman: Piano and Orchestra (New World Symphony Orchestra/Tilson Thomas (Argo CD)
* Cage: Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano (Tilbury) (Milan 10-21-07) (FM CDR)
* Cage: Music of Changes (Tudor) (hat[now]ART CD)
* John Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (d.1-2) (Impulse! 4CD)
* Sun Ra: Jazz in Silhouette (Saturn/Evidence CD)
* Sun Ra: Black Myth/Out in Space (d.1) (MPS/Motor Music 2CD)
* Sun Ra: Paradiso, Amsterdam 10-18-70 (FM 2CDR)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Moment’s Energy (ECM CD)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: This Brings Us To, Vol.1 (Pi CD)
* Jean-Luc Ponty: Royce Hall, U.C.L.A. 12-4-76 (Pre-FM CDR)
* The Beatles: “Baby It’s You” (Apple/EMI CDEP)
* The Beatles: “Free As a Bird” (Apple/EMI CDEP)
* The Beatles: “Real Love” (Apple/EMI CDEP)
* John Lennon: Anthology (d.3) (Capitol 4CD)
* Big Star: #1 Record (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Big Star: Radio City (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Big Star: 3rd (Ardent/4 Men With Beards LP)
* Grateful Dead: Auditorium Theatre, Chicago 5-12-77(x) (GD/Rhino “bonus” CD)
* Grateful Dead: Boston Garden 9-26-91 (SBD 2CDR)
* The Jam: All Mod Cons/Sound Effects (MFSL CD)
* Cocteau Twins: Echoes in a Shallow Bay (4AD/Capitol CDEP)
* Cocteau Twins: Tiny Dynamine (4AD/Capitol CDEP)
* Cocteau Twins: Sunburst and Snowblind (4AD/Capitol CDEP)
* Cocteau Twins: Iceblink Luck (4AD/Capitol CDEP)
* Sonic Youth: Sister (SST LP)
* Guided By Voices: Fast Japanese Spin Cycle (Engine 7”EP)
* Guided By Voices: Wish In One Hand (Jass 7”EP)
* Robert Pollard: Not In My Airforce (Matador LP)
* Wilco: Wilco (the album) (Nonesuch CD)
* The Flaming Lips: “Fight Test” (Warner Bros. CDEP)
* The Flaming Lips: “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell” (Warner Bros. CDEP)
* The Flaming Lips: Embryonic (Warner Bros. DVD-A)

Commentary:

I love Morton Feldman’s music, but it is difficult to find the time required. In his late period, Feldman’s extraordinarily subtle, extremely quiet music works with vast expanses of time: the first String Quartet (1979) lasts over an hour and Sabine Liebner’s performance of Triadic Memories (1981) stretches to over two. (String Quartet No.2 (1983) is perhaps the most extreme example of all at more than four hours in a single movement!) One must submit to Feldman’s singular soundworld: pitches float in an infinite space, not quite atonal but not quite tonal either, rhythms are not quite regular, repetitions not quite exactly alike. Uniquely beautiful but not exactly pretty, it is not quite minimalist, but well apart from the maximalist, total-serialism mainstream of the time (and very different from fellow-New York School luminary, John Cage, for that matter). Feldman’s music reminds me of Mark Rothko’s mature paintings: they lack all the bravura and extroverted machismo of the other so-called Abstract Expressionists and appear almost minimalist by comparison. But a closer look reveals the same concern for the painterly expression of transcendence rather than mere optical effects. Feldman’s music hovers in space, darkly shimmering like a Rothko painting, inviting contemplation but eternally resisting interpretation. There is the sense with Feldman’s longer pieces that there is neither beginning nor ending, only this (perhaps very large) fragment; the music is time, which is infinite and our experience of it is arbitrary and limited, like a painting that forever hangs on the wall, to be experienced – or not.

December 8, 2009

Less Common Birds at the Feeder: Brown Thrasher

It was a beautiful sunny morning on Saturday and I was able to take a nice photograph of the Brown Thrasher (Taxostoma rufum) -- much better than my last attempt in September! Yet another rare and beautiful bird at our doorstep. Amazing.

December 7, 2009

Less Common Birds at the Feeder: Pileated Woodpecker (F)

Of all the beautiful birds that hang around our feeders, the Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is, to me, the most magnificent. A very large bird, about as a big as a crow, a Pileated Woodpecker is really impressive up close. Many folks are unable to attract them to their feeders, but I think the fact that our feeder is way up high in a tree makes them feel more comfortable. The males are way more skittish than the females and will be much more difficult to photograph, but I hope to capture his distinctive red “mustache.” The females are pretty much fearless; this one let me take hundreds of pictures while she chowed down on suet for fifteen minutes or more. These amazing birds have not been seen at the feeders since early summer, but now that freezing weather has arrived, they will definitely be checking out the bird buffet here at Chez Nuvoid from time to time. We are so lucky!

December 6, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Research Arkestra: Black Myth/Out in Space (Motor Music 2CD)

After the success of the Fondation Maeght performances in August, a hastily conceived “tour” of Europe was put together by Victor Schoenfield and Joachim Berendt (among others) with support from radio station Südwestrundfunk (SWF) and record labels Black Lion in the UK and SABA/MPS in Germany. The “tour,” which began in early October 1970, was something less than a total success. But at the time, Ra was excited to return to the Old World -- there was even talk of going to Africa. The Arkestra was enlarged to twenty musicians and Ra rehearsed them extensively right up their departure time. To add to the spectacle, two more dancers and a fire-eater were added to the entourage soon after their arrival in Paris. Sonny packed up his entire arsenal of electronic keyboards and all manner of lighting equipment, slide and film projectors, and trunks of glittering costumes and stage props for the trip; Sun Ra and his Arkestra were embarking on the next great phase of the Cosmo Drama.

The Arkestra appeared without incident at the Théâtre des Amandiers in Nanterre on October 9th and in Lyons on in the 12th, but their Paris debut turned into a near riot. Just days prior to their scheduled appearance at Les Halles, a nightclub fire had killed a number of people and at the last possible minute, the police mandated that only half of the 4,000 ticket-holders for Sun Ra’s performance would be allowed into the venue. As tempers began to flare, riot squads were positioned between the crowd and the theatre entrance. The mob began chanting “Libérez Sun Ra” and demanding that Sun Ra join his embattled comrades outside the theater. Szwed eloquently describes the precarious situation:

Sun Ra considered the situation, then grabbed the sign of the Sun, held it above his head, and started toward the exit, the Arkestra and the audience following the leader.

