March 7, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Solar Research Arkestra:
Helsinki, Finland 10-14-71 (FM 2CDR)

On October 14, 1971, the Arkestra performed in Helsinki, Finland and, lucky for us, the entire two-and-a-half-hour concert was broadcast by the Finnish Broadcasting Company, YLE. An off-the-air tape recording of the broadcast circulates amongst collectors and Transparency has recently released a 2CD set which purports to be derived from the radio station’s master reels, but I’m skeptical. (If anyone out there has heard this, I’d love to know your opinion!) The circulating tape is slightly hissy and probably more than a few generations away from the master, but it is recorded in stereo and sounds pretty good for the period.

The first set starts off with a bang: Sonny cues a mammoth space chord over which Kwami Hadi lays down some bravura trumpet over the throbbing mass of sound. Following a brief pause, the Arkestra launches into another unidentified number in the “Discipline” series of compositions, readily apparent by the dirgey blocks of harmonies in the reeds and brass floating over freely rubato drumming. At the conclusion, June Tyson and John Gilmore sing “Theme of the Stargazers,” which leads to a lengthy and particularly inspired multi-keyboard solo from Ra, full of synthesized blips, whirrs and spaceship sounds, twistedly polyphonic synthesizer/organ displays and astonishingly aggressive organ attacks. As the drums get heavier, saxophones are drawn into the fray with Gilmore the clear victor. After some further keyboard ruminations, William Morrow enters with some tasteful vibraphone which is countered by Ra’s wiry Clavioline-like sound, making for a hauntingly beautiful texture. “Discipline 8” follows in a much less expansive arrangement than we heard in Stockholm, although Gilmore’s tenor saxophone solo is typically brilliant. Pat Patrick picks up the electric bass to propel an extended “Love in Outer Space” into a trance-inducing groove that just goes on an on and on, no doubt accompanying a parade of dancers and other shenanigans. Meanwhile, Sonny keeps up a frenetic, electrically chiming keyboard accompaniment right through to the big molto ritardando ending. “Watusi” is taken at a furious clip and the long percussion jam that follows elicits all kinds of excited whoops and hollers from the audience, who burst into exuberant applause after the return of the theme and final, universe-shaking space chord. Ra introduces “Enlightenment” with his boing-boing-ing Rocksichord and Tyson and male chorus sing the joyful song while traipsing around the venue, inviting the audience to join them on their “space world.” The set ends with “Next Stop Mars,” another keyboard solo full of spacey synthesizer and apocalyptic organ clusters.

The second set opens with baleful organ chords before the antiphonal chanting of “Calling Planet Earth.” This prompts a spasm of crazy free-jazz skronk that eventually yields to another glistening vibes and keyboard duet. I’m really enjoying Morrow’s contributions on this tour! An unidentified title follows featuring a mellifluous flute choir in bright major key harmonies, over quietly burbling percussion (including distant timpani). This is another ingenious Ra composition that was apparently only performed once and discarded. What a shame! This piece is as pretty as a spring morning and perhaps the highlight of the concert. A protracted “Space is the Place” immediately follows, brimming with soulful crooning, sanctified wailing, and ecstatic carrying on from a multiple vocalists over waves of roiling drums and percussion. Fun -- but truthfully, it goes on a bit too long. After a brief coda, Ra launches the band into “Angels and Demons at Play,” which was last heard on the 1960 Saturn LP of the same name. Basically a groove in 5/4 anchored by Pat Patrick’s endlessly repeating bassline, it’s really just an excuse for another sprawling, chaotic percussion jam and more space-age theatrics. Oh well. Next, Tyson and a veritable Greek chorus sing the lilting “The Satellites Are Spinning” as they march around the theatre before Ra signals a raucous version of “The Second Stop is Jupiter,” full of swooping, screaming vocalizations and riotous organ vamping. The lurching, big-band number, “Somewhere Else” follows, allowing Patrick to finally strap on the baritone saxophone and let it rip with a growling, blues-inflected solo. Up next is the genially swinging composition, “To Nature’s God.” This tune first appeared as an instrumental on the 1969 Saturn LP, My Brother the Wind, but here gains a set of lyrics in praise of “birds, lightning, sunshine, wind, rain, the leaves on the trees” and their prolific creator. Curiously, this intricate re-arrangement would only be performed once more before being permanently dropped from the repertoire (Campbell & Trent, p.842). The concert ends with a series of space chants, anchored by Patrick’s remarkably fluent bass playing, beginning with “Sun Ra and His Band from Outer Space” and “Prepare for the Journey to Other Worlds,” concluding with a reverent quotation of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

While it is certainly nice to have a complete concert from this vintage in decent sound quality, the overall performance is somewhat diffuse and lacking the ultra-adventuresome music making heard a couple of nights earlier. There is more of a “good time party” atmosphere at this concert which leads to some overlong and self-indulgent episodes which were no doubt visually entertaining at the time but do not translate well to audio tape. That said, Ra’s own playing is outstanding and the lovely unidentified title for flute choir in the second set makes this tape worth seeking out for the duly obsessed fan.


Sam said...

I am in total agreement with your assessment of this, Rodger. The first half of the first set is the real kicker here--the rest doesn't wear as well for those of us not fortunate enough to be there to see the spectacle of the dancers and all the visuals that were surely in effect. Is the only other vocal appearance of "To nature's god" the one on "Dark Myth Equation Visitation"? It's always nice to have another version of "Somewhere else," one my favorite Ra post-bop big-band-idiom numbers. Great solo from Patrick. That and the first part of the first set alone make this worth having--the sound quality is a true bonus. But as a whole, it's not nearly as transcendent as Stockholm 1971-10-21 was, or as the 1971 Egypt concerts yet to come.

Rodger Coleman said...

There is a vocal version of "To Nature's God" on the Delft concert, in stunningly good sound quality (on the 2001 rebroadcast).
I agree that Stockholm is the most transcendent concert of the European tour.