March 22, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: What’s New (side A) (Saturn 539)

The discographical murkiness continues with this 1975 LP containing four swinging Choreographer’s Workshop recordings from 1962 on the A-side and a contemporaneous concert fragment on side B. Confusingly, later pressings substitute side A of The Invisible Shield for the B-side (see below). In any case, the kind of hot jazz found here probably represents a taste of the Arkestra’s working-gig repertoire during the lean early years in New York. Of course, Ra came out of the big-band tradition of the 1930s and 40s and had vast experience arranging standards and show tunes for various ensembles and his flair for instrumental color (check out Marshall Allen’s flute!) and ornamental counterpoint are much in evidence on the title track -- even if the end result comes across as a mere blowing session. “What’s New” was, after all, a staple of the Arkestra’s live sets throughout their career.

Curiously, two original compositions by Arkestra newcomers Al Evans and Calvin Newborn were also recorded at this Choreographer’s Workshop rehearsal. Newborn’s “Wanderlust” is a rather nondescript jazz waltz but it elicits strong solos by John Gilmore on tenor saxophone, Al Evans on flugelhorn, Danny Davis on alto sax. The composer himself steps out with an aggressively electric guitar solo – a rarely heard timbre in the Arkestra’s recorded history. Ra then builds a solo around distant chordal substitutions before the head returns for the close. Evans brings out the funky side of the Arkestra with his honky-tonk strut aptly entitled “Jukin’.” Evans’s tone is warm and bluesy, while Newborn offers at times some near-psychedelic, noise-infused comping beneath the ever-riffing horns. These two tracks are perhaps a bit lightweight, but still a lot of fun. Evans continued his association with the Arkestra off and on throughout the 70s and 80s while Newborn moved on to moderate success in the blues world.

The Arkestra drops down to a quartet on the hoary old chestnut, “Autumn in New York.” But don’t be fooled! After a lushly romantic opening piano statement, Gilmore plays one of the most breathtakingly heart-rending solos of his long, brilliant career! He starts out by teasing the melancholy melody with spacious, wide-open phrasing, slowly building to register-spanning exclamations, delicate filigrees, and pathos-filled one and two-note worryings. Every note is just exactly the right note at the right place and at the right time. As if awestruck by the sheer beauty of Gilmore’s playing, the band drops out during the second chorus, leaving him to blow an acappella cadenza that miraculously holds the thread of the tune while overflowing with prodigious, risky invention. Suddenly, Ra enters with an (almost) incongruous double-tempo section that slows down just in time for Gilmore to re-state the theme with the kind of stately grace and tender emotion that marked his opening choruses. This track demonstrates that, despite his (well-deserved) reputation as an altissimo-fueled avant-garde noisemaker, John Gilmore was truly one of the great post-bop saxophonists of all time. This version of an over-familiar standard has to be heard to be believed. Incredible!


Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Research Arkestra: The Invisible Shield (side A) (Saturn 529)

Now things get even more confusing. This LP was originally released in 1974 with six 1962-63 Choreographer’s Workshop recordings on the A-side backed with some stray cuts from the late sixties and early seventies on the B-side. It has also been variously titled A Tonal View of Times Tomorrow, Vol. 2, Janus, and Satellites are Outerspace. As mentioned above, these tracks also appeared as the B-Side on most copies of What’s New (which is really where they belong given their similarly straight-ahead feel). Some (but not all) of these tracks were sold to Black Lion in 1971, but never issued. Finally, in 2000, some (but, bafflingly, not all) of those tracks were officially released on Standards (1201 Music 90192). Like I said: very confusing! It certainly would have been nice if all of these 1962-63 tracks were gathered in one place, but so it goes in Sun Ra’s Omniverse. That said, the Standards CD does boast superior sound quality and includes a rare 1955 home recording of Ra duetting with bassist Wilbur Ware on “Can This Be Love” and is therefore (grudgingly) recommended.