Out of the theater they came, shedding heat as they walked, banners streaming, Sun Ra, the Solar Arkstra, and the chosen few, marching straight through the police phalanx and down the street. And the crowds followed as they all circled around the block. When the procession returned to the front of the theater the police officals gave Sun Ra a salute as he passed their shattered ranks and marched into the theater, this time with the Les Halles 4,000 (now plus fellow travelers and cops), and the Arkestra mounted the stage once again
(p.282).
The concert itself was apparently plagued with technical difficulties and a jittery and oppressive police presence, although the audience clearly appreciated Ra’s charm and charisma and the theatrical, multimedia extravaganza of the Arkestra’s performance.

On the 17th, the Arkestra performed at the prestigious Donaueschingen Musik Festival, the homefront of the stars of post-war European avant-garde composers including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, and others. This year, Joachim Berendt managed to integrate modern jazz into the festival’s programming and Sun Ra’s three hour set did not disappoint. Recorded for broadcast by SWF, some of this material originally appeared on the MPS release entitled, It’s After the End of the World in 1971 and the entire forty-eight minute broadcast was issued on CD by Motor Music in 1998. (The Motor City issue also contains a second disc recorded in Berlin later on in the tour, which we will consider separately.)

According to Berendt (via Hartmut Geerken's liner notes), Sun Ra composed “Black Forest Myth” especially for this concert, its title referring to the legendary forest which surrounds the small town of Donaueschingen. The piece was performed only on this one occasion and it is a tension-filled four minutes for piccolo, electronic keyboards, and scraping, clanging percussion which sounds just as abstract and forbidding as the “contemporary classical” music for which the Donaueschinger Musiktage was made (in)famous. Another rendition of “Friendly Galaxy No.2” immediately follows, but this version differs markedly from the massed flute choir and trumpets orchestration found on Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Vol.2. Here, the rhythms are heavier and Ra plays much more aggressively on both piano and electric organ. In addition, Eloe Omoe (or possibly Danny Thompson) plays a riveting solo on the Neptunian libflecto (a bassoon with a trumpet mouthpiece) and the entire Arkestra enters toward the end with some spirited group improv before Ra closes the piece with some spacey synthesizer tones.

What follows is some of the most bracingly challenging music in Sun Ra’s enormous discography. “Journey Through the Outer Darkness” pits various duos and trios against Ra’s cataclysmic organ and battalions of drums and percussion in an unrelenting barrage of music until an astonishing solo bass clarinet (Pat Patrick? – or is the Neptunian libflecto again?) finds a way to end the piece to stunned applause. The “Strange Worlds – Black Myth – It’s After the End of the World” sequence features the heavenly-voiced June Tyson declaiming Ra’s poetry alongside constantly shifting instrumental combinations. These evolving concertinos create wildly differentiated textures and colors, from the keening wail of oboes, saxophones and libflecto to the staccato brassiness of trumpets to the microtonal whine of Alan Silva’s viola. After about eleven minutes, Sun Ra introduces a clangorous space chord on the piano which is picked up by the Arkestra. In its aftermath, Tyson and Gilmore exclaim: “It’s after the end of the world! Don’t you know that yet?!” The Arkestra then launches into some more ecstatic free-jazz skronk just as the track fades. What a shame! “We’ll Wait for You” concludes the recording with a quick space chant followed by a long series of thoughtful solos over a deliberately murky and mumbling rhythm section, deftly conducted by Ra from behind his bank of keyboards. Ra summons up the whole panoply of electronic sounds from chiming bells to swooning synthesizer to chattering organ while each soloist explores both ensemble and a cappella territories, concluding with a brief but devastating Gilmore outing that brings down the house.

Szwed states that “[t]he audience received them well, but the German critics dismissed them” (p.283) while Geerken’s liner notes to this Motor Music CD allude to a review in Der Spiegel “that was abound with ignorance and rubbish.” Clearly Sun Ra was not immediately accepted into the rarified realm of the European cultural elite despite his appearance at Donaueschingen. Nevertheless, the Arkestra’s performance was a landmark event. Critics still debate the genuineness of Sun Ra’s music, but the proof is in the listening. Listening to the Donaueschingen performance reveals a large band at the height of its powers, playing Sun Ra’s most cutting edge musical conceptions with razor-sharp precision and prodigious invention while Ra himself displays his unequaled mastery of electronic keyboards. I know I say it all the time, but this is another essential Sun Ra disc that belongs in every fan’s collection.

December 5, 2009

Playlist 12-5-09

* Dowland: Complete Lute Works, Vol.2 (O’Dette) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Marais: Suite d’un Goût Etranger: Pieces de Viole, 1717 (Savall) (Alia Vox 2SACD)
* Geminiani: Cello Sonatas, Op.5 (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics CD)
* J.S. Bach: 7 Harpsichord Concertos (AAM/Manze/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Herbie Nichols: Love, Gloom, Cash, Love (Bethlehem CD)
* Miles Davis Quintet: Relaxin’ (Prestige/DCC CD)
* Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings (d.1) (Columbia 6CD)
* Wayne Shorter: JuJu (Blue Note CD)
* Wayne Shorter: Schizophrenia (Blue Note LP)
* Wayne Shorter Quintet: Circus, Copenhagen 7-13-96 (FM 2CDR)
* Wayne Shorter Quartet: Sala Sinopoli, Roma 11-07-06 (AUD CDR)
* Herbie Hancock & The New Standard All-Stars: Warsaw 6-29-97 (SBD 2CDR)
* Sun Ra: Nuits de la Fondation Maeght, Vol.1 (Universe CD)
* Sun Ra: Black Myth/Out in Space (Motor Music/MPS 2CD)
* Cecil Taylor Unit: Ann Arbor, MI 4-15-76 (FM CDR)
* Cecil Taylor Unit: Saalfelden 9-4-83 (AUD 2CDR)
* Cecil Taylor/Tony Oxley: Moers Festival 5-12-08 (FM CDR)
* Cecil Taylor/Tony Oxley: Strasbourg Auditorium 10-2-09 (AUD 2CDR)
* David S. Ware Quartet: Corridors and Parallels (AUM Fidelity CD)
* Anthony Braxton Diamond Curtain Wall Trio: hr-Sendsaal, Frankfurt 10-30-09 (FM CDR)
* Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone: On and Off (Skirl CD)
* King Crimson: Red (DGM/Virgin CD)
* Grateful Dead: Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall, Kansas City, MO 12-11-79 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Civic Center, Hartford 3-19-90 (d.2-3) (pre-FM 3CDR)
* The Style Council: My Ever Changing Moods (Geffen LP)
* Cocteau Twins: Victorialand (4AD/Capitol CD)
* Aphex Twin: Drukqs (Warp/Sire 2CD)
* Guided By Voices: Hardcore UFOs: Disc 2: Demons & Painkillers (Matador 5CD+DVD)
* Robert Pollard: Silverfish Trivia (Prom Is Coming 12”EP)
* Boston Spaceships: Licking Stamps and Drinking Shitty Coffee (APC 2LP)
* Gastr Del Sol: Mirror Repair (Drag City CDEP)
* Gastr Del Sol: Crookt, Crackt, or Fly (Drag City LP)
* Jim O’Rourke: Insignificance (Drag City LP)
* The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots 5.1 (stereo) (Warner Bros. DVD-A)

