March 21, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Solar Research Arkestra:
Technische Hogeschool, Nieuwe Aula, Delft, The Netherlands 11-11-71 (FM 3CDR)

Several weeks later, the Arkestra appeared at the Technische Hogeschool, Nieuwe Aula in Delft, on November 11, 1971. Once again, the state-run radio station recorded the concert and broadcast it on November 14. According to Campbell and Trent, portions of this concert were also televised on Dutch TV on November 17, but the tape no longer exists in the VPRO archive (p.176). The audio recordings do exist, however, and, fortunately for us fans, the entire three-hour concert was re-broadcast in 2001. The sound quality is exceptionally good and it’s a wonderful performance to boot.

The first set starts off with glistening vibraphone arpeggios over roiling drums, each of the various percussion instruments nicely captured in a wide stereo image. After a brief pause, the Arkestra blasts into an explosive space chord that sets up a long electronic keyboard extravaganza, punctuated by intermittent ensemble freakouts. This is certainly an intense way to begin a concert! After about nine minutes, Ra launches into the bouncy vamping of “Enlightenment.” This is a note-perfect rendition with everyone crystal clear in the mix, including the descending counter-melodies on flutes and trumpet and the multi-voiced chorus that accompanies June Tyson’s melodic crooning. “Love in Outer Space” predictably follows, but this time it’s taken at a more relaxed tempo than usual, settling into a sultry, slinky groove for almost twelve sensuous minutes, relentlessly driven forward by William Morrow’s doubling of Pat Patrick’s electric bass line on vibes. Not much happens musically until Ra enters to state the theme a few times on a wheezy electric organ at the end -- but that’s OK.

Sonny then signals the space-chant, “Space is the Place,” which is full of soulful group vocalizations over the mellow groove. Until, that is, the saxophones enter with some dissonant squealing and the rhythm starts to disintegrate, with the vocalists going crazy with ecstatic wailing about “outer space” etc. Rather than wearing out its welcome, all this nonsense quickly subsides to give way to a series of solos and various ensemble sections including Ra’s “mad-scientist” organ, some saxophone duels, raging horn battles, and pounding kettle drums. Another unknown number in the “Discipline” series emerges from the ashes, where richly orchestrated horn parts wander through a thicket of chords while rubato drums rumble around underneath. A beautiful trumpet solo follows (probably Kwami Hadi) accompanied by some spacey vibraphone, which gets a nice response from the audience. Morrow then takes over with Ra joining in on marimba, while drums beat randomly and ominously. Out of the ether, June Tyson enters with a brief declamation: “Out of every nation they shall rise, with an invitation of the Sun to journey to the outer darkness, to the outer heavens of the intergalactic dawn!” Then the ensemble enters with a reprise or coda to the “Discipline” piece. As the work concludes, Eloe Omoe adds his wild bass clarinet scribbling which prods the ensemble into some full-blown skronky free-jazz, led by John Gilmore’s indomitable tenor saxophone.

June Tyson interrupts the mayhem with the declamatory “We’ll Wait for You” which is ticklingly echoed by the ensemble voices. Another wave of high-energy group improv follows, featuring Art Jenkins's ghostly “space voice” and another long segment of vibes and marimba noodling. Sonny then takes a rare turn on solo acoustic piano, interspersing luscious ballad chords with furious avant-garde attacks, later rhapsodically hinting around the “Theme of the Stargazers,” which is taken up by Tyson and Gilmore in perfect unison. This gives rise to a long, quiet, very spacey improvisation with vocalized horns and gently tapping marimba and percussion. At times, an eerie, “Strange Strings” --like atmosphere arises only to move in other, equally compelling musical territory. Finally, Gilmore steps up with an anguished saxophone cry and takes over with a typically mind-blowing solo, which is greeted with wild applause. Wow.

An early version of “Discipline 27” follows right behind. Campbell and Trent point out that these early performances are “pre-mitotic; [they] combine[] a riff from the later ‘27’ and one from the later ’27-II’ along with a counter-theme for the saxes that was not used in later versions at all” (p.177). Not surprisingly, the ensemble sounds a bit tentative on the interlocking horn parts, and the rhythm section never quite attains the stately grace the work requires. Hadi ventures first with an uncharacteristically modest but tasteful solo while Morrow provides some rather aimless filling on vibes, mostly making for a not quite satisfying performance of this otherwise languid and dreamy composition. As the piece tapers off, the chorus enters with an a cappella rendition of “Outer Spaceways, Incorporated,” ending the set with delirious chanting and clapping while the Arkestra parades off the stage.

The second set begins with another out improv led by Gilmore titanic tenor, together with peals of squalling horns and energetic free drumming. The mix is a little weird until Tyson enters with a lovely solo rendition of “They’ll Come Back,” which elicits an enthusiastic response from the crowd. Another unknown number in the “Discipline” series follows, featuring slowly ascending, densely harmonized horn swells and a honking bass clarinet solo from Omoe. A free improvisation opens up for more vibes/marimba spaciness before the ensemble returns with the heaving chords of “Discipline,” this time with hysterical vocalizations from (perhaps) Malik Ramadin. Interesting. The piece formally concludes, giving way to Danny Davis on wailing alto saxophone, later joined by Marshall Allen and some jittery percussion and vibraphone. The music rises and falls a number of times before Gilmore takes over with another spectacular tenor solo, bringing down the house to stunned applause. Ra then moves to acoustic piano for a rare performance of “Intergalactic Research,” a loping vamp in 5/4 featuring subtly inventive solo turns from Gilmore and Hadi. As the rhythm section starts to deconstruct, Ra embarks on a spaceship synthesizer solo punctuated by dissonant organ stabs, with an onomatopoeiac white-noise blast-off at the conclusion.

