January 10, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Research Arkestra:
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 11-9-70 (AUD 2CDR)

Following their appearance at the Berlin Jazz Festival, the Arkestra traveled to London, arriving just in time for their scheduled performance on November 9, 1970. Unfortunately, the logistics of this concert were vexed from the beginning. Originally to be held at the glamorous Rainbow Theatre, the show was moved at the last minute to the much smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall, which again resulted in an angry mob of people outside the theater, unable to enter. Thankfully, a full scale riot did not erupt as in Paris. And although Black Lion intended to record the concert for release, the sound technicians arrived three hours late, resulting in unacceptably bad sound quality (even for Black Lion!). (See Szwed p.283-284 and Campbell & Trent p.169.)

Nevertheless, the performance itself was apparently a resounding success. David Toop wrote about this landmark concert in his thought-provoking book, Oceans of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds (London: Serpents Tail, 1995):

[Sun Ra’s] first UK performance…was one of the most spectacular concerts ever held in this country. Not spectacular so much in terms of effects, which were low on budget but high on strange atmosphere, spectacular in terms of presenting a complete world view, so occult, so other, to all of us in the audience that the only possible responses were outright dismissal or complete intuitive empathy with a man who had chosen to discard all the possibilities of a normal life, even a normal jazz life, in favour of an unremitting alien identity. Fire-eaters, a golden-robed dancer carrying a sun symbol, tornadoes of percussion, eerie cello glissandi, ferocious blasts and tendrils of electronic sound from Sun Ra on Farfisa organ and Moog synthesizer, futuristic lyrics of the advertising age sung by June Tyson – “If you find earth boring, just the same old thing, come on sign up for Outer Spaceways Incorporated” –saxophone riffs repeated over and over by Pat Patrick and Danny Thompson as they moved down the seating aisles towards the stage while John Gilmore shredded and
blistered a ribbon of multiphonics from his tenor, film images of Africa and outer space…As depictions of archaic futures, shamanistic theatre, imaged of divined worlds, these devices of cumulative sensory overload were regarded at the time as distractions from the music. But those who concentrated solely on the music ignored Ra’s role as political messenger. (pp.23-24; quoted in Szwed p.284.)

What exactly Sun Ra’s political message might be is a topic I’d rather not delve into at the moment except to say that Toop touches upon a profound truth regarding Ra’s “unremitting alien identity,” which was already fully evolved by 1970. The large scale Cosmo Drama he witnessed was perhaps the very peak of the Arkestra’s gonzo, multi-media theatricality and cutting edge, out-jazz intensity. Too bad Black Lion blew it on the recording.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your tolerance for poor sound quality), a 118-minute audience recording of this concert circulates amongst Sun Ra fanatics. And believe me, this one is only for the irredeemably fanatical. During quiet passages, it is barely listenable; but when the music gets loud, it is nothing but a distorted roar of undifferentiated white noise. Maybe it’s not quite that bad, and after a while, you do get used to it, yeah, yeah, yeah – but, sheesh! That said, our intrepid recordist did manage to preserve a nearly complete performance from this first European tour and a little perseverance offers intermittent rewards. A blow-by-blow description would be even more tedious than usual, but I want to point out a few highlights. First of all, Ra seems to have been provided with a decent concert grand piano, upon which he spends more than his usual, obligatory amount of time and he sounds truly inspired by the instrument throughout. The first set features one of the final performances of “Walking on the Moon,” sporting a slightly different arrangement with more high-octane big-band riffing and fewer overt solos, further omitting Ra’s usual wandering keyboard at the end and instead segueing immediately into the swinging space chant, “Outer Spaceways Incorporated.” “The Shadow World” is its usual, mysterious, shape-shifting self which breaks down into a lovely piano duet with Silva’s arco bass, interrupted here and there by Kwami Hadi’s daredevil high-wire trumpet act. This maneuver prods Ra and Silva to even more delirious flights of fancy before the full Arkestra lurches into another one of those dirgey, old-fashioned-sounding compositions that brings to mind the “Discipline” series to come. The first known performance of “Life is Splendid” opens with the massed flute choir effect similar to “Friendly Galaxy No.2,” before the incantatory vocals by Tyson and Ra. Tyson then chants with the Arkestra about “somewhere in outer space” where “we’ll wait for you… in tomorrow’s world” until an eruption of free jazz skronk and a spacey synth drone brings things to a dramatic close.