Commentary:

What? December already? Ugh.

We are really looking forward to the Solstice, when this awful period of diminishing light will end and the days will begin to get longer. I’m finding that as I get older, the slow retreat of the sun each fall has become increasingly difficult. Thankfully, after December 21st, there will gradually be more and more light in the sky. That will be reason enough to celebrate!

+++

The return to the workaday world after a long holiday weekend was pretty rough as well, which is reflected in the appearance of several Cecil Taylor recordings on the playlist. I realize it is stereotypical to describe Taylor’s music as “agitated” and “aggressive” and most clichéd of all, “dissonant and noisy”; but it is just these qualities that feel so reassuring (to me) when life feels agitated, aggressive, dissonant and noisy. And yet to actually immerse oneself in Taylor’s soundworld reveals that his music transcends these stereotypes and encompasses the entire emotional spectrum, as infinite and profound as life itself. In other words, I have to be in the right mood to listen to Cecil, but whenever I do, I find his music incredibly life-affirming. At eighty years old, Cecil Taylor is still going strong -- now that is truly inspiring!

November 29, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Nuits de la Fondation Maeght vol.1 (Universe UV080 CD)

Recorded at the third and final concert on August 5, 1970, Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Volume 1 was originally released on the French Shandar label in 1971. Often bootlegged, it was also legitimately reissued on 12-inch 45RPM LP by the British label, Recommended Records, in 1981. (My copy sounds superb, but it’s plain black sleeve omits all relevant discographical information!) This CD issue on the Italian Universe label from 2005 is probably a “grey-market” bootleg as well, but it sounds fine and is packaged in a deluxe mini-gatefold LP sleeve. As of this writing, these Universe editions are in print and readily available.

The album opens with a spirited performance of “Enlightenment,” a composition co-written with trumpeter Hobart Dotson which dates all the way back to 1958’s Jazz in Silhouette. But by 1969, Sun Ra had abandoned Dotson’s counter-melodies and added typically Saturnalian lyrics. Here, Ra sets up the bouncy vamp on organ for John Gilmore and June Tyson, who chant in a call and response fashion, imploring humanity to join the Arkestra on its cosmic space voyage:

The Sound of Joy is Enlightenment
Space, Fire, Truth is Enlightenment
Space Fire
Sometimes it's Music
Strange Mathematics
Rhythmic Equations
The Sound of Thought is Enlightenment
The Magic Light of Tomorrow
Backwards are those of Sadness
Forward and Onward Are those of Gladness
Enlightenment Is my Tomorrow
It has no planes of Sorrow
Hereby, my Invitation
I do invite you be of my Space World
This Song is Sound of Enlightenment
The Fiery Truth of Enlightenment
Vibrations come from the Space World
Is of the Cosmic Starry Dimension
Enlightenment is my Tomorrow
It has no planes of Sorrow
Hereby, our Invitation
We do invite you to be of our Space World.

This infectious little ditty elicits some enthusiastic applause and, not surprisingly, “Enlightenment” would become a fixture of the live repertoire in coming years. Then, after a quick piano introduction, Gilmore and Tyson sing “The Star Gazers” in a lovely unison melody:

This is the Theme of the Star Gazers
Star Gazers in the Sky
This is the Theme of the Star Gazers
Star Gazers in the Sky
This is the Song of Tomorrow’s World
Of Cosmic Paradise.
After that plaintive vocal statement, Sonny launches into a gorgeous ad lib piano solo while small percussion instruments tinkle and clatter and Alan Silva provides some complementary figures on bass. Gradually, Ra builds up the intensity with cascading waves of chords and then bringing it back down to a gentle, quiet ending — until a crashing chord signals the beginning of the notorious “Shadow World.” Right off, it is obvious that the band is a well-oiled machine: the insanely complex, hocketed melodies are performed flawlessly, setting the stage for Gilmore’s utterly hair-raising solo on tenor saxophone, complete with a squealing and wailing a cappella cadenza. Ra then takes over with a skittering, swirling organ solo until cueing the horns for a huge, pulsating space chord. The braying and howling horns eventually subside, leaving Ra to sketch out the dramatic chord sequence on organ to end. This is a truly stunning performance of one of Ra’s most significant compositions and must be heard to be believed!

The album closes with an epic, twenty-minute-long MiniMoog/organ solo entitled, “The Cosmic Explorer” wherein Ra conjures up all kinds of incredible sounds from his electronic instruments: from spacey noodling to woozy portamentos, and blasts of white noise to apocalyptic torrents of dissonant tone-clusters. Meanwhile, cymbals, gongs and percussion rumble ominously in the background while a few horns add spare punctuation. After about seventeen minutes, the full Arkestra enters with a few minutes of high-energy, New-Thing-styled free-jazz which comes to a satisfyingly resolute climax before quickly fading out. I only wish we could hear the music that followed…

Like its companion volume, Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Volume 1 is an essential item in the discography, notable for its exceptionally good sound quality and superlative performances. Certainly, those in attendance were suitably impressed: the Arkestra had barely arrived back in Philadelphia when a group of European promoters offered to bring them back for a full-fledged tour only two months later, in October of 1970. I will be examining the surviving recordings from this momentous tour over the next few weeks here on Sun Ra Sunday.

