March 28, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Solar Research Arkestra:
Théâtre du Chatelet, Paris, France 11-29-71 (FM CDR)

Of all the European cities the Arkestra toured, Paris was apparently Sun Ra’s favorite:

Paris reminded Sonny of Montreal [where the Arkestra briefly lived before their arrival in New York City in 1961], and he loved to walk the streets and visit museums, especially the Egyptian section of the Louvre. [Dancer] Verta Mae Grosvenor said, “Walking with Sun Ra in France was something else! Everyone stared at us. We were a sensation…like Josephine Baker’s arrival in Paris” (Szwed, p.287).
The Arkestra performed at the Théâtre du Chatelet on November 29, 1971 and the concert was broadcast over the radio. A very degraded sixty minute recording of the radio broadcast circulates amongst the more fanatical collectors -- and you really have to be a fanatic to get into this one. The first forty-five minutes borders on the unlistenable: hissy yet muffled, under-recorded yet boomy, woefully unbalanced, and just plain bad. The remaining fifteen-minute segment is from a different source, but only marginally better-sounding than the rest. Even so, buried within the murk is some remarkable music that is worth the effort -- maybe.

The recording starts from the beginning of a set, with tribal drums setting up Ra’s grand entrance on weird electric space keyboards. Without going on too long, Sonny cues up “Discipline 27” in its early, “pre-mitotic” arrangement (see Campbell & Trent, p.177). Gilmore takes a rip-snorting tenor solo while the Arkestra heaves and sighs around him, but it’s difficult to hear exactly what is going on within the music. After a brief keyboard interlude, the band launches to “Enlightenment,” only to have the sound quality deteriorate even further. Ugh. “Love In Outer Space” predictably follows, but this time Sun Ra keeps up an enervating, electro-metallic din over the polyrhythmic percussion jamming to unsettling effect. Despite the poor sound quality, you can tell this is a particularly intense version of this sometimes throw-away piece. There’s a churning darkness to Sonny’s organ playing that reminds me of textural effects found on Miles Davis’s On the Corner album (which did not come out until 1972). Interesting.

Next up is the first known performance of “Third Planet,” a twisted bit of big-band fun, with a jaunty, slightly old-timey rhythm and a riff-happy horn arrangement. Ra takes a nicely buzzing Rocksichord solo before the reprise. After a brief interruption from the radio announcer (in French), and piano introduction from Ra, Tyson sings “Somebody Else’s Idea” accompanied by hypnotic percussion, an ooh-ing and ah-ing male chorus, and, sometimes, Marshall Allen’s ethereal flute. The announcer rudely interrupts again before an unknown number in the “Discipline” series composition fades up. It’s amazing how many of these things there are! This one is really just handful densely through-composed ensemble chords, which quickly gives way to an a cappella Gilmore solo. Sadly, the tape cuts off just as things start to get cooking. Too bad, as I suspect there was much more music that followed. Finally, “Watusi” is from a different, slightly better source, more balanced and clear, but the fifteen-minute long percussion jam is still a distorted mess. The track fades just the horns start to take things out. Oh well.

Despite the interestingness of much of the music contained on this recording, it is inordinately difficult to listen to without squinting your ears. However, rumor has it that the Art Yard label is planning a two-CD release of this complete concert mastered from the original reels – now that would be a most welcome addition to the official discography! I’ll keep you posted.

No comments: