November 22, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday


Sun Ra: Nuits de la Fondation Maeght vol.2 (Universe UV081 CD)

While Sun Ra was struggling to find an audience stateside, Willis Conover had enlisted Sonny (amongst others) into Uncle Sam’s Cold War cultural army, broadcasting the Arkestra’s records regularly on Voice of America and, by 1970, Europe had become a more welcoming environment for American jazz musicians than their native country. Conover and his wife had been instrumental in securing Sonny’s Carnegie Hall debut in 1968 and had been urging him to travel to Europe ever since. When they offered to arrange for the Arkestra to appear at the prestigious Fondation Maeght in the south of France for three concerts in August 1970, Ra eagerly accepted.

The only problem was: how does Sun Ra, a being from the planet Saturn, go about obtaining a passport? Szwed describes the impossible scene:


When they filled out the forms at the passport office in New York City, the clerk at the desk said to Sun Ra, “Sir, you’re going to have to give us better information that this. We need your parents’ names, your birth date…” [Dancer] Verta Mae Grosvenor recalled that Sun Ra said, “‘That *is* the correct information.’ After a few minutes, the clerk went back to speak with her supervisor. The supervisor was no-nonsense, but after talking to Sun Ra she said, ‘Sir, why don’t you come back in a few hours.’ When we came back there was another person there and he knew about it, and he said, ‘We’ll just give you the passport.’ It just got so out that they just gave it to him!”

That passport gained talismanic force over the years, and musicians shook their heads when they saw it. Talvin Singh, an English tabla player, said: “His philosophy was that either you be part of the society or you don’t. And he wasn’t part of it. He created his own. I mean, I actually saw his passport and there was some weird shit on it. It had some different stuff.” (p.278)

Passport in hand, Ra and a nineteen-member Arkestra traveled to St. Paul de Vence and performed three concerts on August 3, 4, and 5, 1970. The Fondation Maeght is one of the finest small museums in the world and, with its focus on blue-chip modernism, Ra’s appearance in such a venue indicated a certain acceptance into the privileged domain of the European avant garde. The concerts were professionally recorded for broadcast by the state-sponsored radio station and portions were later released on LP as Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Volumes 1 and 2 by the French Shandar label in 1971. These records have been widely bootlegged ever since and my CDs on the Italian Universe label are probably “gray market” bootlegs as well, but they sound fine and are sumptuously packaged in heavyweight, gatefold mini-LP sleeves. As of this writing, they remain in print and are well worth seeking out.

Campbell (p.162) insists that Volume 2 comes from the August 3rd concert (Volume 1 is from August 5th) and having no reason to disagree, we will begin with Volume 2. Campbell also lists a number of tracks contained on the original radio broadcast and an audience tape, but I have not heard this material. Again, Szwed provides a vivid description of Sun Ra’s outrageous presentation and the decidedly mixed reaction it generated:


The audience had little or no knowledge of Sun Ra’s music, since his records
weren’t widely distributed in France, and when they arrived they saw the Arkestra spread out before them like elaborate d├ęcor: musicians in red tunics, seated in a forest of instruments on stage, dancers in red dresses. On a screen behind them was projected a sky full of stars, then planets, children in Harlem, Indians on hunting trips, and newsreel footage of protests; a ball of “magic fire” rose slowly up to the ceiling; saxophonists began to battle like Samurai, then came together like brothers; and in the still center of it all, Sun Ra sat behind the Moog, creating the sounds of gales, storms, and waves crashing. From the very first note, an agitated woman stood up and cried out, “What is
this? Afterwards, she came up and insisted on seeing the written music. Europeans seemed to want to know whether there was music behind what they were hearing, as if it would assure them that this was rational activity, and Sonny was always happy to show them the scores. A man once blurted out that his “five-year-old daughter could play that!” Sun Ra readily agreed: “She could play it, but could she write it?” (p.279)

