July 11, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Slug’s Saloon, New York NY 8-19-72 (AUD 3CDR)

The Arkestra returned to Slug’s Saloon a month later and the August 19, 1972 performance was captured (almost) in full on a 180-minute mono tape recorded from the audience. The sound quality is both better and worse than the June 7 tape. There’s a bit less generational loss and more presence to the sound -- but perhaps a bit too much presence as when things get loud, the tape overloads and distorts badly, making for a sometimes difficult listen. Too bad, as it’s another excellent performance. The Arkestra is further enlarged with the return of Pat Patrick to the bari sax, Kwami Hadi re-joining Akh Tal Ebah on trumpet and a gifted trombonist (either Charles Stephens or, possibly, Tyrone Hill) fleshing out the horn the section and contributing several outstanding solos. Clifford Jarvis is unmistakably back on the drum stool, which makes for a driving rhythm section (but also lengthy and pointless drum solos) while the addition of a (barely audible) bassist (possibly Bill Davis) adds some bottom end to the ensemble. Finally, June Tyson is joined by The Space Ethnic Voices (Ruth Wright, Cheryl Banks and Judith Holton) on the big vocal numbers, making for (at least) eighteen musicians and singers crowding the tiny stage on this summer evening (see Campbell & Trent pp.187-188).

Sonny gets things started with a thoughtful Moog/organ solo that sets the stage for the first known performance of “Stardust from Tomorrow,” a jaunty swing number featuring glowing vocals and propelled by Ra’s up-front organ comping. From there, we’re immediately in “The Shadow World,” and it’s a rip-snorting version with bracing solos from John Gilmore, Omoe and Hadi, but Danny Ray Thompson brings down the house with a thunderous libflecto outing. The group-improv section features a big saxophone battle with some aggressive organ playing from Ra and a nicely articulated trombone solo thrown in before the first overlong drum solo of the evening. Without bothering a full reprise of the hyper-complicated tune, the band moves quickly into “Why Go to the Moon?”, a chance for Tyson and the Space Ethnic Voices to strut their stuff. The rhythm section settles into a slinky groove, only to have Jarvis ruin the mood with another tedious drum solo. Why did Sonny put up with this? Because he was so good? Because good drummers are so hard to find? It’s a mystery. Tyson enters with a brief but nicely sung “Strange Worlds” while horns flitter and flutes twitter about. As the drums start to get heavy, Patrick cues up a composition last heard on the Space Is The Place Soundtrack (mis-titled there as “Discipline 33”). It is classic Ra with its cleverly interlocking horn parts set against that patented space age barbeque groove with a long-breathed, vaguely Arabian-sounding melody on top. Perfect. (But what is the correct title? And why did they stop playing it? Who knows!) While the Akrestra is busy riffing and vamping, Ra enters with a quasi-Biblical declamation: “At First There Was Nothing.” It goes on and on, punctuated with crazy-sounding stage-laughter and it’s hard to hear exactly what’s going on, but it sounds like some kind of crypto-cosmic theater piece. The Arkestra starts taking liberties, playing around with their parts, trading places, while chaos rages around them. Hadi and Ebah play high register games and -- what is it? A soprano saxophone? Who is that? Gilmore? Anyway, Ra returns to the organ bench to launch into “Angels and Demons at Play”, which churns and grinds with almost Milesian, dystopian darkness. Unfortunately, the intense volume levels cause the tape to distort badly until finally cutting off abruptly just as the audience starts to whoop and holler.