A held organ chord cues “The Satellites Are Spinning,” its mellow groove supporting the soulful singing of Tyson and band. After a big ending and a brief percussion interlude, yet another number in the “Discipline” series is performed, this one orchestrated for thick stacks of low saxophones with a breathy flute on top. As Pat Patrick begins to play a counter-melody on baritone sax, more flutes and French horn enter, making for an impossibly lush texture. A sweetly improvised flute choir follows, with additional commentary from various percussion instruments and a reedy synthesizer -- until Ra suddenly charges into “Watusi,” taken at a brisk yet controlled tempo. After a tight rendition of the theme, the usual percussion fest follows, which benefits from the excellent stereo sound; this sometimes dull segment is actually quite mesmerizing! But by the time Morrow’s clanking vibraphone induces Ra to return to the vamp, the tempo has increased noticeably. Even so, the Arkestra returns with a jubilant restatement of the theme and a huge pulsating space chord to end. Sonny then taps out the tune, “To Nature’s God,” on Rocksichord, but drops out for Tyson and the guys to sing the song over a hypnotic two-chord vamp supplied by vibraphone and electric bass. “Sometimes you should appreciate the work of Nature’s God! -- Give credit where credit is due!” they implore. While it’s sort of understandable why this tune was dropped from the repertoire, it’s still nice to have this rarely performed vocal arrangement in such good sound quality.

Next up is an extended performance of the mysterious “Shadow World.” Ra outlines the weird chords at a breakneck tempo, but when the horns come in with their wickedly complicated, interlocking lines, they are almost completely overwhelmed by howling feedback. Yikes! The mix continues to suffer as the technicians attempt to cope with the barrage of instrumental attacks. Eventually, the rhythm section amiably falls apart, allowing for a series of solos, first a densely contrapuntal Rocksichord etude, then Gilmore with his screaming multiphonics and fleet-fingered runs of notes, which again elicits a round of applause from the audience. Pat Patrick honks out the “Shadow World’s” enervating riff, while Gilmore continues to wail, building up to an almost unbearable level of intensity until he’s all alone again on the stage, blowing his ever-living brains out. With a flourish, he stops and the stunned audience responds with another big hand. Geez, what can I say? It’s another incredible John Gilmore solo! Kwami Hadi gamely follows with a high-wire trumpet solo, full of rubber-lipped special effects which is greeted with respectful applause. Ra furiously assaults the organ with remarkable, ten-fingered dexterity, producing a richly textured, purely electronic sound. Then the Arkestra suddenly enters with a wobbly space chord, serving to introduce a brief untitled composition, perhaps from the “Discipline” series, scored for long-breathed flutes and alternately moaning and riffing horns. Very interesting! After a spacey vibraphone interlude, Ra returns with an extended synthesizer excursion, again demonstrating his mastery of electronic keyboards in the early nineteen-seventies. After a solemn conclusion, Ra deftly segues into the closing space chants. First, there's a short romp through “The Second Stop Is Jupiter,” with Tyson and Gilmore gleefully chanting the line in weirdly antiphonal harmony. Tyson then moves into “Prepare for the Journey to Other Worlds,” which includes quotations from "Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and a disconcertingly catchy refrain: “This world ain’t gonna be here long – we got to go!” Meanwhile, the Arkestra embarks on its slow procession off the stage, banging and clanging, chanting and singing. Several minutes of clapping, cheering and hollering from the audience is also included on the rebroadcast.

Whew! What a show! How delightful to have this recording of an expansive Cosmo Drama in such vivid high-fidelity sound! This one is a keeper, for sure! Unfortunately, the haphazard booking of the European tour was taking its toll on the Arkestra’s finances, which led to an ugly scene back at the hotel after this concert. Szwed explains:

The performances were spread so far apart that the money they were receiving ran thin, and three of the musicians began demanding to be paid. After the Delft concert one of them tried to take the money by force in Sonny’s hotel room, and was stopped only when other band members came by and heard what was going on. Sonny fired the three of them, and over the next three weeks eleven more left, including all the dancers except June Tyson (p.287).

Campbell and Trent list no performances between the October 19 concert in Aarhus and this one on November 11 and the next documented performance wasn’t until November 29 in Paris (which was supposed to be the last one of the tour). It’s rumored, however, that the Arkestra also played in West Germany at some point, but no definitive information has been uncovered (p.176). In any event, such a large ensemble of out-jazzers couldn’t possibly survive in a foreign country while working only once every few weeks, so it was inevitable things would come to a head with the less-experienced Arkestrans. Fortunately, the core members of the band soldiered on, enthusiastically agreeing to a last-minute trip to Egypt, despite the impossible logistics, which included some hastily arranged gigs in Denmark in December which were intended to pay for the excursion. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. A fragment of the Paris concert and one “officially released” recording from Copenhagen still await us. See you next week.


Anonymous said...

june tyson blew my mind as did the whole band, one night in manhatan near the chelsea hotel for $17 in 1985 or '86. unreal. and the description here about this older recording reminds me clearly of the goosebumps and dynamics

Rodger Coleman said...

Thank you for reading and leaving a comment!