December 20, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Research Arkestra: Black Myth/Out in Space (Motor Music 2CD)

After a three-week layover in Paris, the Arkestra was well-rested (if hungry) when they appeared at the Berlin Jazz Festival at the Kongresshalle on November 7, 1970. Like the Donaueschingen concert on October 17th, it was recorded for broadcast by S├╝dwestrundfunk (SWF) and some of the music appeared on It’s After the End of the World (MPS 2120746) in 1971. (See Campbell & Trent, p.168 for the gory details of how that album is cobbled together from the two concerts.) The extant eighty-minute broadcast reels were issued for the first time on this Motor Music CD and it is another fantastic performance from this first European tour preserved in truly extraordinary sound quality. However, Szwed describes this concert as a tense confrontation with a dour and skeptical crowd:

The audience on November 7 at Berlin Jazz Days at the Kongresshalle in West Berlin was not ready for what they saw. The Arkestra opened for the premier European-based free jazz big band Globe Unity Orchestra, led by Alexander von Schlippenbach, a German pianist. Globe Unity had established itself as a grimly serious representative of the new jazz, but one which also owed less to American musical tradition than European groups of the past. The audience was not sure that what they were witnessing with the Arkestra wasn’t a parody. The sermonizing and call-and-response declamations on outer space were unsettling to begin with, but the final blow came when Sun Ra peered through a telescope aimed at the roof of the hall, and claimed he could see his native Saturn. When some of the crowd began to boo, Sonny stunned them into silence when he told them that the noise they were making was the sound of the “subhumans” (the English equivalent of the word used by the Nazis to describe the Jews): “I don’t see any subhumans in the hall, but I hear them.” Then he turned back to the band “with fire in his eyes and signaled for a kick-ass space chord,” said [James] Jacson. “And he hit the same chord on the organ. Blam!” Then he called out to Pat Patrick, and baritone screams echoed through the theater, growing wilder with each chorus, producing the essence of what New York musicians were calling “energy music,” until the audience was subdued, if not entirely overcome (p.283).

That particular altercation is not documented on this recording (as far as I can tell), but there is certainly a lot of the usual “sermonizing and call-and-response declamations,” “kick-ass space chords” and New York-style “energy music” on display, but presented with deep roots in pre-and-post-war American swing and his sense of high-camp sci-fi infused theatricality. This stuff is far from the “grimly serious” and Eurocentric approach of Globe Unity and their ilk. I like their music OK, but let’s face it, Sun Ra’s is a lot more fun! In time, the Europeans of all stripes would catch on in a big way and the Arkestra would tour The Continent regularly for the remainder of Sonny’s life, even if many critics continue to dismiss him as a charlatan, a fake.

The CD opens with Alan Silva playing some brooding bass over tinkling percussion. June Tyson sweetly sings, “Out in space is such a pleasant place…a place where you can be free, truly free, with me.” After a while, Sun Ra signals a swelling space-chord and we’re off on an almost forty-minute conducted improvisation, centered around a long, dramatic synthesizer solo, punctuated with frenzied group improv, and ending with a series of unaccompanied solos by Silva (on cello), Eloe Omoe on Neptunian libflecto and finally John Gilmore on rip-roaring tenor sax. After this tumultuous journey into outer space, Ra moves to the piano to introduce another performance of one of the “Discipline” series compositions first heard on the Paradiso tape from October 18. The improved sonics of the Berlin recoding allows one to really hear the detailed orchestration of this beautiful, through-composed work. Utilizing a somber, quasi-ballad form, the piece moves through a series of richly voiced harmonies, sometimes sweet in an almost Guy Lombardo (or rather Duke Ellington) fashion, other times sour and dissonant, with a tonally vague conclusion. Very interesting. Ra moves to the twangy clavinet to introduce “Walking on the Moon,” which features a honking bari sax solo by Pat Patrick and some additional (perhaps improvised?) lyrics by Tyson (“If you fall down, get up and walk some more; You’re like a little a baby who never walked before; So take your first step into outer space…” etc.) The super hi-fi sonics make this rare live performance of this short-lived tune a real treat.

Sun Ra takes to the microphone to briefly talk about “Outer Space Where I Came From” before launching into the Afro-urban strut of “Watusa” which ends with some grafted on applause. Ra and Tyson then recite “Myth Versus Realty,” which poses the central questions: (1) if you are not reality, whose myth are you? and/or (2) if you are not a myth, whose reality are you? Sonny then elaborates his concerns amidst cued free-jazz freakouts:

I don’t expect to be a citizen of this planet.
It takes too long.
So I hereby proclaim you citizens of my greater universe!
In my greater universe there is no equality.
It’s according to what you are.
That is why we don’t have walls in our universe.
Because everyone is allowed to be themselves,
But on this planet you don’t have time to be yourself.
Hence, what you are & what you do!
Ra informs the audience: “this is Danny Thompson to tell you how Jupiter looks” and “this is Danny Davis, who’s going to tell you about my home planet, Saturn,” each soloist unleashing a torrent of notes while the whole thing climaxes with a bashing group blowing blowout complete with Silva’s wiry “Strange Strings” scraping and the furiously pounding Thunder Drum. Whew! Ra states the “Theme of the Stargazers” on the clavinet and Gilmore and Tyson sing the verse once before Ra signals the group space chant “The Second Stop is Jupiter” which quickly moves to some jaunty swing with “Why Go to the Moon?” which suggests a number of alternative destinations, including but not limited to the various planets -- or alternatively, why not “just be your natural self?” This was certainly a pertinent question in 1970, as it is today. A quick edit moves us to the concluding “We Travel the Spaceways,” sung by the Arkestra and Tyson as they parade out through the audience to warm but less than totally enthusiastic applause.

The next day, the Arkestra would travel to the British Isles for concerts in London and Liverpool before returning to the United States.

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