The album opens with “Friendly Galaxy No.2,” a fascinating piece only tangentially related to the first “Friendly Galaxy,” which originally appeared on Secrets of the Sun in 1965. After a burbling organ introduction, the composition moves to a choir of flutes improvising over Ra’s languid piano, Alan Silva’s whining cello, and with a simple but rhythmically insistent trumpet motif recurring throughout. Meanwhile, the rest of the band establishes an exotic space-groove on bass, drums, tympani, and hand percussion. The effect is otherworldly and quite mesmerizing. In an interview with Jazz magazine in November 1970, Sun Ra described how he tailored this piece to the unique qualities of the venue:


One of the things which most impressed listeners at the Fondation Maeght is the passage for six flutes ad lib, six flutes playing in harmony. I could say improvising in harmony. I’m inspired by it to do something else which would be totally different. I believe it’s a musical idea which would be totally different. I believe it’s a new way of using flutes. It’s at once both very melodic and harmonious and at the same time so distant, as if the music was heard in the distance through a sort of mist. It’s so “out of this world.”

Curious thing, the flutes had never played this passage with the piano, but because of the peculiar acoustics in the room I knew that it would be absolutely necessary that I play at the same time because the flutes would be bothered by an echo that the audience fortunately wouldn’t hear at all. So above this the trumpets entered in, played a sort of ad lib riff because this light echo didn’t allow them to understand the rhythm.
(quoted in Szwed pp.279-280)

“Friendly Galaxy No.2” would be performed several times over the next couple of years only to disappear from the repertoire. Too bad as it is truly a unique work, with the massed flutes and brass technique demonstrating Ra’s audacious genius at orchestration. “Spontaneous Simplicity” follows (out of sequence, according to Campbell) and although this version doesn’t devolve into the kind of proto-No Wave skronk heard on the Electric Circus tape from 1968, this a fine performance with the massive ensemble sections sounding particularly powerful and precise. After the opening statement, Sun Ra leads the way with a buzzing Rocksichord solo as the rest of the Arkestra picks up percussion instruments to buoy the hypnotic, one-note bassline. The music grooves along for a delirious eleven minutes, ending to some genuinely enthusiastic applause.


“The World of Lightning” picks up in the middle of some crashing gongs and cymbals, the audience clapping in slow rhythm until Ra takes over with one of his patented mad-scientist organ solos. Afterwards, Marshall Allen engages Alan Silva in a duel between alto saxophone and cello, with other horns joining in the fray at its screaming climax, the entire Arkestra wailing away with utter abandon until Sonny cues a cataclysmic ending that feels like the cosmos collapsing in on itself. The audience reacts with stunned silence which perfectly sets the stage for “Black Myth,” a solemn bit of musical theater featuring June Tyson’s dramatic and evocative vocals. Tyson intones two Sun Ra poems (“The Shadows Took Shape” and “The Strange World”) over spacey noises, fleeting flutes, and ominous percussion. Ra then launches into a typically apocalyptic organ/synthesizer blast that eventually crossfades to some overloud applause. The album ends with a fragmentary piece entitled, “Key,” which starts off with some intertwined oboe (possibly James Jacson) and cello but is soon interrupted with an explosion of cacophonous horns and bashing drums that quickly subsides, only to fade out with some gentle percussion taps. Interesting.

What a great album! It is so nice to hear the Arkestra recorded in such high fidelity and this is an especially riveting live performance. The band is well-rehearsed and everyone is more than happy to be feted by French cultural elites. Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Vol.1, which documents the August 5th concert, might be even better. We’ll take a listen next week.

1 comment:

Sam said...

Excellent analysis, Rodger! Judging by the intermittent whoops and hollers, I suspect the long percussion sequence in "Spontaneous Simplicity" was the background for an extended dance sequence. Funny enough, that very song came on my shuffle this morning on the way to work. Like some extended parts of "Watusi" or "Love in Outer Space," the long percussion section didn't do too much for me. Maybe if I were dancing myself...