April 18, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Myth Science Solar Arkestra:
Nidhamu + Dark Myth Equation Visitation (Art Yard CD)

In 2009, Art Yard gathered together the remaining Egypt material on a CD entitled Nidhamu + Dark Myth Equation Visitation. Most of this music was previously released on impossible to find Saturn and Thoth Intergalactic LPs over the years, making this an essential companion to the magnificent Horizon CD, also on Art Yard. The CD opens with three additional tracks recorded at the Ballon Theatre on December 17, 1971: “Space Loneliness #2” begins with an unusual ensemble of saxophones, flutes, and oboe with a detuned synthesizer obbligato. The yearning, dissonantly harmonized melody and rubato drums feels conceptually similar to the Discipline series of compositions and may be a completely different piece. Ra then takes an unaccompanied solo on dual synthesizers which focuses more on pitch and rhythm than spaceship noises for a change. After moving to Rocksichord and outlining a bluesy set of changes, the ensemble returns with a lushly orchestrated coda that echoes the big-band riffing of the original “Space Loneliness.” After some polite applause, Ra introduces “Discipline 11” with a spacey organ solo until trumpet, flutes, and saxophones enter with the dirge-like composition. After some more organ chording, Marshall Allen takes a mellifluous, heavily reverb-ed solo on flute until Sonny interrupts with more scary electronic mayhem. A glorious rendition of the stately “Discipline 15” follows with John Gilmore adding his inimitable tenor sax improvisations over the top. Unfortunately, after a short percussion interlude, the track quickly fades out. Even so, it’s a wonderful performance of this rarely played composition.


“Nidhamu” is a long (thirteen minute) double-synthesizer solo recorded at an invitation-only concert at Hartmut Geerken’s house in Heliopolis on December 12, 1971. Ra again demonstrates his mastery of the then new technology, exploring the vast range of sounds available: from space age bleeps and blorps, to sweeping portamentos; pure sine waves to tsunamis of white noise -- all the while maintaining a loose internal structure built around a jittery four note figure that appears and disappears in various permutations throughout the piece. A dignitary who attended this concert invited Ra to appear on Egyptian television on December 16 (Szwed, p.293), and the next four tracks document that event, which was, sadly, not preserved in the station’s archives (Campbell & Trent, p.181). “Discipline 27” fades into Kwami Hadi’s trumpet solo while Tommy Hunter’s voice (probably dubbed later) announces the date and venue. Hadi plays nicely, as usual, supported by a swelling Arkestral accompaniment that gradually resumes the brightly riffing composition before fading out too soon. “Solar Ship Voyage” consists of a brief synthesizer solo in Ra’s rocket-ship style, punctuated with skittering runs of notes and piercing, high-pitched whines. “Cosmo Darkness” is a short group improvisation with squealing horns pitted against Ra’s rumbling electronic organ. Ra wins. “The Light Thereof” opens with an enervated organ solo before the ensemble takes up the mournful, densely arranged composition, which was apparently performed only this one time (Campbell & Trent, p.827). Another lost masterpiece! An ensemble of saxophones, flutes and trumpet improvise simultaneously while Gilmore takes the lead with a display of tenor pyrotechnics until Ra points the finger and the piece stops on a dime, eliciting enthusiastic applause from the small studio audience. Quite a display of avant garde weirdness for Third World television!

The disc concludes with three more tracks recorded on December 12. Ra has been provided an acoustic piano, which he uses to push the band a ragged but still effective performance of “Friendly Galaxy #2,” featuring a twittering flute choir over the insistently repeating trumpet note. Ra then takes a meditative solo, slowing the tempo to a full stop before launching into the sing-a-long arrangement of “To Nature’s God,” which is taken up by June Tyson and Gilmore with gusto. Sonny quickly drops out and everyone takes up percussion instruments to bang along with Pat Patrick’s electric bass vamp, while Tyson and Gilmore sing, dance, chant and parade around the room. Despite the band’s enthusiasm, this was apparently the last performance of this quirky little ditty (Campbell & Trent, p.842). Finally, the disc closes with the bouncy space chant, “Why Go to the Moon,” which, unfortunately, fades out after about two and half minutes. Supposedly, the entire three and a half hour Heliopolis concert was recorded by Tommy Hunter, but it is unknown whether the rest of the tape survives (Id., p.181). Given that none of it appears on this Art Yard CD, it seems unlikely. But you never know what might surface…

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The Egyptian sojourn was supposed only last a few days, but they wound staying two weeks “as they rode camels, shopped, hitchhiked, and went sightseeing” (Szwed, p.293). They even ventured into the great pyramids, where the lights dramatically went out as soon as they entered the mystical King’s Chamber. As they made their way back out in pitch darkness, Sonny calmly remarked, “Why do we need light, Sun Ra, the sun is here” (Id.). All this was no doubt great fun, but the trip was taking its toll on the Arkestra’s already precarious finances:

One night near the end of their stay in Cairo, Geerken saw Sun Ra seated at a table in the hotel with a candle and piece of paper covered with long rows of numbers. It was not numerology; they were again out of money, with not even enough to pay the hotel bill. This was becoming a regular occurrence on tours, as Sonny loved traveling and became depressed when they returned to Philadelphia. Geerken once saw Sun Ra pay for a $1000 phone bill by selling the rights to a master tape of the band. This time, members of the band sold personal items to get the money. And Sonny left his Sun harp with Geerken as security against money he loaned him (Id., pp.293-294).
1972 would turn out to be another lean year for the Arkestra and they would not return to Europe again until the fall of 1973. They did, however, make a movie: the pseudo-Blaxploitation classic, Space is the Place and sign a recording contract with a major label, ABC/Impulse! Coming up next on Sun Ra Sunday!

1 comment:

el hombre invisible said...

Good write-up. Love this album. I suspect that the solar myth is becoming more potent with every year that passes. Or perhaps it's just me in a state of wonderment on the strange celestial road...