November 28, 2009

Playlist 11-28-09


* Geminiani: Cello Sonatas, Op.5 (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics CD)
* Vivaldi: Concerti e Sinfonie per Archi (VBO/Marcon) (Arkiv Produktion CD)
* Vivaldi: Concertos for Two Violins (VBO/Mullova/Carmignola) (Arkiv Produktion CD)
* Vivaldi: Cello Sonatas (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics 2CD)
* C.P.E. Bach: Symphonies 1-4, etc. (English Concert/Manze) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Sun Ra: Nuits de la Fondation Maeght, Vol.2 (Universe CD)
* Sun Ra: Nuits de la Fondation Maeght, Vol.1 (Universe CD)
* Herbie Hancock & Headhunters: Music Hall, Omaha, NE 11-17-75 (FM CDR)
* Weather Report: Shinjuku Kouseinenkin Hall, Tokyo 6-28-78 (FM 2CDR)
* John McLaughlin & The 4th Dimension: Schloss Johannisberg, Cuvéehof 7-4-08 (FM CDR)
* Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus: Royal Festival Hall, London 1-30-92 (FM CDR)
* Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus: Paris 5-17-95 (FM CDR)
* William Parker & Hamid Drake: Volume 1: Piercing the Veil (AUM Fidelity CD)
* William Parker & Hamid Drake: Volume 2: Summer Snow (AUM Fidelity CD)
* Matthew Shipp: Harmony and Abyss (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Antipop Consortium: Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp (Thirsty ear CD)
* El-P: High Water Featuring the Blue Series Continuum (Thirsty Ear CD)
* DJ Spooky (w/Matthew Shipp, et al.): Optometry (Thirsty Ear CD)
* DJ Spooky (feat. Mad Professor & Lee “Scratch” Perry): Dubtometry (Thirsty Ear CD)
* DJ Spooky: Celestial Mechanix: The Blue Series MasterMix (Thirsty Ear 2CD)
* Quincy Jones: Sounds…and Stuff Like That (A&M CD)
* John Lennon: Anthology (d.1-2) (Capitol 4CD)
* King Crimson: Islands (DGM/Virgin CD)
* King Crimson: Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (DGM/Virgin CD)
* King Crimson: Starless and Bible Black (DGM/Virgin CD)
* Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Atco/Classic 2LP)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips: Vol.1, No.1: Fall ’79 (GD/Rhino 2+1CD)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips: Vol.3, No.1: Oakland 12-28-79 (GD/Rhino 2+1CD)
* Jerry Garcia Band: Let It Rock: Keystone, Berkeley November 17 & 18, 1975 (Rhino 2CD)
* Mickey Hart/Airto/Flora Purim: Däfos (RykoDisc Au20 CD)
* Japan: Oil on Canvas (Virgin – UK 2LP)
* David Sylvian (w/Robert Fripp): Gone to Earth (Virgin/Atlantic 2LP)
* Guided By Voices: Bee Thousand: The Director’s Cut (Scat 3LP)
* Guided By Voices: Suitcase 3 (d.1-3) (GBV, Inc. 4CD)
* Yo La Tengo: Crystal Ballroom, Portland 10-20-09 (SBD/AUD matrix 2CDR)
* The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin 5.1 (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Palace Music: Viva Last Blues (Drag City LP)
* Jim O’Rourke: Eureka (Drag City LP)
* Jim O’Rourke: The Visitor (Drag City LP)
* Stereolab: Dots and Loops (Drag City 2LP)
* Radiohead: In Rainbows (TBD CD)


Commentary:

Nothing like a long holiday weekend to provide lots of extra listening time! Hooray!

+++

There was a time around the turn of the century when it appeared that a free-jazz/hip-hop crossover was ascendant, spearheaded by Matthew Shipp and the adventurous folks at Thirsty Ear. Sure, producer/bassist Bill Laswell had been mining this sort of territory for years, but his meticulously clinical constructions can sometimes sound bloodless and sterile. Shipp’s forays into electronica were more spontaneous and loose, harnessing hip-hop’s pumping drive to avant-jazz musicianship to exciting effect. Shipp has since backed away from this kind of “fusion” music, instead focusing on an almost-traditionalist solo and trio approach on his latest records. Perhaps “fusion” really is just a dead end; nevertheless, I like it.

+++

Speaking of musical dead ends, I will also unapologetically admit to a predilection for progressive rock from the Nineteen-Seventies. I especially love Peter Gabriel’s final album with Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974), which sounds utterly stupendous on my 200g Classic pressing. This sprawling double-album epitomizes all that is magnificent and horrible about the prog-rock genre: the fantastical, incomprehensible lyrics; the pretentiously tricky and overly-complicated music; the overbearing melodrama and theatricality…it’s all there to be savored and abhorred. Great fun. And then there’s King Crimson, a band whose music can be both sublimely beautiful and menacingly ugly and disturbing. Each of their albums is a carefully-wrought opus that rewards repeated listening. But when Bill Bruford and John Wetton joined the band for 1973’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, they constituted a muscular yet flexible rhythm section that rooted Robert Fripp’s brainy constructions in some earthy oomph. This is powerfully strong stuff that still gives me great listening pleasure even after all these years. 40th Anniversary CD/DVD-A reissues of King Crimson’s catalog are currently ongoing — gosh, has it been a decade already? My 30th Anniversary CDs sound darn good to me and I love the mini-gatefold-LP packaging. Do I have to buy these albums again?! Of course, I am a sucker for high-res digital…maybe Santa Clause will drop them down the chimney on December 25th.

+++

Stereolab’s Dots and Loops (1997) is one of my favorite albums of all time. Listening to this pure pop masterpiece, I feel like I am touring the Alps in a small Italian convertible sports car, wind in my hair, not a care in the world. Not that I’ve ever visited the Alps, or driven a small Italian convertible sports car. But this album makes me imagine how pleasant such an experience might be. While I enjoyed their subsequent albums, they did not move me in the same way that Dots and Loops still does. I stopped paying attention after 2001’s Sound Dust and was shocked to learn of the tragic death of Mary Hansen in 2002. The band continues to soldier on, but I haven’t heard any of the music. Doesn’t matter — they made one perfect album and that’s more than enough for anyone.