The tape picks up again at the beginning of the second set with a squiggly synth solo full of spacey bloops and whirrs like alien Morse Code broadcast from Mars – “Calling Planet Earth!” Everyone joins in the antiphonal chanting as the drums swell and an insistent one-note horn figure develops, only to devolve into free-jazz bashing and group improvisation, high trumpet on top. Sonny cues up “Watusi” and it’s the usual percussion fest, although with a heavy afro-urban feel quite different from the lighter, celebratory groove found previously and with Ra’s organ taking on a more menacing tone than usual. Of course, this also means another Jarvis solo. Oh well. When the rest of the band takes up hand percussion, it gets a little more compelling and then someone starts up with the space-vocalizing, declaiming, preaching, and politicking. Good lord! Who is that? It’s almost impossible to make out what he’s saying, but I suspect we’re not missing much. After a statement of the theme, Tyson is left alone to chant about outer space before another avant-jazz blowout that leads to an awesomely distorted and electro-fied libflecto solo (Thompson again, I presume) that leaves the audience in stunned silence. One person claps. After some more group improvisation, they move effortlessly into “Discipline 27”, a joyous big-band number full of classy riffs, close-cropped harmonies, and a swinging middle section for Hadi to play with. Patrick smoothly reintroduces the theme so that the ensemble can finish with an elegant reprise. “Discipline 27” would become a fixture in the Arkestra’s setlists for the rest of its career.

Tyson and the chorus inform the audience: “We’ll Wait for You” and after some skronky madness, Gilmore takes over with a short but intense solo on tenor. This acts as a prelude to another unknown (but extremely interesting) composition for contrasting concertinos: low reeds and brass. This is contrasted with conducted improvisations for pairs of instruments: bass clarinet and trumpet; tenor saxophone and trombone; oboe and trumpet. Jarvis turns up the heat and the intensity level rises as more and more instrumentalists join in the fray – and the tape distorts so badly it’s impossible to really hear what’s going on. But then Ra cues a ghostly, suspended chord that allows space for a hair-raisingly aggressive a capella tenor solo from Gilmore. Whew! After a brief pause, the Arkestra introduces “Discipline 27-II” a variation on the central two-chord theme of “Discipline 27” that would also become a concert staple, its floating harmonies supporting a mellifluous alto sax solo from Marshall Allen and a long declamation from Sun Ra about life and death, Tyson echoing his every line in tandem. They conclude that “Life is Splendid.” Meanwhile the band holds it all together by continuing to play around with the oscillating riffs of "Discipline 27-II" throughout the entire twenty-three minutes duration. In fact, the tape cuts out before they’re even finished. The Arkestra is obviously well-rehearsed and into it.

Tyson and Gilmore sing through “Theme of the Stargazers” before a breezy rendition of “Space is the Place” full of over-the-top vocalizing and a hilariously caricatured trombone solo. It’s all a bit silly, but Jarvis and a second drummer (possibly Gilmore) establish an almost Mardi Gras/Bo Diddley beat that makes you (well, me) want to get up and dance. Even so, at almost fifteen minutes, it gets a little boring. I guess you hadda been there. Indeed the audience loves the swirling synth/organ solo that emerges from “Calling Planet Earth”, but the sound is totally overdriven and distorted on the tape -- especially when the drums start really pounding -- making it hard to appreciate as much as they obviously do. You can tell it’s a good one, though. The volume level drops for a quick version of “Enlightenment” notable for its flute choir accompaniment but picks up again for “Love in Outer Space” which is its usual perky organ jam over percussion exotica. The tape ends with the first known performance of “Discipline 33”, one of the most fascinating compositions in Ra’s catalog. Ostensibly jazzy, it is thickly scored for grouped reeds and brass with piccolo, flute and oboe on top, but the trombone stomps off while the horns wander around in various time signatures. Meanwhile, ensembles come together and fall apart between short improvisational statements. Finally a coda consisting of impossibly beautiful harmonies floating above Ra’s wispy organ chords ends the piece with a contented sigh. Just lovely.

Both of the 1972 Slug’s Saloon recordings have been compiled into a six-disc box set by the Transparency label, purportedly with improved sound and additional material, but I have not heard it. Can anyone out there comment on this? In the meantime, I’m happy to have these widely-circulated “bootlegs,” despite their obvious flaws.

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