April 26, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Herald (ESP 4054)

Recorded live at Judson Hall in New York, NY on December 31, 1964.
Portions originally released as Saturn JHNY-165 in 1976.

With little paying work for the Arkestra, John Gilmore quit the band in August 1964 to tour the world with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. This could have been a crushing blow to Sun Ra, if not for his involvement in the short-lived Jazz Composers Guild and its predecessors. Trumpeter/composer Bill Dixon had been putting on performances at the Cellar CafĂ© on West 91st Street and these efforts developed into the legendary “October Revolution in Jazz.” These concerts drew large crowds to hear the cream of the “New Thing,” including Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, Jimmy Giuffre, Andrew Hill, Steve Lacy, and others who would go on to define the cutting edge of avant garde jazz. Shortly thereafter, Dixon and Taylor decided to form a cooperative called the Jazz Composers Guild which would promote the new music while seeking an economic alternative to the exploitive nightclub system. Sun Ra and the Arkestra were quick to join and two months later, the Guild mounted series of concerts at Judson Hall called “Four Nights in December,” the last of which featured Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Portions of that concert are presented on this recently re-issued CD on ESP-Disk.

Sonny had known Farrell “Little Rock” Sanders since 1962, when Sanders was working as a waiter at the Gene Harris Playhouse (where the Arkestra was playing to miniscule audiences). Ra took him in and gave him some clothes and suggested he take on the name, “Pharoah.” By the time Gilmore split, Sanders was ready to join the band and you can hear that he’s already developed the blisteringly intense sound quality that would make him famous with John Coltrane’s band. Not much is known about Black Harold a/k/a Harold Murray a/k/a Sir Harold a/k/a Brother Atu a/k/a Atu Murray, etc. except that he played flute and a big, hand-carved drum with Sun Ra during this brief period. This recording is the only known document of Pharoah’s and Black Harold’s tenure with the Arkestra.

The rest of the personnel for this concert are kind of a mystery. The liner notes to this new CD give the following: Sun Ra: piano, celeste; Pharoah Sanders: tenor sax; Black Harold (Harold Murray): flute, log drum; Al Evans: trumpet; Teddy Nance: trombone; Marshall Allen: alto sax; Pat Patrick: baritone sax; Alan Silva: bass; Ronnie Boykins: bass; Cliff Jarvis: drums; Jimmhi Johnson: drums; and Art Jenkins: space voice. Prof. Campbell (2d ed.) adds Chris Capers on trumpet; Bernard Pettaway on trombone; Robert Northern on French horn; Danny Davis on alto sax, flute, and percussion; and Robert Cummings on bass clarinet but he omits Boykins. It is definitely a largish Arkestra, though they rarely all play at the same time, so it’s hard to tell. I do hear Cummings’s bass clarinet and, after repeated listening, I believe there are two bassists on this gig.

The CD starts out with nearly forty-five minutes of previously unissued material from this New Year’s Eve concert recorded in stereo. The brief “Cosmic Interpretation” opens the proceedings with some frenetic solo piano that outlines a vague tonal center. Ra then moves to the chiming celeste while the arco bass gets increasingly busy. Solo bass plays a jagged ostinato figure to introduce “The Other World” where Pharoah is well into his fire-breathing modus operandi. The first several minutes features some intense “New Thing” styled group improvisation. Pat Patrick takes brilliant accapella baritone sax solo, until trumpet joins in for a duet. After a less-than-convincing return to the pummeling free-jazz feel, things just sort of peter out at about the six minute mark yielding an incredibly lengthy, and rather pointless drum solo. At about the nineteen minute mark (!), trombone leads the horns back in for some honking and shrieking to introduce the space chant, “The Second Stop is Jupiter,” while the bass returns to the jagged ostinato figure. Some one emphatically declaims: “All out for Jupiter!” and the cacophonous horns return with trombone once again leading the way. After a while, all drop out for, yes, more drums! Thankfully, the track fades out after only another minute or so.