November 27, 2009

More Free Music for Free at Internet Archive

I’ve uploaded quite a bit of music to the Internet Archive over the past couple of days, documenting some of the freely improvised piano/drums duets I recorded with the extraordinary Sam Byrd, right here at Heeltop Home Studio over the past couple of years. It is nothing short of miraculous that I have been able to make music with my old band-mate at least once – and sometimes twice – per year ever since we moved to Kingston Springs. I have my doubts about my piano playing, but Sam sounds great, even on a rudimentary kit.

Music wants to be free, so here it is.

This piece, recorded in December 2007, now somewhat arbitrarily titled, “Ones and Zeroes,” is obviously a nod to the digital technology that makes all this music possible, but I was thinking about Stravinsky’s riots at the ballet while we were playing: Does music still have the power to move people to violence? Whatever…enjoy!

November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!



Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday! It's all about food -- and being thankful for life's bounties. What's not to love? I hope everyone has a great day!

November 25, 2009

A Quiet Place


Inspired by my collaborator and drummer extraordinaire, Sam Byrd, I have uploaded some of the music we recorded in July to the Internet Archive. Here is a streaming MP3. Enjoy!


November 22, 2009

Fire!

I built the first fire of the season tonight. It was a cloudy day here in Middle Tennessee with a nip in the air that was hard to ignore. But I was reminded that one of my favorite things about winter is a fire in the fireplace. In all the years I lived in frigid, rainy Boston, I never had a working fireplace and it was one of things that I simply had to have when we bought our house here in Kingston Springs.

Winter is hard – even in Tennessee. But I can’t imagine living someplace where there are no seasons. Building a fire in the fireplace allows me, a middle-aged softy, to re-connect with the most primal of civilizing forces. To have nature’s most destructive element right in one’s living room is a truly awesome feeling. The fire not only takes the chill out of the air and creates a cozy atmosphere; it allows us to experience our ancient ancestors’ most profound source of life and sustenance. Winter is hard, but we are human – we can build a fire.

Sun Ra Sunday


Sun Ra: Nuits de la Fondation Maeght vol.2 (Universe UV081 CD)

While Sun Ra was struggling to find an audience stateside, Willis Conover had enlisted Sonny (amongst others) into Uncle Sam’s Cold War cultural army, broadcasting the Arkestra’s records regularly on Voice of America and, by 1970, Europe had become a more welcoming environment for American jazz musicians than their native country. Conover and his wife had been instrumental in securing Sonny’s Carnegie Hall debut in 1968 and had been urging him to travel to Europe ever since. When they offered to arrange for the Arkestra to appear at the prestigious Fondation Maeght in the south of France for three concerts in August 1970, Ra eagerly accepted.

The only problem was: how does Sun Ra, a being from the planet Saturn, go about obtaining a passport? Szwed describes the impossible scene:


When they filled out the forms at the passport office in New York City, the clerk at the desk said to Sun Ra, “Sir, you’re going to have to give us better information that this. We need your parents’ names, your birth date…” [Dancer] Verta Mae Grosvenor recalled that Sun Ra said, “‘That *is* the correct information.’ After a few minutes, the clerk went back to speak with her supervisor. The supervisor was no-nonsense, but after talking to Sun Ra she said, ‘Sir, why don’t you come back in a few hours.’ When we came back there was another person there and he knew about it, and he said, ‘We’ll just give you the passport.’ It just got so out that they just gave it to him!”

That passport gained talismanic force over the years, and musicians shook their heads when they saw it. Talvin Singh, an English tabla player, said: “His philosophy was that either you be part of the society or you don’t. And he wasn’t part of it. He created his own. I mean, I actually saw his passport and there was some weird shit on it. It had some different stuff.” (p.278)

Passport in hand, Ra and a nineteen-member Arkestra traveled to St. Paul de Vence and performed three concerts on August 3, 4, and 5, 1970. The Fondation Maeght is one of the finest small museums in the world and, with its focus on blue-chip modernism, Ra’s appearance in such a venue indicated a certain acceptance into the privileged domain of the European avant garde. The concerts were professionally recorded for broadcast by the state-sponsored radio station and portions were later released on LP as Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Volumes 1 and 2 by the French Shandar label in 1971. These records have been widely bootlegged ever since and my CDs on the Italian Universe label are probably “gray market” bootlegs as well, but they sound fine and are sumptuously packaged in heavyweight, gatefold mini-LP sleeves. As of this writing, they remain in print and are well worth seeking out.

Campbell (p.162) insists that Volume 2 comes from the August 3rd concert (Volume 1 is from August 5th) and having no reason to disagree, we will begin with Volume 2. Campbell also lists a number of tracks contained on the original radio broadcast and an audience tape, but I have not heard this material. Again, Szwed provides a vivid description of Sun Ra’s outrageous presentation and the decidedly mixed reaction it generated:


The audience had little or no knowledge of Sun Ra’s music, since his records
weren’t widely distributed in France, and when they arrived they saw the Arkestra spread out before them like elaborate décor: musicians in red tunics, seated in a forest of instruments on stage, dancers in red dresses. On a screen behind them was projected a sky full of stars, then planets, children in Harlem, Indians on hunting trips, and newsreel footage of protests; a ball of “magic fire” rose slowly up to the ceiling; saxophonists began to battle like Samurai, then came together like brothers; and in the still center of it all, Sun Ra sat behind the Moog, creating the sounds of gales, storms, and waves crashing. From the very first note, an agitated woman stood up and cried out, “What is
this? Afterwards, she came up and insisted on seeing the written music. Europeans seemed to want to know whether there was music behind what they were hearing, as if it would assure them that this was rational activity, and Sonny was always happy to show them the scores. A man once blurted out that his “five-year-old daughter could play that!” Sun Ra readily agreed: “She could play it, but could she write it?” (p.279)

The album opens with “Friendly Galaxy No.2,” a fascinating piece only tangentially related to the first “Friendly Galaxy,” which originally appeared on Secrets of the Sun in 1965. After a burbling organ introduction, the composition moves to a choir of flutes improvising over Ra’s languid piano, Alan Silva’s whining cello, and with a simple but rhythmically insistent trumpet motif recurring throughout. Meanwhile, the rest of the band establishes an exotic space-groove on bass, drums, tympani, and hand percussion. The effect is otherworldly and quite mesmerizing. In an interview with Jazz magazine in November 1970, Sun Ra described how he tailored this piece to the unique qualities of the venue:


One of the things which most impressed listeners at the Fondation Maeght is the passage for six flutes ad lib, six flutes playing in harmony. I could say improvising in harmony. I’m inspired by it to do something else which would be totally different. I believe it’s a musical idea which would be totally different. I believe it’s a new way of using flutes. It’s at once both very melodic and harmonious and at the same time so distant, as if the music was heard in the distance through a sort of mist. It’s so “out of this world.”

