October 18, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: The Electric Circus, New York, NY, April 1968 (AUD 2CDR)

I do not intend to write very much about the myriad audience or soundboard tapes, FM broadcasts, videos or other bootleg-type material which circulates amongst Ra collectors because, for one thing, I do not have it all and, for another, I do not really want it all! Let’s face it, I'm already feeling overwhelmed by Ra’s official discography! And so while such recordings (and I do have quite a few) are sometimes of extremely high quality, they are simply outside the scope of what I’m trying to do with Sun Ra Sunday. Be that as it may, this ninety-minute concert fragment is worth a mention here.

The Electric Circus was a hippie hang-out located on St. Mark’s Place in New York City and the Arkestra’s appearance at this venue (and the fact that some unknown fan decided to make this audience recording) demonstrates how Ra’s music and its audience were changing during this period. Recorded in mono, likely with a single microphone to a reel-to-reel machine, the sound quality is not too bad, all things considered, and it provides a singular glimpse into an Arkestra in transition circa. April 1968.

The tape fades in with “Lights on a Satellite,” already in progress. Horns and flute choir play the sing-song-ing melody a few times over the sensuous rhumba rhythms before giving way to a frenetically twanging and clanging clavinet solo by Ra — his attack is so ferocious, the instrument's delicate tines quickly drift out of tune. Nevertheless, Ra charges into the bouncing ostinato of “Friendly Galaxy.” The largish Arkestra sounds a bit tentative on the twisting, asymmetrical ensemble section, but once a solid groove is established, a lengthy sequence of solos and percussion jams is absolutely mesmerizing withAlan Silva’s cello giving this section an eerie, almost “Strange Strings” feeling. After bringing things to a full boil, Ra reintroduces the up-and-down bassline while the Arkestra gracefully elides the slip-sliding melodies ending with an exquisite, extended ritardando. After some polite applause, Ra introduces “The Satellites Are Spinning” and the Arkestra takes up the chant over a slinky groove. Sadly, it fades out after only a couple of minutes.

An untitled improvisation follows, fading up mid-oboe solo, sailing over throbbing African percussion, Silva’s cello singing along with Ronnie Boykins’s bowed bass. The piece moves through various moods and instrumental groupings (notably more oboes and French horn, of all things), climaxing with an aggressively apocalyptic organ solo by Ra. As the sonic fallout subsides, a child’s wailing and screaming perfectly blends with the moaning and sighing horns. Unfortunately, the tape cuts off just as things start to heat up again. With a hearty chant of “Calling Planet Earth!,” the Arkestra rips into some full-bore group-improv energy-music which, unfortunately, gives way to an overlong drum solo from Clifford Jarvis. Oh well. Next up, an early version of “Somebody Else’s Idea” is chanted rather than sung by an unidentified female vocalist —definitely not June Tyson. This is very interesting as it suggests that Ra was looking to add a female vocalist to the Arkestra prior to Tyson’s appearance on the scene later that summer/fall. After choogling along for several minutes, Ra signals the ending with some emphatic, churchy organ chords that lead into the gentle “space ballad,” “Spontaneous Simplicity,” a vehicle for Marshall Allen’s mellifluous flute. But as the percussion gets heavier and Ra’s organ gets more dissonant and distorted, the music verges on the kind of dark funk Miles Davis would get to later on the nineteen-seventies. And from there it disintegrates into a caustic noise fest that brings to mind primal Sonic Youth before returning to the burbling exotica of the theme. Incredible! Then Ra’s quivering organ tones introduce the whacked-out big-band number, “Space Aura” wherein John Gilmore is finally given an opportunity to shine on tenor saxophone, engaging in a fiery duo with Jarvis a la Interstellar Space before launching into an astonishingly virtuosic a cappella solo which elicits some enthusiastic cheering from the audience. Ra then re-enters with the theme just as the tape begins to fade out.

Despite the sometimes rough sound quality and some unfortunate edits, this “bootleg” tape is definitely worth seeking out for the opportunity to hear an expanded Arkestra performing at one of New York’s grooviest nightclubs at the height of the psychedelic sixties. Here is the blueprint for the wildly expansive “Cosmo Drama” that would expand and evolve throughout the nineteen-seventies. Fascinating stuff!

1 comment:

Sam said...

Thanks once again for doing a great job of putting this stuff in context. This recording is another stellar example of just how far ahead of his time Ra continues to be.