September 20, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Solar-Myth Arkestra: The Solar Myth Approach, Vols.1&2 (Charly 2CD)

The French record label BYG/Actuel was founded in March 1967 by Fernand Boruso, Jean-Luc Young, and Jean Georgakarakos (a/k/a “Karakos”) as an outgrowth of Actuel magazine, an underground arts journal active in the student protest movements of the time. In July, 1969, the Pan-African Arts Festival attracted a number of American musicians to Algiers and photographer and hardcore jazz fan, Jacques Bisceglia was enlisted to attract some of the expatriate Americans to Paris with a promise of paying work and the opportunity to record. A number of studio recordings were made that summer by such luminaries as Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Dave Burrell. The label also planned an Actuel Festival to be held in Paris, but the French government denied them permission given their (tenuous) connection to the riots of 1968. The festival finally occurred in October, 1969 in the Belgian town of Amougies and while it was an economic disaster, the music was excellent and provided further material for the fledgling label. By 1972, BYG/Actuel had released almost fifty LPs documenting the cream of American and European free jazz and experimental musicians, but financial difficulties caused the partnership to disintegrate into acrimonious litigation and eventual bankruptcy. The original albums, with their striking graphic design by Claude Caudron, quickly fell out of print and remain valuable collector’s items today. Accusations of impropriety have tainted the label ever since its dissolution and bootlegged editions of certain titles (including this one) have been widely available over the years, lending credence to these allegations. Georgakarakos went on to found Celluloid while Young started Charly, small record labels with their own reputations for questionable business practices. Nevertheless, in 2002, Charly commissioned Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and journalist Byron Coley to curate Jazzactuel, a three-CD box set of highlights from the BYG era and, for a few years thereafter, legitimate (and, later, not-so-legitimate) reissues of the catalog started appearing on the market. (Currently, the BYG/Actuel label has been seemingly resurrected and is re-releasing titles on LP only, but I haven’t heard any of them.) Ethical issues aside, the music is uniformly wonderful and well worth seeking out.

Sun Ra himself was unable to personally attend the festivities in Europe, but instead compiled two LPs worth of music for the label entitled Solar Myth Approach Volumes 1 and 2, which were released as BYG/Actuel 529.340 and 629.341 in 1972, toward the end of the label’s existence. Consisting of various recordings made between 1967 and 1970, each volume is carefully sequenced to highlight the most avant garde, experimental and downright trippy elements of the Arkestra’s music while remaining a satisfyingly coherent pair of albums. “Spectrum” sets the mood, opening Volume 1 with thick, dissonant chords that rise and fall over the ominous heartbeat of Ra’s clavinet. Meanwhile, Gilmore blows tightly controlled overtones on tenor with Patrick asserting angular counter-figures on baritone sax. The drummer-less texture sounds more like contemporary classical music than any kind of “jazz” but the following track, “Realm of Lightening,” features clattering clouds of trash-can percussion and blatting trombones over a hypnotic, repeated bass line. Things briefly settle down with a lovely rendition of “The Satellites Are Spinning,” taken at a lugubrious tempo with June Tyson and Gilmore singing in unison over Ra’s rhapsodic clavinet and some softly supportive hand drums. “Legend” is the centerpiece of the album, an astounding ten-minute excursion for straining trombones and frenzied oboes, with Gilmore and Ra engaged in pitched battle, Sonny attacking the clavinet with an unusually Cecil Taylor-ian aggression. “Seen III, Took 4” is another inventive Minimoog solo from 1970. By de-tuning the oscillators and with a call and response form, Ra simulates polyphony on the monophonic instrument, adding creative volume swells, filter and ring modulator effects, and ending with swooning pitch bends. “They’ll Come Back” is a short but tantalizing composition that calls to mind both Bélá Bartok and Duke Ellington with its interlude of fiercely rumbling piano and ringing, childlike celeste before a dramatic full stop and beautifully rendered coda. Volume 1 closes with “Adventures of Bugs Hunter,” which starts out as a groovily choogling number for Ra’s funky clavinet and Boykin’s rock-solid bass. But then Marshall Allen intercedes with some ear-piercing piccolo, in a deliberately contrary key and rhythm, all of which is swathed in Hunter’s patented echo/reverb effect. Far out, man! A perfect ending to an adventurous LP.

Volume 2 is perhaps even more intense, opening with “The Utter Nots,” another minimalist composition for maximalist Arkestra, consisting of an insistent one-note figure interspersed with blasting space chords, Jarvis pounding away on drums. A series of energetic, wide ranging solos (buttressed by Ra’s crazy, out-of-tune piano) builds up cresting waves of tension and release across the track’s eleven minutes, culminating in Danny Davis’s achingly overblown alto clarinet. The lilting space chant, “Outer Spaceways, Inc.,” offers a bare minute of respite, with droning trombone and bassoon combined with Ra’s twanging clavinet while Tyson and Gilmore enticingly sing: If you find Earth boring, just the same old same thing/Come on sign up with Outer Spaceways, Incorporated. “Scene 1, Take 1” is another epic Minimoog solo, over eight minutes of thoughtful knob-twisting, wah-wah-ing filter effects, buzzing noise, and farting, sustained pitches. The piece ends with an almost Vangelis-like swirling fade-out. Ra turns to clavinet solo on “Pyramids,” at times sounding more like a harpsichord or Spanish guitar on this moody, harmonically shiftless set-piece. “Interpretation” presents another delightful Strange Strings session, recorded in spacious and spacey stereo. Sadly, the fragile instruments were destroyed when the Arkestra’s van careened off the road on the way back from their second trip to California in 1969, making this the last known recording of Ra’s own “scratch orchestra.” Up next is a ponderous re-make of “Ancient Ethiopia” (originally titled “Ancient Aiethiopia” on the 1959 Saturn LP, Jazz in Silhouette), with Allen musing on low-register flute and Ra scattering chords around the piano’s tinkling, uppermost range. Volume 2 ends with “Strange Worlds,” a live recording from around 1969 or 1970. Ra’s organ and Akh Tal Ebah’s “space dimension mellophone” conjures up a spooky atmosphere and the music moves through various moods and feelings leading up to Tyson’s solemn declamations regarding the strangeness of the world. Suddenly, big, high-tension space chords unleash torrents of squalling horn solos, Ra furiously assaulting the Gibson Kalamazoo with his fists and elbows. Then, everything stops cold. Is it live or a deft edit? Either way, it’s a powerful conclusion to another mind-blowing album. Essential.

1 comment:

MeanMrKite said...

Outstanding album(s), outstanding review. Many thanks.