February 14, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Rehearsal, Oakland, CA circa. October, 1971 (CDR)

In preparation for the Arkestra’s second European tour scheduled to begin in October, 1971, Tommy “Bugs” Hunter recorded this sixty-minute rehearsal segment sometime in late September or early October -- or possibly a mere days before departure (see Campbell & Trent, p.173). This tape was subsequently broadcast by WKCR-FM during their Sun Ra memorial event on May 22, 1995 and now circulates widely amongst collectors. The rather crude monophonic recording offers a window into the inner workings of the core Arkestra as Sun Ra pontificates on various subjects and works the band through a handful of compositions, three of which were never performed again. This was apparently common practice, where numerous compositions were vigorously rehearsed, but never performed (see e.g., Id. p.170).

The tape opens with Ra talking about new experimental synthesizers and a “secret” electronic instrument (sort of like a Theremin) which won’t respond to a black person’s skin. Of course, Sonny is bemused by the apparent racism of this “mean” technology and chortles: “You go talking about equal rights and here you got an instrument that won’t play for you if you’re black!” Even so, Ra is interested in the instrument’s ability to play a “purple C” and a “red C” and play “sixteen pitches between C and C#.” I have no idea what he’s talking about, but he sure sounds convincing. Getting down to business, he leads the 10-member Arkestra through part of an unidentified title that sounds somewhat similar to the “Discipline” series, with lushly harmonized horns playing slowly interweaving parts over a repeating bass ostinato. After a couple of minutes, Ra cuts things off to enquire whether James Jacson has been reached on the telephone in New Jersey regarding travel arrangements to Europe. (He wasn’t home. “He wasn’t home last night, either,” Ra complains.) A lackadaisical run through of “Love in Outer Space” follows which prompts Sonny to chide the drummers and wax enthusiastically about Clifford Jarvis, who was apparently eager to get his old job back. Even so, Sonny does acknowledge Jarvis’s propensity to overplay: “You can’t just get a recording with nothing but drums, drums, drums, drums, drums. That’s what I used to try to tell Clifford Jarvis. Now, he took about a forty-minute solo on the thing…I told him, ‘we’re recording!’ Made no difference, though…That’s all his fault, boy, he don’t know when to stop!” I agree!

Sonny then assumes the role of the stern taskmaster, devoting more than fifteen minutes to diligently work out the arrangement and subtle rhythmic nuances of the old standby, “Friendly Galaxy.” First he tells Marshall Allen to play the melody on alto flute rather than piccolo, so the melody will “cut through.” This seems counter-intuitive to me (the piccolo cuts through just fine) and indicative of his inexplicable ire towards Allen. Because then he starts to get angry and repeatedly reprimands Allen for playing “on the beat!” Sun Ra scolds him: “You been playing that number for ten years and can’t play it yet!” Ra explains that he wants the melody played with “anticipatory rhythms” – a little bit ahead of the beat. “If you play it right on time, you’re gonna be wrong! It’s designed for sound,” he says. Ra then demonstrates on the keyboard, playing the “in-time” bassline and the “out-of-time” melody simultaneously. “See? I’m not asking you to do something I can’t do. I’m doing it!” After a slightly more successful take, Sonny declares:

See, you almost played it that time because you wasn’t counting and you wasn’t thinking about it. You just have to do this like I’m talking. And I’m not measuring my words and saying, ‘one-two-three’…I can’t do that. Music is a language, so you not supposed be counting. I might hold a word a little bit longer than usual if I want to emphasize what I’m saying. That’s the way music is.
Ra goes on to talk about playing behind the beat and makes his point more explicit: “That’s hard to do too. So, it’s either ahead or behind – and then there’s some music that’s right on the beat. Well, white people can do that! When it’s right on the beat, they got you!” After another run-through, Ra really starts to preach it:

It’s all about togetherness. The white race is together. Don’t let ‘em fool you what they talking about revoltin’ and revolutin’. What they got to revolute against? They got everything! But that’s for you! […] Talkin’ about revolution. I told the truth the other night when I said, ‘No. Not gonna have no revolution of black folks. Not no more freedom, not no peace, they don’t need nothing like that. They need unity, precision, discipline.’ That’s it. That’s the only thing white folks gonna respect and get out of the way […] They got their stuff together and I got mine together. And I’m not afraid of them. I ain’t worried about them. Now, I’m telling ‘em that. It’s about unity, precision, discipline […] That’s what jazz is: it’s precision, discipline.
After some discussion, Ra calls for “Intergalactic Universe,” a gently floating space vamp in 5/4 meter. The piece was never performed live and was likely never finished as you can hear Ra interrupting the proceedings several times in order to tweak the arrangement. Despite almost eighteen minutes of rehearsal, the music never quite gets off the ground although the piece clearly had some potential. Ra laments the lack of time for more rehearsal, but insists on working on another obscure composition, “Living Myth 7,” a terrifically complicated melody in 7/4 which is through-composed in intricate, close harmony. The ensemble sounds tentative at best. After a lurching, half-time read-through, Ra calls for double-time but the Arkestra once more hobbles its way through the thorny score until the tape cuts off. Never played again, this is another tantalizing “lost” work from Sun Ra’s oeuvre.

Although none of the musical performances really hang together, this rehearsal fragment offers an intimate glimpse into Ra’s working methods circa.1971 and his role as leader of the rag-tag Arkestra. At once genial storyteller, exacting schoolmarm, and political firebrand, Sonny clearly commanded attention and elicited a fierce loyalty from his most devoted disciples. As “crazy” as Sun Ra might sound, he certainly got results. This tape recording allows a first-hand account of the fearsome charm by which Sun Ra achieved his ultimate aim: “Unity, precision, discipline. That’s it.”


Sam said...

About "Intergalactic Universe," you say: "a gently floating space vamp in 5/4 meter. The piece was never performed live." Actually, we now know that it was performed live at least 3 times! Here are the versions we have:

1. 1971-08? (15:13) from the ESP Radio Show. Same concert as "Universe in Blue," but in stereo. You mentioned this in your review of that LP: "a fifteen-minute 'Intergalactic Research' follows with another extended tenor workout from Gilmore." The mistake in the title is probably mine, although the Good Doctor may have announced it as such. This is a beautiful version, with a truly transcendent Gilmore solo. It ends with unaccompanied Gilmore.

2. Delft 1971-11-11 (18:42) This is another super-beautiful version, with Ra on piano. It's soulful, it swings, and it's got another killer Gilmore solo, and a wonderful Kwame Hadi trumpet outing. The vibes and flutes provide a nice two-chord background.

3. Mystery Board 1972-11-02 or -03 (9:09) Here's what I had to say about this, in the notes to "Live Highlights": "The only other place this composition is known to appear is on the rehearsal tapes before the European tour of 1971. [Again, we now know that's not the case!] That makes this a perfect example of the catalog of compositions band members have said they'd rehearse extensively before a show, only to never play it that night. Of course we don't have recordings of every single show from this tour, but it is interesting that it doesn't show up on even one. [Wrong again!] What amazes me is how Ra could neglect this wonderful piece; it certainly deserves more attention. It's a soul-jazz groove guided by Rocksichord/clavinet with the head beautifully executed by Gilmore, who then proceeds to play gorgeous variations. He just sounds fabulous. This solo is a gift. Anything that follows has to be anticlimactic, but Kwame Hadi's trumpet solo is compelling on its own terms--actually, it's quite beautiful! This is just a killer performance."

Rodger Coleman said...

Wow, Sam. You are amazing. You really should be doing this instead of me! I need to go back and listen to this again. I knew this sounded familiar on the Delft concert!

Then there are all the unknown "Discipline" numbers....

Sam said...

Well, duh, I left off another performance of "Intergalactic Universe"---

4. ca. 1972 (14:13) from "Intergalactic Research, The Lost Reel Collection vol. 2" (Transparency). There, it's mis-titled "Intergalactic Research." It's slightly slower than the other versions.