Curious thing, the flutes had never played this passage with the piano, but because of the peculiar acoustics in the room I knew that it would be absolutely necessary that I play at the same time because the flutes would be bothered by an echo that the audience fortunately wouldn’t hear at all. So above this the trumpets entered in, played a sort of ad lib riff because this light echo didn’t allow them to understand the rhythm.
(quoted in Szwed pp.279-280)

“Friendly Galaxy No.2” would be performed several times over the next couple of years only to disappear from the repertoire. Too bad as it is truly a unique work, with the massed flutes and brass technique demonstrating Ra’s audacious genius at orchestration. “Spontaneous Simplicity” follows (out of sequence, according to Campbell) and although this version doesn’t devolve into the kind of proto-No Wave skronk heard on the Electric Circus tape from 1968, this a fine performance with the massive ensemble sections sounding particularly powerful and precise. After the opening statement, Sun Ra leads the way with a buzzing Rocksichord solo as the rest of the Arkestra picks up percussion instruments to buoy the hypnotic, one-note bassline. The music grooves along for a delirious eleven minutes, ending to some genuinely enthusiastic applause.


“The World of Lightning” picks up in the middle of some crashing gongs and cymbals, the audience clapping in slow rhythm until Ra takes over with one of his patented mad-scientist organ solos. Afterwards, Marshall Allen engages Alan Silva in a duel between alto saxophone and cello, with other horns joining in the fray at its screaming climax, the entire Arkestra wailing away with utter abandon until Sonny cues a cataclysmic ending that feels like the cosmos collapsing in on itself. The audience reacts with stunned silence which perfectly sets the stage for “Black Myth,” a solemn bit of musical theater featuring June Tyson’s dramatic and evocative vocals. Tyson intones two Sun Ra poems (“The Shadows Took Shape” and “The Strange World”) over spacey noises, fleeting flutes, and ominous percussion. Ra then launches into a typically apocalyptic organ/synthesizer blast that eventually crossfades to some overloud applause. The album ends with a fragmentary piece entitled, “Key,” which starts off with some intertwined oboe (possibly James Jacson) and cello but is soon interrupted with an explosion of cacophonous horns and bashing drums that quickly subsides, only to fade out with some gentle percussion taps. Interesting.

What a great album! It is so nice to hear the Arkestra recorded in such high fidelity and this is an especially riveting live performance. The band is well-rehearsed and everyone is more than happy to be feted by French cultural elites. Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Vol.1, which documents the August 5th concert, might be even better. We’ll take a listen next week.

November 21, 2009

Playlist 11-21-09

* Dowland: Complete Works for Lute, Vol.1 (O’Dette) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Vivaldi: Concertos for the Emperor (English Concert/Manze) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Vivaldi: Late Concertos RV386, etc. (Carmignola/VBO/Marcon) (Sony CD)
* Vivaldi: Cello Sonatas (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics 2CD)
* Telemann: Flute Concertos (Arte dei Suonatori): Cieszn 6-15-08 (FM CDR)
* J.S. Bach: Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin (Holloway) (ECM 2CD)
* Sun Ra: Secrets of the Sun (Atavistic CD)
* Sun Ra: Nuits de la Fondation Maeght, Vol.2 (Universe CD)
* Sun Ra: Nuits de la Fondation Maeght, Vol.1 (Universe CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (Coventry) 1985 (Leo 2CD)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: This Brings Us To, Vol.1 (Pi CD)
* Rudresh Mahanthappa featuring Kadri Gopalnath & the Dakshina Ensemble: Kinsmen (Pi CD)
* Bill Laswell: Silent Recoil: Dub System One (Low CD)
* The Beatles: The Beatles (a/k/a The White Album) (mono) (d.2) (EMI/Apple 2CD)
* Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol.4: Live 1966 (d.2) (Columbia 2CD)
* Bob Dylan: Together Through Life (Columbia CD)
* Dr. John: Gumbo/In the Right Place (MFSL CD)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips: Vol.3, No.1: Oakland 12-28-79 (GD/Rhino 2+1CD)
* Grateful Dead: Fieldhouse, University of Iowa, Iowa City 8-10-82 (SBD 3CDR)
* Jerry Garcia Band: Let It Rock: Keystone, Berkeley November 17 & 18, 1975 (Rhino 2CD)
* Big Star: #1 Record (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Big Star: Radio City (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Talking Heads: Speaking in Tongues (Sire/Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Television: Marquee Moon (Rhino CD)
* Television: Adventure (Rhino CD)
* Guided By Voices: Under the Bushes Under the Stars (Matador LP+EP)
* The Takeovers: Turn to Red (Fading Captain Series LP)
* Yo La Tengo: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (Matador CD)
* Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol CD)
* Gastr del Sol: Upgrade and Afterlife (Drag City EP+LP)
* Gastr del Sol: Camoufleur (Drag City LP)

Commentary:

Lots of new stuff this week! (It was, after all, my birthday on Sunday!) The Vivaldi cello sonatas as played by Jaap ter Linden are certainly a lovely, gentle way to start the day. This is about as languid and serene as Vivaldi gets –very, very mellow (thanks Steve & Katie!). At the other extreme, the Venice Baroque Orchestra plays Vivaldi’s music with hair-raising intensity – particularly when violinist Giuliano Carmignola is sawing away on the fiddle. These late concertos (Vivaldi wrote over 240!) had never been previously recorded and they are all first-rate. Great fun! My sister also provided Henry Threadgill’s new disc, which is, of course, excellent, if much too short! (Thanks Molly & Geoff!) My brother-in-law sent me the Rudresh Mahanthappa disc, which I had heard a lot about but had never heard. It’s a synthesis of free-bop and classical Indian scales and talas that, on paper, shouldn’t work, yet somehow it does. When the whole band really gets going in high-stakes group improvisation, the room starts to levitate. Wild! (Thanks Dave & Michiko!)
+++