Anyway, “State Street” is a sprightly Ra original that is omitted from Standards on the grounds that it is, well, not a “standard.” Too bad since it’s a barn-burning big band outing with a full-blown brass section consisting of the aforementioned Al Evans on flugelhorn, Ra’s childhood friend Walter Miller on trumpet, and Ali Hassan on trombone. Michael White adds a gypsy element with some keening violin while the virtuoso drumming of Clifford Jarvis drives the Arkestra with an infectious, toe-tapping groove. The saxophones and brass exchange complex, interlocking lines at the head and riff away happily during the string of brief solos, all of which culminates in a brilliant flourish by baritone saxophonist Pat Patrick before the final coda.

“Sometimes I’m Happy,” finds the Arkestra reduced to a quartet of Ra, Gilmore, Boykins, and the more subdued Lex Humphries on drums. This lightly swinging number is the perfect vehicle for another eloquent statement by Gilmore, punctuated by Ra’s roiling piano and Boykins’s rock-solid bass. Jarvis and Miller then return for the remaining tracks. Two takes of “Time After Time” exist, but take one is inexplicably omitted on Standards. This familiar tune is taken at a briskly bebop-ish pace and showcases Miller’s immaculate technique and burnished tone atop Jarvis’s smooth yet hard-driving drums. On take two, Miller takes more chances, splitting tones into multi-phonics and allowing for more open, silent spaces between his phrases. “Easy to Love” is another hard bop vehicle for Gilmore with Jarvis’s hyperactive bass drum and overlapping polyrhythms relentlessly propelling the music forward. Boykins interjects with some sure-footed walking bass between Gilmore’s increasingly abstracted choruses until, finally, Ra enters with the trumpet to (somewhat raggedly) repeat the theme and end.

“Keep Your Sunny Side Up” is another uptempo number with Jarvis and Boykins swinging like mad and Gilmore once again demonstrating his prowess as a post-bop genius. Yes, it’s another brilliant Gilmore solo! But Miller reveals in one brief chorus what a formidable trumpet player he really was and how sympathetic he was to Sun Ra’s vision – especially as it applied to the living tradition and the so-called mainstream. While economic realities prevented Miller from committing full time to the Arkestra, he remained an always welcome visitor throughout their existence. Unfortunately, Ra’s brass sections would remain in flux during these early New York years.

Along with What’s New, this material reveals a part of the Arkestra’s history that was long concealed by the vagaries of the Saturn enterprise (not to mention a genuine desire to promote Ra’s original music over “standards”). Beyond the stellar musicianship on display, these tracks showcase Ra’s bountiful gifts as an arranger and his Herculean work ethic. While the times were penurious, Ra continued to compose, rehearse and record the Arkestra, and found paying work where he could. Arranging and playing standards was (and still is) the lingua franca of jazz and Sun Ra was a master. But he could also write a tune like “State Street” that sounded as if it had been composed during the golden age of the big bands. This music may not be as exhilaratingly modern and original as, say, Secrets of the Sun or Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, but it is ebullient and supremely well-crafted.


Special thanks once again to Sam Byrd for his help with this post!


Photograph of the Arkestra in rehearsal at the Choreographer’s Workshop by Tommy Hunter (from Szwed). Left to right: Pat Patrick, Sun Ra, Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, and Ronnie Boykins.

1 comment:

Sam said...

Another great Sun Ra Sunday! A couple of things to note:
--I completely agree with you on the underrated Walter Miller. In addition to his affinity for the "standards" side of Ra's vision, he also stood strong on the outside stuff, like "Magic City." He does pop up on concerts from time to time, even into the '80s.
--You'll find that soon enough you'll run out of ways to say "yet another brilliant John Gilmore solo"! His playing on "Autumn in new York" is truly sublime and is definitely in my top ten Gilmore solo pantheon.
--I had another brilliant insight on this period of Ra's music, something to do with arranging, but it was so brilliant I forgot it :) Oh well, the Sun Ra Sundays continue to be inspiring, and continue to send me back to the music.