April 4, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Calling Planet Earth (DA Music/Freedom CD)

The Paris concert was supposed to be the last of this ill-fated tour -- but at the last minute, Sun Ra decided to go to Egypt. Someone had tipped him off to cheap airfare from Copenhagen to Cairo and a handful of gigs in Denmark were cobbled together to pay for a trip to the Land of the Pharaohs (see Campbell & Trent p.178). Egypt was a place of obvious spiritual importance to Sun Ra, but half of the rapidly shrinking Arkestra bailed out and returned home. Nevertheless, the core musicians dutifully carried on with the shoe-string adventure. As it turned out, the Danish promoters failed to pay, and Sonny financed the trip by selling a batch of tapes to the Black Lion label, the desperate transaction taking place on the tarmac as the Cairo-bound plane awaited its departure (Id. p.179; Szwed p.292). Among those tapes was a recording from Odense on December 3, 1971 but never issued (has anyone heard this?) and the December 5th concert from the Tivoli Theatre in Copenhagen, which was finally released by the DA Music/Freedom label as Calling Planet Earth in 1998.

The homemade stereo recording was made from the stage (probably by Tommy Hunter), and while it sounds fine, there is some distortion during the loudest parts and you can hear the seams of a hasty editing job. Hunter’s voice (likely recorded in the hotel room afterwards) announces the date and venue before cutting into a brief turbulent percussion jam, which serves as an introduction to “Discipline 5.” The through-composed sequence of sweet-n-sour harmonies rises and falls over the busy percussion section, yielding to an unaccompanied alto saxophone solo by Danny Davis, and returning for the reprise. Kwami Hadi remains as the only brass player, but the saxophone section is full and lush: besides Davis, mainstays Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Danny Thompson, and Eloe Omoe and newcomers Larry Northington and Hakim Rahim are all present and help to flesh out the intricate arrangement. “Discipline 10” is more groove-oriented, propelled by Ra’s barbequed organ comping over which the Arkestra riffs on a handful of big-voiced chords. Ra solos interestingly on organ while Patrick grinds out a stumbling bass line until Gilmore enters with a fiercely overblown solo on tenor sax. Unfortunately, he’s way off-mic and hard to hear. Even so, you can tell he’s really blowing his ass off! After a return of the head, Ra steers the band into a nicely sung rendition of “Enlightenment." A severely truncated version of “Love in Outer Space” ends what would have been side one of the LP, fading out just as things start to come to a boil.

“Discipline 15” begins with a fugue-like organ solo, outlining the highly chromatic harmonic areas of the piece. Then the ensemble enters tentatively with the richly orchestrated rubato theme, dark, reedy saxophones contrasted with airy flute and trumpet. Ra takes a dramatic unaccompanied organ solo before suddenly shifting gears, launching into “The Satellites Are Spinning” which is taken up by June Tyson and Gilmore in a sung duet. After the urgent chanting of “Calling Planet Earth,” the Arkestra slams into “The Outers,” some high-energy free jazz skronk: the horns wail, the drums bash, and Sonny attacks his electronic keyboards with fists and elbows. This goes on for a while, until Sun Ra takes over for good with an agitated mad-scientist-style solo on organ. A deft edit drops us into the floating space-groove of “Adventures Outer Planes” (mis-titled “Adventures Outer Space” on the CD), a two-chord vamp supporting a wandering melody for flute and trumpet that never quite seems to gel. Ra again leads the way with a genially meandering organ solo, while the Arkestra takes up small percussion instruments. A second time through the composition sounds a bit more confident than before, although there are some weird (and possibly wrong) notes strewn about. The track fades out inconclusively. Hmm. According to Campbel & Trent, this piece was only performed this one time (p.811); too bad as it definitely had potential. It is astonishing to discover so many tantalizing but rarely performed works scattered throughout the discography!

While there is some interesting music here, the Arkestra sounds hesitant on the newer material and some of the more exciting improvisational music has obviously been edited out from a much longer performance, making this album less than totally satisfying to me. Then again, I’m spoiled. Any good-sounding Ra music from this vintage should be heartily welcomed. Next stop: Egypt.


Sam said...

Yeah, you're definitely spoiled! :) I quite like this CD, and while I agree that "Adventures" may not quite gel, it's still a fascinating piece with a killer groove and some really nice keyboard work. And all three Discipline pieces are really, really super. "Discipline No. 10" is in the "My Brother the Wind" space-bbq mold, and as such is right up my alley. Too bad about the under-recorded Gilmore! I love "Discipline No. 15"--its yearning melody reminds me of "Barbizon." Overall, yes, some things are cut, but as programming for an album? Hell yeah--it would have been a killer LP!

Rodger Coleman said...

You're quite right, Sam. The three Discipline pieces really make this worth having. And I really shouldn't quibble about sound quality after that Paris concert!