Sun Ra: The Shadows Took Shape (Lost Reel Collection, Vol.3) (Transparency 2CD)
Volume three of Transparency’s Lost Reel Collection is another stumper. Although the liner notes (such as they are) posit 1972 as the approximate date of this live concert, close listening suggests it was recorded much earlier. For one thing, none of the “Discipline” pieces appear in the setlist, and they were constants by the beginning of 1972. Secondly, Ra does not play the MiniMoog synthesizer, highly unlikely during this period. On the other hand, the presence of June Tyson’s vocal on “Strange Worlds” implies a post-1970 date. So, my best guess is this was recorded in late-1970/early-1971, prior to the European tour in the fall. But who knows? It’s another one of those Mysteries of Mr. Ra. Sound quality is rough—at times barely listenable—but there is a surprisingly wide stereo image suggesting on-stage microphones and reminding me at times of some of Tommy Hunter’s recordings. But to be sure, we’re a long way away from the master (presumably lost) and there is plenty of generational distortion, including wow and flutter, oversaturation and noise. Be forewarned, this is only for a hardcore Sun Ra nut like me.
The first thing that hits you (besides the horrific sound) is the presence of trombone on the opening “Outer Space,” a rare instrument in the Arkestra during this period and providing another cryptic clue as to the possible date. Further, a distinctively hyperactive bass drum confirms Jarvis is on the drum stool. After a bit of skronk, Ra embarks on a long organ/Rocksichord solo buoyed by murmuring percussion. But after about nine minutes, Jarvis can hardly contain himself and comes charging out of the gate. Ra counters with some dark funk before bringing things around to a mellow space-rhumba. The vocalists proceed to sing a wordless three-note figure while oboes and flutes play a long-toned counter-melody. Who knows what the name of this piece is or whether it was ever played again? While it doesn’t really go anywhere, it establishes a pleasant mood and the instrumental texture is delightfully lush. Interesting. The old-timey “Stardust of Tomorrow” follows, appearing in its full-vocal arrangement. Unfortunately, the words are impossible to discern. Yet Sonny turns in an insistently nattering solo atop the medium swing before the big reprise, which sounds suspiciously under-rehearsed. Too bad this version never got a proper recording.
The hypnotic polyrhythms of “Exotic Forest” are taken at a brisk tempo and two drumsets are clearly audible. With the addition of congas and other hand-percussion a dense, churning groove in six is set in motion while a trombone lays down a repetitive, wide-interval riff. Marshall Allen leads off with some wailing oboe and Kwami Hadi follows with a long, thoughtful solo on trumpet as the rhythm section keeps the soup at a low boil. After some tricky lick-trading between Allen and Hadi, nothing much happens until Ra enters with a quietly contemplative clavinet solo that eventually segues to organ to introduce “The Shadow World.” After a ragged ensemble section, John Gilmore enters with another one of his typically hair-raising tenor solos, with his super-humanly precise articulation of impossibly difficult multiphonic and altissimo effects. Yes, it’s another incredible John Gilmore solo, this time even getting a rise out of the otherwise subdued audience. After some dissonant organ chords, Danny Davis takes over with some similarly adventuresome alto, but just as a slinky, slow groove is established (featuring what sounds like acoustic bass – could it be the great Ronnie Boykins?), the tape cuts off. Oh well.
Disc two opens in the middle of some fearsomely intense avant-jazz mayhem with atrociously bad sound. Ugh. You can still hear Ra throwing out some two-fisted organ blasts, but the pounding drums overwhelm just about everything. And when the horns return, some seem to intimate a reprise of “The Shadow World,” but the headstrong drummers insist on their own frenetic freedom before finally coming to a full stop (no doubt at Ra’s friendly but firm direction: there will be no twenty-minute Jarvis solo this evening, at least not yet). After some stunned applause, Sonny plays a pretty interlude on an acoustic piano way, way off in the distance while June Tyson starts chanting about those “Strange Worlds” in another room. He then moves to clavinet for an expansive, spidery etude on clavinet, supplemented with thick washes of organ color. Beautiful. A jaunty chord sequences announces “Enlightenment,” sung by Tyson and the boys, with a ticking hi-hat and clonking cowbells keeping easy time. Nothing too unusual. Next up is the ecstastic chanting of “Outer Spaceways, Incororporated” and “Prepare for the Journey to Outer Space” but the recording is woefully unbalanced with the vocals buried by the pummeling drumline. Even so, our unknown trombonist delivers a high-spirited, bluesy solo, exhibiting a huge tone that easily cuts through the din. Who is this guy?
Ra’s spooky organ accompanies Tyson’s recitation of “The Shadows Took Shape” and Gilmore paints a pointillist picture with a delicate concertino. Perfect. Suddenly, the motoric ostinato of “Friendly Galaxy” arises and the Arkestra launches into the work with gusto, the trombonist adding warmth to the cool flutes and trumpets. As the groove gets settled in, someone takes an extremely curious solo—but what instrument is this?? At times it sounds like Ra’s MiniMoog, but other times it sounds like Gilmore’s saxophone amplified through an overdriven Twin Reverb; there's a soulful vibrato that seems to preclude a purely electronic source (circa. early-Seventies). Whatever instrument, it’s a fascinating solo, with tasteful note choices and endlessly evolving timbres that defy description. I think it’s probably Sun Ra making these sounds, but I have no idea how he’s doing it. After that, it’s just the usual overlong dancing and percussion fest, interrupted by a quick spin through “Watusi” before the tape brutally cuts off.
The Lost Reel Collection, Vol.3 is a frustrating listen: the fatally unbalanced and distorted sound quality requires a lot of work to penetrate—yet there are moments (however fleeting) of rare and sublime music that (sort of) reward the effort. As a historical document, it poses more questions than it answers, only adding to the overall sense of frustration. Accordingly, I cannot recommend this to anyone but the specialist or truly obsessive. For them, it is a tantalizingly inscrutable text worthy of monastic study. Most anyone else might be understandably repulsed. Caveat emptor.