Sun Ra & His Space Arkestra: What Planet Is This? (Leo/GY 24/25) (2CD)
Although it can be assumed that the Arkestra performed as frequently as ever, live concerts in 1973 are rather sparsely documented, at least as compared to the previous couple of years. Prof. Campbell mentions a 214-minute audience tape recorded at The Village Gate on February 26 (possibly part of multi-night stand at the legendary New York nightclub) but this artifact does not circulate amongst collectors and Campbell offers no details whatsoever (Campbell & Trent p.192). Meanwhile, work continued on the Space Is The Place movie, with Sonny and Tommy Hunter flying to California in late June to film the hilarious nightclub scene wherein “Sunny Ray’s” increasingly outrageous piano playing rains destruction upon the room, thereby vanquishing the evil gangsters. This is my favorite scene in the movie! Sadly, this extraordinary bit of music was not included on the soundtrack CD released by Evidence in 1993 but can be heard (and seen) in the film (Id. pp.198-199). On July 4, Sun Ra appeared with a small group consisting of John Gilmore on tenor sax, Ronnie Boykins on bass, and Beaver Harris on drums as part of a memorial tribute to Louis Armstrong (who died on July 6, 1971) at Flushing Meadow Park, in the borough of Queens, New York. Six minutes of this performance was recorded by Voice of America but never broadcast and, although the tape exists in the Library of Congress, this tantalizing fragment of small-group Ra does not circulate as far as I can tell (see, Id. p.199). [Some of the information in this post is incorrect; please see my update here.]
On July 6, the Arkestra performed at the “Newport In New York Festival” in a marathon concert at Carnegie Hall which included an opening set by Cab Calloway. This billing must have seemed completely incongruous to those in attendance, but, in later years, Sonny’s connection to Calloway’s brand of pre-war swing and proto-R&B would become increasingly clear. Ra’s entire two-hour set was again recorded by Voice of America but, for some unknown reason, never broadcast. The tapes languished in the Library of Congress until their discovery by researcher Larry Applebaum in the mid-1990s (see, Id. pp.199-200). Subject of rampant speculation in the ensuing years, the small but enterprising British label, Leo Records, finally released these recordings on their Golden Years imprint in 2006, somehow exploiting the grey areas of international copyright law and carefully avoiding any mention of the concert’s venue or the tape’s unusual provenance. Despite its rather non-descript packaging (and potential ethical/legal quibbles), What Planet Is This? Is, for any Sun Ra fan, a most welcome release indeed as the sound quality is (for the most part) first-rate and the maximum-strength Arkestra was well-rehearsed and in top form for this prestigious concert.
Opening with the usual processional/improvisation, the first thing you notice is a full contingent of low brass, including two trombones and tuba (likely played by Charles Stevens, Dick Griffin and Hakim Jami, respectively). Sonny often had to make do without the rich, warm sonorities of the trombone in his working ensembles, but he would usually recruit players for high-profile gigs such as this, re-tooling the arrangements to accommodate an expanded sonic palette. The second thing you notice is the presence of Ronnie Boykins, who brings his sure-footed authority on the double-bass, anchoring the proceedings in his own inimitable fashion. Curiously, Clifford Jarvis is absent, replaced by Lex Humphries on trap drums. While Humphries’s laconic style may lack the fiery, propulsive drive of Jarvis, we are also spared the interminable drum solos that would have inevitably resulted—and that is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.
