August 29, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: “The Mystery Board” (Thumbs Up! (boot) 2CD)

A bootleg CD entitled "The Mystery Board" appeared on the mythic Thumbs Up! label some time ago purporting to have been recorded November 2nd or 3rd 1972 “for a possible Saturn release.” As with any bootleg, all this needs to be taken with an enormous grain of salt. Yet the 1972 date seems reasonable considering the repertoire and personnel and, given Sun Ra’s aptitude with a razor blade and splicing tape, it’s certainly possible he could have crafted a satisfactory LP out of this mess, had he so desired. Such as it is, "The Mystery Board" is a rough listen with the mix suffering from the usual deficiencies of a soundboard tape made in a small venue: the vocals and soloists are way up front, with the drums and everything else (with the notable exception of Ra himself) almost entirely inaudible. Accordingly, all the ensemble sections are woefully unbalanced, but some of the less instrumentally dense material actually sounds pretty decent, believe it or not.

Disc one begins with an intensely confrontational “Cosmo Drama” regarding “The First Man.” Ra viciously hectors the audience about their “black ignorance” for wanting “to be number one” and implores them to “go home and read your Bible – ‘cuz the Second Man is you!” With the June Tyson and the Space Ethnic Voices echoing his every threatening word, at times it sounds like a riot is about to break out. Sometimes the Arkestra plays some halting swing but for the most part Sonny is just furiously preaching it. Thankfully, after about five minutes, Ra segues into a brief, previously unheard composition with a descending minor key melody over a gentle swing groove. What is this??! I swear, if I were really serious about this project, I’d create a spreadsheet to try and keep track of all these fleeting, unknown titles just in case they turn up again elsewhere. This composition is a great little bluesy number that ends before it even begins. Sonny then plays a spacey organ interlude to introduce “Neptune.” Tyson and Ebah share vocal duties while the band intermittently erupts into bouts of free-jazz skronk. Gilmore takes a typically brilliant tenor sax solo, but as he wanders on and off mic, the effect is considerably lessened. In fact, the mix is so murky that the remainder of this track is hardly worth bothering with.

The next thirty-minute segment, on the other hand, is quite interesting, featuring three somewhat rarely heard compositions. “Spontaneous Simplicity” finds Sun Ra on acoustic piano for a change, accompanying Marshall Allen on this relaxed, dreamy tune. Allen’s airy flute sounds quite lovely and Sonny even takes a gently floating solo of his own. The mix is much clearer on this quiet chamber piece and it sure sounds like the inimitable Ronnie Boykins on bass during this entire sequence. Danny Davis joins Allen for “Friendly Galaxy No.2,” a minor mode waltz led by the piano, bass and drums with the flute choir playing long-breathed, dissonant melodies above and around a moderately propulsive rhythm. Again, Ra takes sweetly singing solo, clearly relishing the opportunity to play a decent piano. Just gorgeous! “Intergalactic Universe” follows with its modal groove in five providing a backdrop for an extended John Gilmore outing, wherein he shows off his mastery of post-bop saxophone techniques, moving from small motivic figures to complex “sheets of sound” and culminating in a squalling climax of piercing multiphonics and rapid-fire glissandos. Yes, it’s another incredible Gilmore solo! Kwami Hadi gamely follows with his typically fluent articulation in all registers, but when the Neptunian libflecto enters (Thompson?), the tape abruptly cuts off. Too bad; things were really starting to cook.

Disc two opens with a percussive and atonal piano to introduce “Angels and Demons at Play,” which is taken at leisurely tempo. Boykins’s (?) bass and Pat Patrick’s baritone saxophone double the enervating 5/4 ostinato while Allen plays the lead on alto saxophone rather than the usual flute. This provides a relatively rare opportunity to appreciate Allen’s brilliance on that instrument as he takes a long, labyrinthine solo exhibiting a vast range of timbral variety and expressionistic melodic invention—so good it elicits a round of polite applause from the audience. Next up is the usual group improvisation, featuring a set piece for John Gilmore’s pyrotechnics, long experimental keyboard outings from Ra, and tightly controlled moments of screaming free jazz mayhem. Unfortunately, the tape cuts in and out with the mix utterly atrocious in parts: drums and bass completely buried and the solo instruments over-mic’d and horrifically distorted. Nevertheless, Ra’s extended solo segments are a delight, with kaleidoscopic tone colors courtesy of his “space organ,” Moog synthesizer and a battery of electronic effects, including repeaters, tremolos, phasers and some deliberately nasty distortion. Excellent. “Space Is the Place” arises from the ashes with Akh Tal Ebah joining June Tyson and the Ethnic Space Voices on this signature anthem. Sadly, the mix is again abysmal with the histrionic singing much too prominent and the rhythm section almost non-existent. Interestingly, what sounds like electric bass is clearly audible, casting some doubt on whether or not Boykins is really present on this recording, or if this segment is possibly from a different concert altogether. After about seven minutes of carrying on, the track quickly fades.

The disc closes with an unknown number in the “Discipline” series, the one which was tragically mis-titled “Discipline 33” on the soundtrack to Space Is the Place. This misnomer has caused all kinds of consternation because this piece (whatever its proper title) was played fairly regularly during this period—and it is definitely not “Discipline 33!” It is hard enough to try and keep up with all these unknown “Discipline” pieces without having to contend with further discographical confusion! (Like I said, I really need to create that spreadsheet.) This version is incomplete, picking up at the beginning of the “Cosmo Drama” segment. Ebah provides some tasty flugelhorn obbligato over the easy swing of the piece, but when Ra announces, “It’s after the end world, don’t you know that yet?” the band drops out for some full-throated declamations: “A cosmic equation was sent to you, men of Earth, and you couldn’t solve the problem! Therefore, the universe sent me to converse with you!” Wow. The Arkestra later revives the repeatedly descending theme behind the declamations, but it’s all rather distant-sounding and hard to hear. And again, it is clearly an electric bass anchoring things a bit too proficiently to be Pat Patrick and I’m not sure Boykins ever played the instrument at all. So who is playing? No idea. After a little over seventeen minutes, the tape abruptly cuts off, leaving us pretty much in the dark.

Sam Byrd (who knows way more about Sun Ra’s music than I do) has suggested that the order of the discs in this set is reversed: that is to say, disc two is actually disc one and vice versa. After listening to them in this order, I think he might be right: the music seems to flow better with the “Cosmo Drama” dividing the two discs. Then again, I also suspect this material might actually be from two different concerts, with Boykins on some of it and an unknown electric bass player on the rest. But who knows? This is truly a “Mystery Board” and while much of it borders on the unlistenable, there’s enough compelling music here to make it worth seeking out. Caveat emptor!

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