August 15, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Discipline 27-II (Saturn LP>CDR)

Another album was hurriedly compiled for the newly re-constituted Saturn Records from the sessions produced by Ed Michel at Streeterville Studios in Chicago on October 19-20, 1972. Discipline 27-II was released as Saturn LP 538 in 1973 and, in a sign of the times, it is the only quadraphonic Saturn LP ever released (Campbell & Trent, p.191). The album was ultimately obscured by a deluge of records that came to market that year, including the Blue Thumb movie tie-in, Space Is the Place (also recorded at these sessions), the magisterial Astro Black, and a slew of classic Saturn LPs re-issued en masse as a part of Sun Ra’s recent deal with Impulse!. Unsurprisingly, Discipline 27-II remains out of print and nearly impossible to find, although bootlegs and fan-created “needle-drops” are readily available to the intrepid fan. Apparently, enough material was recorded at these marathon sessions to produce four full albums: a second Blue Thumb release was planned but never issued and another Saturn LP was proposed to Impulse! for distribution but ultimately rejected. Prof. Campbell lists a number of tantalizing titles in his discography, including “East” parts 1-3 (!) and “Piano of Never” but the master tapes have supposedly disappeared (see Id. pp.190-192). What remains are a pair of uneven yet utterly revelatory records that belong in every Sun Ra collection.

Side one is just about perfect, opening with a casual one-off composition entitled, “Pan Afro,” serving up one of those quintessentially off-kilter, modal grooves in six that only Sun Ra could come up with. John Gilmore delivers a sure-footed and soulful solo with the kind of deeply penetrating tone that rivals Coltrane at his most intensely spiritual. Of course, Coltrane acknowledged his debt to Gilmore (see Szwed pp.189-190) and it is safe to say that Coltrane would likely not have become the iconic figure he did if not for Gilmore’s early example and the oracular influence of Sun Ra’s presence in New York in the early 1960s (see Id. pp.76-78). While Gilmore briefly flirted with a solo career, he returned to the Arkestra full-time by 1966 and willingly allowed his talents to be subsumed (some might say constricted) by Sun Ra’s peculiar vision. Accordingly, his reputation as a superlative saxophonist has been greatly diminished if not completely overshadowed by Coltrane and others much less gifted who went on to make a name for themselves playing “The New Thing” the early 1970s. Gilmore’s all-too brief solo on the otherwise unremarkable “Pan Afro” is just one example among many of his staggering brilliance. Yes, it’s another incredible Gilmore solo! Kwami Hadi, Sun Ra and Eloe Omoe take turns on trumpet, Rocksichord, and bass clarinet respectively, but they are unable to top Gilmore’s tour de force opening. That’s OK, no one could. The band sounds relieved to return to the head although Sonny wants to keep on going. The track ends with a long fade out on Ra’s smoky comping.

“Discipline 8” is given a definitive reading by the Arkestra: the heaving and moaning harmonies flow through various instrumental combinations while soloists, duos and trios flitter around in the wide open spaces. This is a fine example of Ra’s genius as a composer and orchestrator. “Discipline 8” is not built on the usual soloist with accompaniment model, but rather seeks a new synthesis: “free” improvisation seamlessly interwoven through a tightly arranged composition, conducted by Ra at the keyboards. Good stuff. “Neptune” closes the side with another nice medium swing number with plenty of Sonny’s tasty space-age barbeque sauce ladled on with his crude electric organ. A wild group improv erupts in the reeds section over some super-funky dual-bari-sax riffage and when June Tyson and the Space Ethnic Voices enter, Gilmore starts really wailing. Holy moly! Then Danny Ray Thompson’s window-rattling libflecto takes over amidst the pealing trumpets of Hadi and Ebah and all hell breaks loose in the rhythm section. But Sonny deftly reins it all in with some expectant vamping before Tyson alone chants: “Have you heard the latest news from Neptune?” Yes, we have—and it is good news indeed.

Side two, on the other hand, suffers from the same kind of aimless self-indulgence that mars the title track to Space Is the Place. Consisting of a side-long rendition of “Discipline 27-II,” with a full complement of the usual space-chants and hortatory declamations, it further lacks the adventurous mix-down techniques of the latter (probably due to time constraints) that might have added some much needed auditory interest—or at least made the densely layered recording sound marginally coherent. It is a sprawling, twenty-five-minute mess with the dream-like, subtly shape-shifting ensembles buried under innumerable wacked-out vocal tracks, which are also murkily mixed and hard to understand, making for an agonizingly frustrating listen (maybe it sounds better in quad!). A lost opportunity, perhaps; or maybe this kind of thing only worked well in a live setting (and even then, it can get a little tedious). Maybe I’m being too harsh and project-fatigue is no doubt starting to set in, but this recording of “Discipline 27-II” is assuredly one of Sun Ra’s least successful studio efforts. Whatever; the magnificence of side one more than compensates for the obvious deficiencies of side two and makes this half-great album well worth seeking out. One can also hope that the lost masters from these October 1972 sessions will someday resurface so as to provide some additional insight into these erratically fascinating records. You never know with Sun Ra…


Sam said...

I'm with you on the title track! Unfortunately, this model (using the D.27 and D,27-II riffs a backgrounds for extended call/response or repeat exhortations, rants, and sermons) was one that Ra repeatedly used throughout the rest of the '70s and into the '80s in live gigs. Some made their way onto record ("I, Pharaoh", etc.), but it's on umpteen concert recordings. I know he had to get the message out, but I much prefer "Pan Afro."

Rodger Coleman said...

Side 2 of "Space Is the Place" and side 1 of "Discipline 27-II" would have made one incredible record. But they'd have to title it something else!

"Pan Afro" is so great, but its greatness is something I would probably overlook if I wasn't listening to this stuff so closely. The whole thing is just tossed off, but, wow, it's a killer track.

Sam said...

It sure actually popped up on my shuffle about a month ago, and out of context I had trouble placing it, but it continues to blow me away. You're absolutely right about Gilmore--he has gotten nowhere near the attention (and adulation!) he deserves.

Robert Figueroa said...

So true, on "Pan Afro" Gilmore's saxophone solo is the highlight!