May 23, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Intergalactic Research (The Lost Reels Collection, Vol.2) (Transparency CD)

By the spring of 1972, the Arkestra’s living situation was becoming increasingly precarious. Sun Ra had returned to the University of California in Berkeley hoping to teach another class in black aesthetics but soon quit after not being paid (Szwed p.330). He claimed the university targeted him due to the controversial subject matter of his lectures, but for whatever reason, his academic career (such as it was) was now over (Id.). Moreover, the Black Panthers evicted the Arkestra out of their house in Oakland due to “ideological” differences” (Id.) -- likely regarding the Panthers’ recent rhetorical turn toward violent revolution. As Sun Ra predicted, this move would doom the Panthers as a legitimate political party or progressive social movement. As Sonny later acidly remarked: “we got kicked out by Eldgridge Cleaver or somebody” (Id.). And so with little paying work and no place to live, the decision was made to leave California in May, 1972 and move back to Marshall Allen’s house on Morton Street in Philadelphia -- this time for good.

Naturally, some band members took off immediately for points elsewhere but, as usual, the core musicians hung in and slowly made their way with Sonny across the country, hustling gigs as they could. Sadly, very little documentary evidence exists of this period. However, a thirty-two minute concert fragment from an unknown venue was issued as part of Transparency’s Lost Reels Collection, Vol.2 and it just might be possible this was recorded in the spring of 1972, prior to the band’s arrival back east. On the other hand, the presence of Pat Patrick on baritone sax and electric bass is suspicious for a later date (he does not appear on the soundtrack or in the film, Space Is the Place). So who knows when exactly this was recorded? In any event, I’m sticking it here for the time being.

While all too brief, it is a remarkably good sounding tape, recorded in mono with on-stage microphones or, perhaps, from the soundboard. It is also a fantastic performance, starting out with a surprisingly subdued MiniMoog solo, full of gentle, swooshing noises and lazy portamentos. This serves as a prelude to an outrageous rendition of “Outer Space” with Sun Ra cueing thunderous space chords to punctuate his mad-scientist-style organ solo before giving way to a powerful tenor sax blowout by John Gilmore. Yes, it’s another incredible Gilmore solo! This leads into a conducted improvisation which begins with some noodling electric bass over a smattering of percussion; but as things start to heat up, Kwami Hadi comes in with some high-register trumpet acrobatics, his rich tone full-bodied and warm. Suddenly, Ra cues the ensemble in an energetic group improvisation which is abruptly silenced by a gigantic blast of organ, the piece ending with some quietly hissing chords. Interesting! Finally, a rare performance of “Intergalactic Research” concludes the tape with its long, loping jam built upon an endlessly repeating two-note figure which is passed around the Arkestra in various instrumental combinations. (Interestingly, Ra is heard on acoustic piano on this track.) Eloe Omoe takes a snaky bass clarinet solo, but he’s off mic and hard to hear but Hadi provides another virtuoso turn on trumpet. After fifteen minutes of groovy vamping, the ensemble returns with the theme only to have the tape fade out. Argh! Too bad the rest of this concert (whenever it was recorded) was not preserved!

It wasn’t all bad news for the Arkestra: producer Ed Michel had recently offered Sun Ra and Alton Abraham a potentially lucrative contract with ABC/Impulse! to reissue most of the Saturn LPs and to go into the studio to make a bunch of new albums (Id. p.333). According to Ra, the label promised "to spend almost a million dollars in publicity" (Id.). ABC/Impulse! was, of course, the home of John Coltrane’s late recordings, which had spawned “The New Thing” and a stream of semi-popular albums by such Coltrane acolytes as Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp. At the time, it probably seemed like Sun Ra would fit right in. Ultimately, the deal didn’t quite turn out as well Sonny had hoped; but for a brief while, Sun Ra records were widely available in stores and helped take the band to the next level. The Arkestra would make its first recording for the label, the classic Astro Black, while in Chicago on May 7, 1972 (Campbell & Trent p.185).


Anonymous said...

Strange that among all the recent Sun Ra reissues, Astro Black is still OOP. Where do the rights (and extant masters) for this album live?

Rodger Coleman said...

That's a good question!