June 20, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Slug’s Saloon, New York, NY 6-07-72 (AUD 2CDR)

When Sun Ra & his Arkestra returned to the east coast in May of 1972, they were welcomed back to Slug’s Saloon, the legendary Lower East Side nightclub where the Arkestra regularly held court from 1966 until their departure to California in 1970. But things were not the same: On February 19, trumpet star Lee Morgan was shot to death at the club by his enraged girlfriend further scaring audiences away from what was already well known as a rough neighborhood. By the summer, the club was on its last legs and would shut its doors for good shortly thereafter (see Szwed pp.218-220). So the Arkestra’s residencies at Slug’s during the summer of 1972 were both festive homecoming and sad farewell to an unusually supportive New York City venue. Fortunately for us, most of a complete set from their appearance on June 7 was recorded from the audience and circulates amongst devoted collectors. The mono tape recording sounds pretty decent for the period although it suffers from all the usual sorts of problems: generational loss, assorted glitches and drop-outs, general muddiness and, sometimes, outright distortion. If you’re willing to tolerate such anomalies, then it is well worth seeking out this spectacular performance.

While the core musicians remained faithful to Sun Ra’s vision, The Arkestra’s extended membership was, as usual, in flux. Once again left without a bassist, Alzo Wright steps in with some barely audible cello while Akh Tal Ebah replaces mainstay Kwami Hadi on trumpet, giving him an opportunity to step out from the shadow of Hadi’s showy virtuosity. For all that, the band sounds well-rehearsed and they tackle a bunch of new Ra compositions and re-arrangements with gusto. After an opening improvisation for arco cello and oboe followed by a long percussion work out, another unknown number in the “Discipline” series arises, this one fulminating with regal pomp. Moments later, another unknown title gets its first (and perhaps only) hearing: an agitated ostinato in 7/4 held together by Danny Ray Thompson’s relentless riffing on baritone sax. “They’ll Come Back” gets a dramatic vocal performance from June Tyson and ends with a brief but exquisite moment of “Strange Strings”-style orientalism. Ebah’s smeared tonality contrasts nicely with the churning skronk on “Calling Planet Earth” and, after a short statement of “Theme of the Stargazers,” “Discipline 11” is given a gospel-ish reading via spirited drumming from Lex Humphries with Ra’s aggressive organ solo pushing the band to ecstatic heights of electro-free-jazz intensity. Wow. This is a superb version of this rarely heard composition.

Another under-performed piece, “Somewhere Else,” gets an interesting (if somewhat tentative) reading here, with John Gilmore staking out the harmonic areas a cappella before the Arkestra enters with the oddly swinging, interlocking riffage. Ra takes one of his patented barbequed organ solos before Ebah attempts his own high-register acrobatic act, showing he was Hadi’s equal in terms of brilliant ideas, if not in their flawless execution. Personally, I love Ebah’s warm, mellow tone and find his blurry articulation endearingly expressive. A quick run through “Enlightenment” is followed by a typically grooving “Love in Outer Space” with Sonny rapturously vamping away on the organ throughout. Yet another unknown “Discipline” number follows, this one in the swinging big-band mold with multiple riffs colliding over swelling chords. Sadly, the tape is marred by numerous drop-outs, obscuring the composition’s subtle intricacies. As the drums devolve into more tribal sorts of rhythms, Gilmore takes a truly incendiary solo on tenor sax that gradually but insistently pushes the band towards its ultimate destination: “The Shadow World!” As the sound quality of the tape begins to improve, Sun Ra lays down the enervating chord sequence at a blindingly fast tempo. Astonishingly, the Arkestra erupts with a note-perfect rendition of this fantastically complicated composition. This inspires a tense, “mad-scientist-style” organ solo, Sun Ra spraying cluster-bombs of notes about the room with wild abandon, much to the crowd’s obvious delight. Not to be outdone, Gilmore returns with another blistering solo before the band returns with a tight reprise. Outstanding! Shifting gears, Sonny plays a pretty organ interlude over a set of melancholically descending chords which serves as an introduction to another unknown “Discipline” number. This one sets a pair of repeating, minimalist horn figures to balance atop the polyrhythmic rhythm section while Ebah blows a long-breathed, minor-key melody on top. Interesting. Danny Davis (or is it Marshall Allen?) takes flight on alto sax before a relatively brief drum solo which introduces a rare performance of “Angels and Demons at Play” in its recent bare-bones rearrangement. Unfortunately, the band still sounds unsure of itself and, after failing to coalesce, Sonny cues up “Watusi” which eschews the head for another tumultuous tenor solo from Gilmore before the extended percussion jam -- although Ebah can be heard wailing away in the background throughout. The tape cuts off shortly thereafter.

The Arkestra appeared once more at Slug’s a month later and again surreptitiously recorded from the audience (we'll take a listen to that one next time). Both of these gigs have been compiled into a six-disc box set by the Transparency label, purportedly with improved sound and approximately thirty minutes of additional material, but I have not heard it and do not know anyone who has. Can anyone out there in Internetland comment on this? These performances are so good I would gladly pay for an improved mastering of these recordings. Until then, I’m happy to have these widely-circulated “bootlegs,” despite their obvious flaws.


Sam said...

I wanted to mention, once again, the only other appearance (I think) of that fantastic 7/4 vamp piece--it's the background music in the film "Space is the Place" that's playing when Ra rides with the Overseer in his car through the streets of Oakland. It's a fantastic scene, and a wonderful piece of music--just one of seemingly dozens that Ra never "officially" released. It's a miracle, really, that we have what we do.

Another thing to mention is that this 7/4 vamp is sandwiched in between (again, I believe the only, though I may be wrong) an instrumental shuffle-driven of "Along Came Ra" --a piece usually reserved to introduce Ra in the mid- to late-80s corridor, sung by June Tyson (an excellent version is in the film "Joyful Noise").

I hope somebody chimes in about the Transparency versions of these Slug's shows; I too am curious.

Rodger Coleman said...

Thanks for the reminder about the 7/4 piece...you're ears are bigger and more knowledgable about this stuff than me!

Now how about all these various "Disciplines?" Are these unique performances or do they reappear later? Who could possibly keep track short of transcribing them all? If anyone knows, it's you!

Rodger Coleman said...

egads! YOUR not YOU'RE. I shouldn't blog when I've been drinking!