“The Now Tomorrow” begins with a lovely setting for piano and flutes in bittersweet harmony. Bowed bass enters and then things start to get weird when Marshall Allen takes a labyrinthine turn on oboe along with what sounds like a second oboe or soprano saxophone joining in along the way. And perhaps there are two basses sawing away here? I think so! Ra enters with rumbling piano to a smattering of applause. Ra plays intricate, contrasting figures on piano and celeste simultaneously until the horns (including bass clarinet) play fragments of the original harmonies to end. This is a very interesting piece of music.

On “Discipline 9,” Ra starts out with a twisty piano intro for some yearning horn figures that hover and glide over a stumbling ballad tempo. Two altos and bass clarinet twirl around the meandering rhythm while trombone interjects clipped statements here and there. Ra then establishes the brooding three-note vamp of “We Travel the Spaceways” which the rest of the band takes up in song. The horn break in this version is particularly loose, fragile, and hauntingly beautiful. The rhythm section settles into a comfortable groove while Art Jenkins does his “space voice” thing. The rest of the Arkestra takes up percussion instruments before the reprise of the singing and horn break. Someone blows ceremonially into a large conch shell while sleigh bells jingle…some applause…is it over? Then the bass riff returns and the applause dies down. Gentle percussion pitter-patters until a big conducted “space chord” charges in full of honking and wailing and pounding drums. Then the bass riff starts up again with flutes and trumpet dancing around. It sounds like they’re marching off the stage leaving only bass to end.

The original Saturn LP (recorded in mono) follows. “Gods on a Safari” showcases some furious two-handed piano action from Ra and some abstract ensemble figures all which quickly subsides leaving some slip-sliding arco bass(es?) and the quiet tinkling of bells. Ra takes over with some slyly dissonant piano solo that launches into the roiling up-tempo drive of “The World Shadow.” The piano and rhythm section build up the agitated feeling similar to “The Shadow World” with Pharoah approximating the knotty melody, but it sounds tenuous. Eventually, he glides into more of his leather-lunged multi-phonics and extreme over-blowing. Pealing trumpet takes over as the rhythm becomes ever more intense and abstract. Suddenly, there is a relaxation of tension, leaving some polyrhythmic percussion and a droning conch shell. More space voice warblings from Jenkins follow until Ra enters on the toy-like celeste. Bass then sets up the groove for “Rocket Number 9” and off they go. Ra and the bass(es?) outline the skittering chord sequence while the ensemble chants, “Rocket Number 9 take off for the planet Venus! Venus!” A brief drum solo follows until the horns enter in full polyphonic force, culminating a big, blasting “space chord.” Pharoah then wails some more on tenor sax over the scattered, enervated rhythms, Ra stabbing out angular chords on piano. Pharaoh takes one last turn before giving way to some bass and drum grooving that quickly fades out.

A quick edit cuts into “The Voice of Pan.” As befitting the title, Black Harold’s breathy, vocalized flute soars over tippy-tapping percussion and subtle bass figures. This has a similar in feel to some of the Choreographers Workshop material and even shares some of that echo-y ambience – added, perhaps, after the fact. Harold’s schtick is pretty amusing and gets a rise out of the audience. Then, a widely-spaced ensemble chord introduces “Dawn Over Israel,” a lurching ensemble piece with sing-song-y bowed basses, fleeting horn figures and Ra’s convoluted piano. Ra suddenly takes over with a furiously pounding piano solo that eventually breaks up into some really nasty (unintended) distortion. Ra brings things down with some gentle chords to introduce “Space Mates.” Mellow flute melodies float over piano and celeste while bass(es) and percussion murmur in the background until the horns offer some supporting harmonies for a gentle close. Nice.

