March 29, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Myth Science Arkestra: When Sun Comes Out (Evidence ECD 22068)

Recorded at the Choreographer’s Workshop, NYC, 1962-1963
Originally released as El Saturn 2066 (1963)

When Sun Comes Out is truly a landmark record in Ra’s discography: it was the first New York recording to be released on Ra’s own El Saturn label and it contains some of Tommy Hunter’s first stereo recordings made at the Choreographer’s Workshop – quite technologically advanced accomplishments for a shoestring operation in 1963. Some years later, Sun Ra deposited a manuscript with the Library of Congress entitled, “When Sun Comes Out,” which contains a fairly detailed score for most the tracks on the album assembled into a kind of suite. Clearly, Ra considered this an important work – although it is impossible to tell from the score whether it was produced before or after the recording. As with many aspects of Sun Ra’s work, this document poses at least as many questions as it answers.

“Circe” opens the album with ominous, irregular strikes of a gong – loud and soft, ringing and choked, fast and slow. Bells and hand drums enter with a stuttering rhythm while a mysterious singer named Theda Barbara vocalizes wordlessly (and somewhat melodramatically) with a big, warbling vibrato. The mostly pentatonic melody is fully notated in the score with alternating measures of 5/4 and 9/4 over the gong’s droning G. Subsequently, the bells, gong, and hand drums coalesce into a steady rhythm before suddenly fading out. “The Nile” sets out with gently rolling percussion with Ra and Boykins engaging contrasting three-note ostinato patterns to support a beautiful, Arabic-sounding flute melody scored for Marshall Allen. Allen takes considerable liberties with the melody as it goes along, but always hits specified targets, indicating that the score might predate the recording. “Brazilian Sun” features suitably Latin-sounding hand drums and claves with Boykins holding down a circular riff on bass. Ra stabs out parallel chords to spell out a tense, unresolved melody. The sunny percussion contrasts with the tonally shiftless piano to create a definite atmospheric tension – a bit of spiritual unease despoiling the fantasy of tropical paradise perhaps?

The version of “We Travel the Spaceways” heard here is a bit more aggressive than on the eponymous LP (found on Evidence ECD 22038) – and it is also recorded in stereo. Teddy Nance and Bernard Pettaway sit in on trombones, giving the tune a darker, more menacing tone. After the opening space chant, the increasingly dissonant interplay between Gilmore’s energetic tenor solo and Ra’s percussive piano gives this rendition a decidedly avant garde feel. Ra slides in some dreamy celeste during the vocal sections, demonstrating his uniquely orchestral approach to keyboard accompaniment. “Calling Planet Earth” benefits as well from the more spacious stereo recording. A fully notated vocal ensemble urgently intones the title until Pat Patrick enters with some coruscating baritone saxophone which is reinforced by Ra’s furious two-handed piano attack. Adding to the tumultuous assault, both Lex Humphries and John Gilmore are pounding away on drums. Yes, John Gilmore on trap drums! And Ra sounds more like Cecil Taylor than Cecil himself did in 1963! This is some wild stuff!

The other stereo recording is “Dancing Shadows,” cut at the same session that yielded several tracks on The Invisible Shield. It is a classic Ra-styled atonal bebop number full of strident tritones and breathtakingly wide interval leaps, all driven hard by Clifford Jarvis’s frenetic drumming. Ra spins a mesmerizing piano solo before giving way to yet another incredible Gilmore solo on tenor sax. Walter Miller again demonstrates his prodigious technique with a bristling, angular trumpet solo before the reprise. (Incidentally, the melody for “Dancing Shadows” is contained within the otherwise ultra-enigmatic “Twenty-First Century” suite in the Library of Congress manuscripts.) “The Rainmaker” is more dizzying, harmonically restless swing but with more polyphonic riffing throughout. Ra peals off another excellent piano solo and Jarvis is at his Jarviest, bass drum pumping away maniacally. Gilmore enters with yet another patented genius tenor sax solo culminating in hair-raising, multiphonic blasts at the end. Holy crap!

“When Sun Comes Out” replaces Jarvis with the comparatively more laconic Lex Humphries, who is bolstered with some busy hand percussion by the rest of the Arkestra. Ra plays slippery, chromatically descending fourths atop an oscillating, two-note bass which is doubled by Boykins. Marshall Allen and Danny Davis proceed to dance and duel on wailing alto saxophones with some pinched, emphatic Walter Miller trumpet interjected here and there. Meanwhile, the rhythm section explores a subtly shifting harmonic landscape. Interestingly, the manuscript barely outlines the opening piano figures which appear to be jumping off points for improvisation. Again, this makes me think that the score is something more than a transcription and possibly predates the recording. Who knows?


