November 29, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Nuits de la Fondation Maeght vol.1 (Universe UV080 CD)

Recorded at the third and final concert on August 5, 1970, Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Volume 1 was originally released on the French Shandar label in 1971. Often bootlegged, it was also legitimately reissued on 12-inch 45RPM LP by the British label, Recommended Records, in 1981. (My copy sounds superb, but it’s plain black sleeve omits all relevant discographical information!) This CD issue on the Italian Universe label from 2005 is probably a “grey-market” bootleg as well, but it sounds fine and is packaged in a deluxe mini-gatefold LP sleeve. As of this writing, these Universe editions are in print and readily available.

The album opens with a spirited performance of “Enlightenment,” a composition co-written with trumpeter Hobart Dotson which dates all the way back to 1958’s Jazz in Silhouette. But by 1969, Sun Ra had abandoned Dotson’s counter-melodies and added typically Saturnalian lyrics. Here, Ra sets up the bouncy vamp on organ for John Gilmore and June Tyson, who chant in a call and response fashion, imploring humanity to join the Arkestra on its cosmic space voyage:

The Sound of Joy is Enlightenment
Space, Fire, Truth is Enlightenment
Space Fire
Sometimes it's Music
Strange Mathematics
Rhythmic Equations
The Sound of Thought is Enlightenment
The Magic Light of Tomorrow
Backwards are those of Sadness
Forward and Onward Are those of Gladness
Enlightenment Is my Tomorrow
It has no planes of Sorrow
Hereby, my Invitation
I do invite you be of my Space World
This Song is Sound of Enlightenment
The Fiery Truth of Enlightenment
Vibrations come from the Space World
Is of the Cosmic Starry Dimension
Enlightenment is my Tomorrow
It has no planes of Sorrow
Hereby, our Invitation
We do invite you to be of our Space World.

This infectious little ditty elicits some enthusiastic applause and, not surprisingly, “Enlightenment” would become a fixture of the live repertoire in coming years. Then, after a quick piano introduction, Gilmore and Tyson sing “The Star Gazers” in a lovely unison melody:

This is the Theme of the Star Gazers
Star Gazers in the Sky
This is the Theme of the Star Gazers
Star Gazers in the Sky
This is the Song of Tomorrow’s World
Of Cosmic Paradise.
After that plaintive vocal statement, Sonny launches into a gorgeous ad lib piano solo while small percussion instruments tinkle and clatter and Alan Silva provides some complementary figures on bass. Gradually, Ra builds up the intensity with cascading waves of chords and then bringing it back down to a gentle, quiet ending — until a crashing chord signals the beginning of the notorious “Shadow World.” Right off, it is obvious that the band is a well-oiled machine: the insanely complex, hocketed melodies are performed flawlessly, setting the stage for Gilmore’s utterly hair-raising solo on tenor saxophone, complete with a squealing and wailing a cappella cadenza. Ra then takes over with a skittering, swirling organ solo until cueing the horns for a huge, pulsating space chord. The braying and howling horns eventually subside, leaving Ra to sketch out the dramatic chord sequence on organ to end. This is a truly stunning performance of one of Ra’s most significant compositions and must be heard to be believed!

The album closes with an epic, twenty-minute-long MiniMoog/organ solo entitled, “The Cosmic Explorer” wherein Ra conjures up all kinds of incredible sounds from his electronic instruments: from spacey noodling to woozy portamentos, and blasts of white noise to apocalyptic torrents of dissonant tone-clusters. Meanwhile, cymbals, gongs and percussion rumble ominously in the background while a few horns add spare punctuation. After about seventeen minutes, the full Arkestra enters with a few minutes of high-energy, New-Thing-styled free-jazz which comes to a satisfyingly resolute climax before quickly fading out. I only wish we could hear the music that followed…

Like its companion volume, Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Volume 1 is an essential item in the discography, notable for its exceptionally good sound quality and superlative performances. Certainly, those in attendance were suitably impressed: the Arkestra had barely arrived back in Philadelphia when a group of European promoters offered to bring them back for a full-fledged tour only two months later, in October of 1970. I will be examining the surviving recordings from this momentous tour over the next few weeks here on Sun Ra Sunday.


Basker said...

Well, I'm sorry nobody commented, because you really know how to write it down, and because I heard Space World on the radio tonight.

Mind Power said...

Sun Ra is. Thank you for your enlightening reflection of his work. Bless