November 28, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday



Lucky me! I received a couple of gifts for my birthday which had been on my want list for a while and will help further my Sun Ra research project. Today, I want to take the time to briefly discuss them and thank my kind benefactors: Thank you so much!

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Sun Ra: Collected Works, Vol.1: Immeasurable Equation was published by Phaelos Books & Mediawerks in 2005 and collects 260 of Sun Ra’s poems and a 1968 prose piece entitled, “Music Is My Words” in a handsome 226 page volume along with a handful of black and white photographs. Edited by Alton Abraham’s son, Adam, the book provides a comprehensive selection of Ra’s literary works, including numerous, side-by-side alternates and revisions along with introductory essays by James L. Wolfe and Hartmut Geerken which seek to contextualize these idiosyncratic writings within the otherworldly, messianic persona Sun Ra constructed. As Wolfe points out:

[Ra’s] poems are so bravely and unabashedly un-poetic. I know of no other poet who uses fewer concrete nouns than does Sun Ra…Wisdom, dimensions, endlessness, potentials, blackness, source, word, world, etc…abstractions all. Two barely concrete words reappearing every now and then are bridge and crossroads, signals of what Sun Ra is presenting to us in his volumes, crossings from one place to another, points of intersection where changes of direction become possible. Beyond these two, there are almost no moments in his entire written corpus that could be called “images” which suggest visual, sonic, or tactile scenes or experiences.

The question arose, and will again for others, is this really poetry? Is this philosophy disguised as poetry, just as Sun Ra’s music is “Images and forecasts of tomorrow/Disguised as Jazz?” (p.xiv)

Geerken focuses on the mutable materiality of Ra’s poetic language and, drawing upon ancient mythology and western metaphysics, suggests that he achieves “a kind of cosmic formula about life and the world which can be employed to harmonize the individual, society, science, politics and art”(p.xxv):

Sun Ra’s poems untie language following the recipes of the Dadaists, the structuralists, the lettrists, the futurists and the cosmologists. Above all, his poetic texts consist of energies. Sun Ra did not write because he wanted to communicate thoughts but because he cultivated particular vibrations and frequencies from which the texts emerged more or less automatically and spontaneously. The reader of Sun Ra’s poems “enters a while and free world, a world without a pope, without kings, without religion, and without refuge. He becomes a tree, a bird, a dancer, a barque, a wave—parts of a cosmos which creates all possibilities and destroys all certainties” (p.xxvi). [Quotation from Gerhard Penzkofer, Introduction to Po├ęsie Spatiale/Raumpoesie, Bamberg 2001.]

Sun Ra may have been a shaman or he may have been a charlatan—or likely he was a little of both. He was a man born Herman Poole “Sonny” Blount, who reinvented himself as Sun Ra from the planet Saturn. The transformation was total: he legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra and disavowed his earthly mortality. This was decades before Prince! Sun Ra created his own reality—at least while he was alive—and his written works are keys to his mind. These Collected Works make for fascinating reading and will be a great resource for future Sun Ra Sundays. Thank you, Steve & Katie!

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ESP-Disk’ recently unearthed over ninety minutes of unreleased material from the May 18, 1966 concert at St. Lawrence University in Potsdam, New York and has released the whole shebang on a two-CD set entitled, College Tour Vol.1: The Complete Nothing Is…The discovery of previously unreleased Sun Ra music from the ‘Sixties is reason enough to celebrate, but this release exceeds all expectations. Of course, Nothing Is… is a perfect album in itself, but it was skillfully edited to showcase the more out-there extremes of the Arkestra’s live act. This expanded edition restores the concert’s proper sequence, including some of the old-timey swing numbers and groovy space chants which were omitted from the original album; to hear this edition of Arkestra rip through some of the ‘Fifties-era material such as, “Advice for Medics” and “Space Aura,” is a rare delight indeed! And the second disc is truly revelatory, opening with an unusually expansive, contemplative version of “The Satellites Are Spinning” and going on from there.

This was one of the best bands Sonny ever assembled: Ronnie Boykins and Clifford Jarvis in the rhythm section (along with James Jacson and Carl Nimrod on percussion); John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, and Robert Cummings filling out the reeds; and, instead of the more usual trumpets on top, there are the trombonists, Teddy Nance and Ali Hasan, who give the ensemble sections are darker, mellower tone while also being strong soloists in their own right. My only complaint is the interminable drum solos—why, oh why, did Sun Ra indulge Jarvis so? It’s not that I have anything against drum solos per se (although I generally think they’re a bad idea); it’s just that Jarvis always just plays a bunch of flashy bullshit. Excuse my language, but it’s the most appropriate term. Every time he goes off like that, he abandons the truth of the music for the lie of empty technical displays. Usually, Sonny has to finally cut him mid-paradiddle so as to get things back on track. Left to his own devices, I swear he would go on forever.

But I quibble. Disc two includes almost thirty-five minutes of the evening’s soundcheck/rehearsal featuring two previously unknown compositions: “Nothing Is,” a floating, rhapsodic kind of blues, propelled by Ra’s wandering piano, is sometimes countered by long-toned horns while “Is Is Eternal” sets angular piano chords amidst cascading, rubato rhythms over which the horns heave and sigh in densely orchestrated harmony. Brief solo statements break the surface here and there, but this is very much a through-composed ensemble piece that was, apparently, never performed. Interesting. A leisurely romp through the riff-happy “State Street” follows, featuring dueling bari-saxes in the lead and “The Exotic Forest” concludes the disc in what sounds like a rehearsal but, curiously, applause can be heard at the end. Is it merely tacked on? Who knows? Regardless, College Tour Vol.1 is a most welcome addition to the Sun Ra discography, an essential document from this most fertile period. The Arkestra played five concerts on this tour, all of which were supposedly recorded by ESP-Disk’. Could this mean more volumes will be forthcoming? One can only hope. In the meantime, this will certainly do! Thank you, Kath & Justin!

1 comment:

Sam said...

I'm glad you finally got the complete "Nothing Is." The new material throughout is devastatingly gorgeous and absolutely essential (well, except for the 500 minutes of Clifford "drum solo totally out of context Buddy Rich style" Jarvis that ruins "Space Aura").

I haven't seen the Phaelos edition yet. I wonder how it compares to the James Wolf-edited volume that came out on Waitawhile? That's the one I read.