Once the twenty-five member Arkestra has assembled on stage (including an array of percussionists and The Space Ethnic Voices), June Tyson solemnly intones “Astro Black,” accompanied by delicate bass thrumming but ending with an explosive, full-band space chord and free-form freak-out. Whew! Then, just as suddenly, the chaos melts into the big-band swing of “Discipline 27,” led by Pat Patrick’s baritone sax riffing. The Arkestra sounds great, with the trombones and tuba prominently featured amidst the reeds and trumpets. But Ra is playing a different kind of organ than usual (or perhaps he’s just poorly miked)—it sounds oddly muffled and distant here. Fortunately, he was provided a decent grand piano and, in the long improvisation which follows, he makes excellent use of it, throwing off astonishingly dexterous runs and thick, dissonant harmonies a la Cecil Taylor. Then he moves to the MiniMoog synthesizer to create pulsating walls of industrial noise against which the horns spatter notes like graffiti. And again, the organ sound is…strange, kind of like “The Mighty Wurlitzer” at a baseball park. Is there a theatre organ at Carnegie Hall? Is that what he’s playing? Who knows! This remarkably compelling improvisation goes on for almost thirty minutes, dominated by the shifting hues of Ra’s keyboards and held together by Boykins’s macroscopic sense of structure and groove (not to mention the thrilling crescendos of tympani). Various solos and ensembles are queued by Ra, giving shape to an improvised construction of remarkable cohesiveness and expressive beauty. Despite the seemingly excessive length, it’s actually over before you know it and the band launches smoothly into “Space Is The Place.” Wow! One of the Space Ethnic Voices (who?) does some of her insane, post-Ono vocal acrobatics before the band eases into lush and dreamy versions of “Enlightenment” and “Love In Outer Space.” These arguably over-played numbers could sometimes sound glib and tossed-off in performance, but here they sound poised and purposeful, aided, in part, by the relaxed drumming of Humphries and the rock-solid bass of Boykins.
But Humphries shows he’s no slouch on “The Shadow World,” kicking up furious polyrhythms in tandem with Aye Aton [Robert Underwood] and a host of burbling congas. Starting from a dead stop, the Arkestra executes the dauntingly difficult composition with startling precision, the hi-fi recording allowing us to hear deep into the densely orchestrated ensemble. The improvisation that follows is another perfect example of Ra’s disciplined freedom at its most cogent—even Gilmore’s unaccompanied solo (often a show-stopping tour de force) is ultimately curtailed and subsumed within the evolving group dynamic, just a part of the intricately woven musical fabric. After about fifteen minutes, the band settles into a quiet, Afro-Asian feel, with Alzo Wright’s cello providing some “Strange Strings”-style bowings and Marshall Allen wailing away on a plangent oboe—both of which elicit surprisingly respectful applause from the audience, given how weird and otherworldly the sounds. It is a magical moment. By this point, the audience has been transported, if not into outer space, then into Sun Ra’s alternative reality, where such sounds are as natural and nutritive as the air we breathe. This is truly an exemplary rendition of “The Shadow World” and needs to be heard to be believed. “Watusa” and “Discipline 27-II” conclude the set in the usual fashion, with a percussion/dance workout and a seventeen-minute sermon of cosmic declamations. Yet the ultra-spacious sound quality and the richly textured Arkestra’s near-definitive performances make them worth listening to—even if, like me, you think you’ve heard these routines too many times already.
So, yeah, this one is a keeper. No doubt the incendiary rhetoric found at the conclusion of this concert scared the pants off the bureaucrats at the VOA, who, upon hearing the tapes, shipped them off to some remote storage facility of the LOC, never, they hoped, to be heard by anyone else ever again. I’m speculating about all this, of course—and I have no idea about the legal ramifications of this CD (I am NOT a lawyer)—but the tangled history of this tape is certainly intriguing. All I care about is having the opportunity to hear this music after all these years, by whatever means. Please don’t get me wrong: Leo is a well-established label with impeccable bona fides—their loving devotion to Anthony Braxton’s most ambitious music is to be wholeheartedly supported—and I do not mean to impugn the label’s business ethics in slightest. For all I know, everything is kosher, the rights-holders are paid and everyone is happy. Whatever, I don’t really care (my only complaint is that the Flushing Meadow Park fragment was not included). Hey, this is the record business—the shadiest business ever. As a fan, I only rejoice at its current availability and recommend to others they grab a copy before it goes out of print forever, as these things often do. Carpe diem!