The forty-six minute fragment of the second set is even more interesting, cutting in on what at first sounds like a conducted improvisation featuring Ra on piano and Silva on bowed cello. But upon closer listening, it sounds to me like Ra is outlining a pre-conceived harmonic structure that comes to a definite conclusion. After a brief pause, Ra launches into a piano solo that also sounds through-composed. Is this a suite? Or does the bewildered audience just not have the opportunity to react? Ra’s playing becomes more rhythmically agitated, each hand playing in different keys, punctuated by the Arkestra’s braying space-chords whose inner voices suggest the harmonic movements of the piano. After a cued stop, dueling alto saxophones take over amidst intermittent Arkestra blasting and churning percussion. The poor quality of the recording makes it difficult to hear what exactly is going on here, but it is certainly intense! A crashing gong introduces a chiming electric keyboard solo to end. Next up is a medley of compositions that date back to the early years in Chicago: “Planet Earth” has by now gained lyrics for an ensemble of vocalists and “El is the Sound of Joy” gets an expansive arrangement featuring a swirling, roller-rink organ solo by Ra. Despite the poor sound quality, you can still hear that the Arkestra is tight and well-rehearsed on both of these swinging big-band numbers. The first known performance of “Pleiades” begins with a brief statement of the theme on the reedy Rocksichord before a lengthy electric keyboard solo full of whooshing synthesizer and terrifying, pile-driving organ cluster-bombs that anticipate the industrial noise-making of Einstürzende Neubauten. Clearly, Sonny was very much ahead of his time. All of this builds up to a frenetic group improvisation featuring Silva’s viola, Pat Patrick bass clarinet, Eloe Omoe on Neptunian lipflecto, and (perhaps) Akh Tal Ebah on long-breathed trumpet. Finally, after almost twenty minutes, things quiet down and a flute choir plays the liltingly beautiful composition in its entirety, accompanied by some weirdo chords from Ra’s piano. The tape cuts off just as Ra begins to solo, which is too bad since I was just starting to get used to the bad sound quality!


On November 11, the Arkestra performed at the Liverpool University Students’ Union to a wildly enthusiastic, rock-star-like reception:

Toward the end of this concert, a greater part of the audience simply abandoned
the seating and danced in front of the stage, chanting “Ra, Ra, Ra.” This mass movement was catalyzed by one guy in a business suit, who leapt to his feet waving an umbrella, totally involved in the music. On this night, fire-eaters performed on stage during the concert, and the light show featured projected photos, ciné film of Sun Ra in the Sun Studio, starry backdrops, and rock-style lighting effects – a truly multimedia performance. The music ranged from percussion ensembles in which the whole Arkestra seemed to participate, to unaccompanied solos by John Gilmore and Sun Ra, Alan Silva cello features, space chants, and Dukish themes. There was plenty of all-in ensemble playing, too. During the second set many of the horn players, who had gone offstage, made a coordinated reappearance at various doorways at the back of the auditorium and drifted forward through the audience to rejoin the Arkestra, playing as they went. An old Melody Maker advertisement indicates that Tyrannosaurus Rex appeared there the week before, and in subsequent weeks the hall featured Fleetwood Mac, Charles Mingus, Frank Zappa, and Colosseum (Campbell & Trent p.171).

The Arkestra returned to London for the final concert of the tour at Seymour Hall, on a bill with Chris McGregor’s Quintet from South Africa and Osibasa, a rock group from Ghana. In the end, promoter Victor Schonfield lost money on the Arkestra’s first European tour, but as Szwed points out, “Sun Ra was now a world musician” (p.285).


Sam said...

Re: sound quality --there's much worse out there! How about Widney? heh heh --Frankly, I didn't think this one was THAT bad. It's an amazing concert any way you look at it (or listen to it, I guess).

Rodger Coleman said...

Well, you know, Widney starts off sounding pretty OK. The microphones' position on the stage brings some clarity to the instruments that is lacking here. But as things get loud, it gets really really distorted. Oh well. But, yes, the performance here is amazing.