On Tuesday, I made a quick trip to Grimey’s on my lunch hour, just to get out of the office for a few minutes and dig the friendly, music-loving vibes. I poked around a bit and was about to leave empty-handed when I noticed they had the first two Big Star LPs recently reissued on the renowned audiophile label, Classic Records. I figured, what the heck, it’s my birthday! Wow, these thick slabs of translucent “Clarity Vinyl” sound freaking fantastic — and just about exactly perfect at maximum volume! Heavenly!
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So there’s all that but then the Grateful Dead: Road Trips Volume 3, Number 1 also arrived in the mailbox on Monday. Now, I’ve been less than totally enthused about the Road Trips series, but they hit a home run with this one: the complete concert at the (relatively) intimate Oakland Auditorium Arena on 12-28-79. This makes a long-overdue companion to Dick’s Picks Vol. 5 (released way back in 1996!) which contains the complete 12-26 concert; but I think this is a better show all around. (And if you order now, you get a “bonus disc” containing choice selections from 12-30). I have to admit to being quite fond of the early Brent Mydland years, if only because that is when I personally “got on the bus” and hearing this version of the band brings back some fond memories. But Brent’s hot-rodded Rhodes electric piano sounds dated and thin to some (personally, I like it). Nevertheless, his Hammond B-3 organ (and occasional Prophet-5 synthesizer) added some welcome textures to the music. Furthermore, there can be no denying that Brent’s arrival had an invigorating effect on the band –– particularly Garcia — but this period (c.1979-1986) is woefully underrepresented in the official discography. For that reason alone, this is a welcome release indeed. Note that this is not a “soundboard” tape, but a “Betty Board”, a separate two-track mix made by Betty Cantor-Jackson to a Nagra reel-to-reel and it sounds fabulous. And, if you’re wondering, it sounds much, much better than the circulating version – and that’s saying something. Only available only at dead.net.
+++

Also in the mailbox was another tasty vault release of an early incarnation of the Jerry Garcia Band which briefly featured the mercurial Nicky Hopkins on piano and Elvis’s own Ron Tutt on drums. Hopkins’s precocious virtuosity on the piano sometimes threatens to overwhelm the proceedings – he even takes to addressing the crowd and introducing the band as if he is the leader! But Garcia takes it all in stride and it’s obvious everyone is having a real good time. Recorded to 16-track by the indomitable Betty and mixed by current GD sound guru, Jeffrey Norman, these CDs sounds amazingly realistic and three-dimensional. This is a nice choice that fills an important historical gap in Garcia solo discography. It's worth it just to hear Nicky Hopkins in Deadworld. Fun stuff!

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Speaking of the Grateful Dead, were Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd the Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the nascent NYC Punk/New Wave scene? Yes, they were. Just listen to the sprawling, ten-minute title track brimming with ecstatic dual-guitar heroics on their 1977 debut album, Marquee Moon. Case closed.

November 15, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me (& Liz)!


Today is my birthday.
Today is also Lizzy’s birthday – isn’t that neat?
So, we’re celebrating!

I’ll be back with more Sun Ra Sunday next week.

November 14, 2009

Playlist 11-14-09

* Hesperion XXI (Savall): Isabel I: Reina de Castilla (1451-1504) (Alia Vox SACD)
* Schmelzer: Unarum Fidium (Holloway/Assenbaum/Mortensen) (ECM CD)
* Biber: Violin Sonatas (Romanesca/Manze) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Rebel: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi)
* John Coltrane: The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions (Impulse! 2CD)
* Sun Ra: The Red Garter, New York City July 1970 (AUD CDR)
* Sun Ra: Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Vol.2 (Universe CD)
* Sun Ra: Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Vol.1 (Universe CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Composition No.165 (for 18 instruments) (New Albion CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Quintet (London) 2004 (Leo CD)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: Teatro Communale, Cormòns, Gorizia 10-23-08 (FM CDR)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: Folkets Hus, Umeå 10-25-08 (FM CDR)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: Stadtgarten, Köln 11-4-08 (FM CDR)
* John Abercrombie & Miroslav Vitous: Willisau 8-30-03 (FM CDR)
* Matthew Shipp’s Nu Bop: Auditorium Parca della Musica, Roma 4-5-04 (FM CDR)
* King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King (DGM/Virgin CD)
* King Crimson: In the Wake of Poseidon (DGM/Virgin CD)
* King Crimson: Lizard (DGM/Virgin CD)
* Grateful Dead: Coliseum, Hampton, VA 4-13-84 (AUD 3CD)
* Jerry Garcia Band: Coliseum, Hampton, VA 11-9-91 (Pure Jerry 2CD)
* Chris Bell: I Am the Cosmos (Deluxe Edition) (Rhino Handmade 2CD)
* Television: Live at the Old Waldorf, San Francisco 6-29-78 (Rhino Handmade CD)
* Patti Smith: Horses (Arista CD)
* Deadline: Dissident (Day Eight CD)
* Tetragramaton: Submerge (Ion CD)
* Aphex Twin: Richard D. James Album (Warp/Sire CD)
* Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey CD)
* Robert Pollard: Elephant Jokes (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Boston Spaceships: Zero to 99 (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Yo La Tengo: Popular Songs (Matador CD)

Commentary:

Henry Threadgill (b. 1944) is one of my very favorite musicians/composers. His music is a unique hybrid of avant-jazz-funk and serious, modern-classical-derived composition technique and his wonderful band, Zooid (with its luscious instrumentation of guitar, tuba/trombone, bass, drums (and sometimes cello) along with Threadgill himself on alto saxophone and flute), is the perfect vehicle for Threadgill’s genius. They have a new album out on Pi, This Brings Us To, Vol.1, but I don’t have it yet. This is Threadgill’s first record in many years, so let’s hope Vol.2 is to be forthcoming. In other exciting news, the boutique reissue label, Mosaic, is planning to release The Complete Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air in early 2010, a fitting companion to last year’s The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton, bringing together a phenomenal body of important work that was inexplicably commissioned by major labels but which was promptly deleted and has remained tragically out of print ever since. Needless to say, this is another must-have box set. Also, here is a recent interview with Threadgill wherein he talks at length about his music and aesthetic philosophy. What a fascinating guy! Threadgill is currently touring Europe with Zooid, so I’m hoping some more FM broadcasts turn up in the near future. Great, great music!

