April 11, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Myth Science Solar Arkestra:
Horizon (Art Yard CD)

With the money obtained from Black Lion, the Arkestra was able to board the waiting plane and travel to Cairo, arriving in the evening of December 7, 1971. But they did not know anyone in Egypt and neither did they know where they were going to stay nor how they were going to pay for it. Szwed describes the scene:

When they landed they were held up at Egyptian customs because of the unlikelihood of an entire orchestra arriving as tourists and because of the name on Sun Ra’s passport. To be named after the sun god twice was really a bit too much. On the latter objection Sun Ra resourcefully suggested the guard call the curator of the National Museum of Antiquities with whom he was ready to discuss Egyptology. They let him in, but customs kept most of their instruments just in case. The band took cabs to the Mena House Hotel outside of Cairo, and they woke up the next day to see the morning fog slowly lifting to reveal the pyramid of Giza. A day later Tommy Hunter began taking motion pictures of members of the Arkestra as they faced the pyramids, while the wind made their costumes billow so it appeared they were flying. These were the films that Sun Ra would later project behind the band at Slug’s and at concerts (p.292).

Here is the film:

Thanks to Sun Ra fan, Hartmut Geerken, a German writer and free musician who was teaching at the Goethe Institute in Cairo, a series of performances were arranged, including an invitation-only concert at Geerken’s home in Heliopolis on December 12. While most of the Arkestra’s instruments were still being held by customs, they were aided by a most unlikely personage named Salah Ragab:

[He was] a brigadier general and the head of military music in the Egyptian army and himself a jazz drummer. Though he was later disciplined for the contact, he continued to meet with the band under various disguises, including once when he came with the son of [Egyptian President] Gamal Abdel Nasser, also a jazz musician. Musicians and dancers were jammed into the house with several dozen guests, but they still managed a light show and dancing, and a march throughout the house and into the garden (while the Egyptian secret police kept watch from outside) (pp.292-293).

The Arkestra also performed at the famed Ballon Theatre in Cairo on December 17 courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, who had cancelled ballet previously scheduled for that date (p.293). The concert was recorded from the stage (in mono) by Tommy Hunter and released on various impossible-to-find Saturn LPs over the years (see Campbell & Trent, pp.180-183). Most of this material was finally compiled onto a CD entitled, Horizon, and released by Art Yard in 2008. It is a truly special performance: after the cold, grueling tour of Europe, the Arkestra sounds well-rested and inspired by the ancient, mystical-- and warm -- environment. Ra sets the stage with some ominous electronics before a brief “Theme of the Stargazers” and a howling a cappella solo from Danny Davis on alto sax. The band then launches into “Discipline 2,” a moody and mysterious piece that begins with throbbing, densely harmonized horns which give way to a twittering flute choir before returning with a somber coda. Sonny then signals “The Shadow World” and we’re off to the races. This is a spectacular, seventeen minute rendition, with Ra driving the band hard and the ensemble responding with near-perfect execution of the extraordinarily complicated melody lines. Ra takes the lead with a skittering organ solo before an energetic group improvisation section that yields to Gilmore’s furiously wailing tenor sax. Yes, it’s another incredible Gilmore solo! Kwami Hadi also takes a turn on trumpet and acquits himself well, ranging around from high-wire acrobatics to smeared, low-register noodling before Ra signals the reprise. After a brief pause, Ra lightens the mood by moving into “Enlightenment,” which is joyfully taken up by June Tyson and her male choir. “Love In Outer Space” predictably follows and while this version lacks the menacing darkness heard in Paris, there’s plenty of exciting organ work and another tasty solo from Hadi.

The neo-big-band swing of “Third Planet” follows with the Arkestra again nailing the ensemble sections and supporting Hadi’s bebop-ish solo with swelling riffs. Hadi’s really in the spotlight at this concert! Ra takes a bumptious, barbequed organ solo as the rhythm section starts to really heat up, only settling down again for the return of the head. Sonny then lurches into some dissonant organ clusters to introduce “Space is the Place.” Pat Patrick grinds out the repetitive bassline, percussion sets up a quasi-Latin groove, the singers chant, clap and dance, and meanwhile Marshall Allen squeals and moans on alto saxophone. It was likely quite a spectacle. “Horizon” begins with Ra blasting off with his Moog synthesizer, punctuated with a searing space chord at the end. An eerie organ swell signals “Discipline 8,” with its oscillating ensemble chords over rumbling, rubato drumming. Eloe Omoe emerges from the thicket of harmony to blow some honking bass clarinet until Gilmore takes over with a blistering display of high-pitched harmonics, howling multiphonics, and low-register growls, joined at the end by the altos in an all-out saxophone battle. After reaching a feverish pitch, the saxophones subside, leaving Hadi to brood. All the while, the Arkestra’s riffing continues to heave and sigh, rising and falling with contours of the soloists' excursions. After a cued ending, June Tyson chants “We’ll Wait for You” with the Arkestra echoing her lines antiphonally. While Sonny outlines a narrow harmonic area, the Arkestra briefly engages in some free-jazz freakouts before Ra signals “The Satellites Are Spinning,” which closes the CD with its optimistic chanting about the “great tomorrow,” accompanied by some bitingly skronky saxophone solos and supported by a propulsive groove laid down by Clifford Jarvis’s skillful drumming and Pat Patrick’s workmanlike bass playing. You can hear the Egyptian audience starting to get into it, whooping and hollering as the Arkestra parades off the stage.

While the set list is typical of the period, the performance is particularly focused and intense. Given the pleasantly spacious acoustic of the recording, this makes for a must-have CD for any Sun Ra fan. In 2009, Art Yard released Nidhamu + Dark Myth Equation Visitation, which contains three more tracks from this concert, along with portions of the Heliopolis performance and a TV appearance taped on December 16. We’ll have a listen to that one next week.


Sam said...

Great assessment of this masterpiece, Rodger! It's great to have the extra tracks on the Art Yard release, even though they don't really add much to the effect of the original album. "Third Planet" is one of my favorite Ra compositions, and the treatment here is stellar.

Rodger Coleman said...

I agree: "Third Planet" is a great tune! It can't possibly be correct per RLC that this composition was only played three times, right? Surely it appears on recordings which have turned up since the second edition was published. I imagine you would know...

Sam said...

Hmmm...actually, yes, I think there might be one more, but I'd have to physically go through all the discs to find it--I'll keep an eye out for it! I might well be mistaken, though--there really aren't that many versions of this fine composition.

Sam said...

Well, I found two more versions of "Third Planet" (one of which just showed up on shuffle!):

--1978-03-13 Horseshoe tavern, Toronto

--1978-05-05 Public Theatre, NYC

The NY one is marred by that sucky Michael Ray echo thing, but otherwise is really nice. I included both of these on "Further Live Highlights 2."