When working with the master tape to prepare this CD in 1993, Evidence discovered an unreleased track running backwards in an unused stereo channel. On hearing the track for the first time in thirty years, John Gilmore gave it the title “Dimensions in Time” and it appears here as a bonus track. Echoing drums and tapping glass bottles underpin Gilmore’s seductively meandering bass clarinet. His tone is dark, rich and gorgeous as he weaves delightful melodies around the pitter-pattering percussion. Unfortunately, just as he reaches a climax, the track suddenly ends. As it turns out, the second part of this piece can be found on the 1974 Saturn LP entitled Space Probe (Saturn 14200A/142000B) (confusingly, some copies were titled A Tonal View of Times Tomorrow Vol.1). Here entitled, “Primitive,” the track cuts in exactly where “Dimensions in Time” ends, with the last few notes of Gilmore’s bass clarinet statement after which the percussion vamp continues for another couple minutes before fading out. As discrete fragments, these two pieces are a bit frustrating to listen to (despite Gilmore brilliant playing); someday I’d like to digitally rejoin these tracks to hear the complete piece in all its original glory.

Space Probe also includes another Choreographer’s Workshop recording from this period curiously titled, “The Conversion of J.P.” Plopping drums create a feel similar to “The Nile” with Marshall Allen’s expansive flute melody rising and falling amidst long spells of trance-inducing percussion. Then, at about the eight-minute mark, Ra enters with some incongruously gospel-ish piano chords. I guess this is the conversion happening! Ra then moves through a whole hymnal’s worth of plain, protestant harmonies before a final, insistently repeating cadence. Hallelujah! Now, who exactly is J.P? And how are we to take all this apparent proselytizing given Ra’s complicated, if not downright contentious relationship with the Christian church? Indeed, the tension between the pagan percussion/Pan-flute and the holy-rolling piano never quite comfortably resolves. Another curious thing about this track is that, at almost fourteen minutes, it is by far the longest stretch of continuous recorded music from this era. It makes me wonder if “When Sun Comes Out” was truly conceived and recorded as an extended suite (as in the manuscript), with only selected excerpts edited out for release on LP. Just another mystery of Mr. Ra to be infinitely pondered. Incidentally, the B-Side of Space Probe contains an eighteen-minute Moog freakout from 1970 a la My Brother the Wind Vol.2 -- an odd pairing, to say the least!


The Evidence CD of When Sun Comes Out also contains Fate in a Pleasant Mood (El Saturn 202) recorded in Chicago late-1960 to early-1961. I will examine it separately on another Sun Ra Sunday.


Thanks once again to the indefatigable Sam Byrd for his help with this post!


Rodger Coleman said...

Of course, “Dancing Shadows” was a staple of UYA’s latter-day repertoire and can be heard on the 1995 Sun Ra Tribute CD titled Wavelength Infinity (Rastascan BRD 018). Astonishingly, it’s still in print – you can even stream a sample of the track at Amazon! I just listened to the CD for the first time in years. We were definitely onto something. (Too bad we let go of it.) Still, it amazes me that ours is the first track on the first disc – what an honor! I mean, there are some seriously heavy hitters on that CD including Thurston Moore, The Residents, Eugene Chadbourne, Elliot Sharp and Ken Vandermark – not mention NRBQ! Big thanks to Gino Robair for including us!

Sam said...

1. I actually listened again to that track a few months ago, and I didn't cringe. My favorite part is the last 3-4 minutes where we really stretch it out. I'm definitely proud to be included on that disc!

2. "When Sun Comes Out" is a super-strong Ra LP. I am still just blown away by Clifford Jarvis's bass drum playing on "Dancing Shadows." Ra gave Jarvis way too much drum solo space on too many gigs, but when he's tight and in the pocket, like here, he really strengthens the groove. Although overall I prefer the looser, less virtuosic feel of most of Ra's drummers (like Luqman Ali, Lex Humphries, Bugs, and Roger Blank), it is nice sometimes to hear a real whiz like Jarvis lock in with Boykins and kick seriously hard jazz butt (how's that for trenchant analysis?). Besides "Dancing Shadows," my favorite track is "The Nile." I'd love to hear a connected version of "Dimensions in Time" with "Primitive" sometime.