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When it comes to the Grateful Dead, I generally prefer soundboard tapes to audience recordings if only for their greater immediacy and clarity. But I realize that there is nothing like a well-recorded audience tape; sadly, such things are pretty darn rare. On April 13, 1984, Rob Eaton (who, not surprisingly, went on to a successful career in sound engineering) made an astonishingly hi-fidelity recording at the cavernous Hampton Coliseum utilizing super-high-quality Neumann U-47 microphones and a humble but road-worthy Sony D-5 cassette deck. The recording has a smooth yet vividly detailed “you are there” quality that captures an essential element that a soundboard tape excludes: the sound of the room — and the Grateful Dead were one of the few bands that could produce high-quality sound in a hockey rink. Thanks to the Dead’s ultra-enlightened stance on audience taping, you can freely and legally download lossless FLAC files of this truly spectacular recording at archive.org. Go for it!

November 8, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: The Red Garter, New York City circa. July, 1970 (AUD CDR)

According to photographer Lee Santa, Sun Ra’s Arkestra played a three-night engagement at The Red Garter (now known as The Bottom Line) in Greenwich Village in early July, 1970. The nightclub’s “obtrusive Gay ‘90s décor” can be seen in Santa’s photograph (above) which appeared on the original cover of The Solar Myth Approach, Vol.1. Santa recalled that “the first night featured six hours of continuous music; the second and third nights slacked off to a mere five hours, without a break” (see Campbell & Trent, p.161-162). It must have been something to behold.

Fortunately, an intrepid fan surreptitiously recorded a seventy-five minute segment one night utilizing a very primitive recording device and, while the sound quality is typically horrid, the music itself is terrific. How bad does it sound? Well, the volume levels fluctuate wildly while consistently retaining a significant amount of distortion; there’s some serious wow and flutter issues; and the monophonic, single-microphone recording is boomy, muddy, and generally indistinct. It doesn’t sound quite as bad as the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival recording, but it also doesn’t sound nearly as good as the 1968 Electric Circus tape. Let’s face it: your cell phone could make a far better-sounding recording. Nevertheless, the large-ish ensemble sounds particularly well-rehearsed (perhaps in preparation for their upcoming trip to France) and the free-wheeling performance goes to some very interesting places. For the hardcore Ra fanatic, this is well worth hearing as a rare historical document but most people will be understandably repulsed.

Caveats aside, the performance captured on this amateur recording is really quite stunning, beginning with a long unidentified title that alternates between a spacey, mellow groove and full-blast assaults of New Thing-styled energy music. Solos by John Gilmore on tenor sax and Ra on mad-scientist organ keep things interesting, ending with Danny Davis’s woody alto clarinet interweaving with the Arkestra’s antiphonal calls and responses. “Love in Outer Space” follows: a loping bassline holds down the jaunty groove while the entire Akestra gleefully bangs on myriad percussion instruments, with Ra stating the simple, joyful melody and soloing on electric organ. After a brief pause, Ra segues into a quiet, spooky organ improvisation accompanied by Alan Silva’s distinctive cello. After about five minutes, the horns enter with a curiously old fashioned, rubato ballad composition (title unknown) that eventually settles into a gentle swing. Kwame Hadi takes an adventurous turn on trumpet, with Ra rumbling away on organ. Pat Patrick follows with a typically ferocious bari-sax solo while the rhythm heats up and shifting horn sections provide riffing punctuation. After settling back down, the horns return with the old-timey ballad to end. Interesting.

What follows is one of the strangest bits of musical-theater in all of Ra’s discography. John Gilmore recalled the title as “Ladies and Gentlemules” (Id. p.162) and, while the recording is incomplete, the piece appears to be structured like a sanctified church service, with Ra fervently imploring the “gentlemules” to heed his message. The Arkestra plays some bluesy swing and ecstatically chants, but much of the preaching and carrying on is difficult to hear. However, the loud, unison refrain of “another jackass is going to take your place” is clear enough to get the point across. After about six minutes of holy-rolling chaos, the tape abruptly cuts off. Up next is “Somewhere Else,” a then-recent composition which would appear on the studio recording, My Brother the Wind Vol. II, in 1971. Not much happens beyond several repetitions of the lurching, block-chord melody over a gospel-ish vamp, but the effect is hypnotizing. After a brief organ and synthesizer solo (with some barely audible spoken incantations), Ra launches into the nineteen-twenties-era chestnut, “Sometimes I’m Happy.” The Arkestra sounds a little tentative in the ensembles, but Gilmore’s sure-footed tenor solo demonstrates his unique synthesis of pre-war swing, hard bop grit, and avant-garde extended techniques.

The tape concludes with a spectacular, thirteen-minute rendition of another My Brother the Wind Vol. II composition, “Pleasant Twilight,” According to Campbell and Trent, there are no other known live performances of this piece, which is unsurprising given its subtle complexity. Ra begins with a rhapsodic, rubato introduction on organ before the Arkestra enters with the brightly swinging composition. The tempo then slows down by half and, while the ensemble gently rocks back and forth between two lushly sustained chords, Gilmore peals off a starkly contrasting, barn-burner of a solo on tenor sax. Holy smokes! The Arkestra plays their parts with incredible restraint while Gilmore wails away with a terrifying fury. After a honking, emphatic conclusion, Gilmore leads the Arkestra through a half-time run through of the head before returning the original tempo for a high-spirited trumpet solo from Akh Tal Ebah. The Arkestra adds complementary horn riffs and, as the intensity builds, the tempo speeds up again for an enervated reprise and a big finish. Whew! The much abbreviated studio recording, while sparklingly polished, ultimately sounds downright staid compared to this expansive and inspired live performance. It’s a shame this tune fell out of the repertoire.

Given the atrocious sound quality, I cannot recommend that anyone but the most fanatical seek this recording out. But given the exceptionally high quality of the performance and the sheer rarity of tracks like “Pleasant Twilight,” it is nevertheless worth hearing. As the seventies wore on, live recordings would become more and more plentiful and one might pick and choose without missing too much. But given the paucity of material from this particular time period, this one is worth having for that reason alone.