The Jazz Composers Guild shortly disintegrated due to the inevitable bitterness and acrimony that arises in such leaderless, ad hoc groupings of ambitious people. Dixon himself would be the first to leave and Ra abandoned ship shortly thereafter, complaining that the Arkestra was doing all the work. Despite its failings, the Guild’s efforts continued to resonate throughout the sixties and seventies with the Jazz Composers Orchestra, the Black Artists Group, the AACM and others. More immediately, Bernard Stollman, a local attorney who represented musicians, was inspired enough by the music he heard at these Guild-sponsored concerts to sign many of the performers, including Ra, to his ESP-Disk label. Stollman had previously established ESP-Disk to promote his other obsession, the “universal language” of Esperanto, so he knew how to make records with minimal expense. Stollman gave the musicians free reign (if limited budgets) to produce their music: “The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk” was the motto. These records became exemplary documents of the era and the label helped to establish Ra’s reputation as the cosmic messenger of out jazz. This expanded re-issue of an obscure Saturn LP is definitely a welcome addition to the Ra discography.


Brian Barker said...

Interesting comment about Bernard Stollman and Esperanto.

It's unfortunate that only a few people know that Esperanto has become a living language.

During a short period of 121 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA World factbook. It is the 17th most used language in Wikipedia, and in use by Skype, Firefox and Facebook.

Native Esperanto speakers,(people who have used the language from birth), include George Soros, World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet. According to the CIA Factbook the language is within the top 100 languages, out of all languages, worldwide.

Confirmation of this can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670 A glimpse of the language can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

Sam said...

Nice write-up, Rodger! As if I didn't know it already, this reissue really sounds like a must-have. I was really sorry to read that Clifford Jarvis was given yet another long drum solo in the middle of an otherwise interesting long piece. 13 minutes! Arg. I love Jarvis's playing with the rest of the group (his playing is especially understated and appropriate on "Strange Strings," of all things), but Ra gave him far too much solo space on live gigs. Ra must have liked it enough to continue to allow him to just wipe away whatever musical mood had been established by the band, with his grandstanding pyrotechnics that sound more like showing off than like making a meaningful musical contribution. To me, this was perhaps Ra's most serious aesthetic misstep throughout Jarvis's tenure in what was an otherwise brilliant span of composition, arrangement, and presentation.

This was indeed (other than a known recording of a rehearsal--one I've never heard) the first "official" recording of "The Shadow World," a signature Ra composition. It's rough and ready, and doesn't have the aggressive authority of the first released version on "The Magic City" (the Pharaoh LP didn't come out the '70s). I think this piece came into its own with Gilmore leading the horn section through the incredibly complex 7/4 head. Over the years, it became a showcase for some of Gilmore's most "out" solos and high-register explorations.

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A. Rafiq Obasi Bragg-El said...

In respect to the article's mention of Black Harold, aka Sir Harold, aka Brother Atu, he is alive and doing well and just celebrated his 71st birthday... and you couldn't tell by looking at him! I am a percussion student of "Baba Atu" (new moniker) and he is living in the Atlanta area and working on promoting his life's work of sculptures. He is still involved with the music and takes it extremely seriously, and has been teaching my group "AMUN- The Hidden Ones" everything about rhythm and harmony. I have learned a lot about the brother Sun Ra from his many stories, and see the need for this vintage and beloved music to re-surface. Any further questions, please feel free to ask!

A. Rafiq Obasi Bragg-El said...

With respect to the article in regards to Black Harold aka Sir Harold aka Brother Atu, he is alive and well and just celebrated his 71st birthday... and you couldn't tell by looking at him! I am a percussion student of "Baba Atu" (new moniker) and he is living in the Atlanta area and working on promoting his life's work of sculptures. He is still involved in the music and has tasught me a great deal about brother Sun Ra and other great musicians. He is instructing me and my group "AMUN" about the importance of rhythm and harmony; it is truly a pleasure to be in the presence of a mind and historian as him. Any further questions, please feel free to ask!

Rodger Coleman said...

@A. Rafiq Obasi Bragg-El

Thank you so much for your comment(s). It is fascinating to know that "Black Harold" is still around and inspiring people with his music!