January 9, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Arkestra:
Outer Space Employment Agency (Alive!/Total Energy CD)

On September 10, 1973, the Arkestra returned to play John Sinclair’s fifth annual Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival, a huge outdoor concert held at Otis Spann Memorial Field. This was a rare opportunity for Sun Ra to play in front of a large audience, appearing on the final night of the festival on a bill with Luther Allison, Hound Dog Taylor, and Otish Rush. The entire concert was broadcast over the radio, including most of Sun Ra’s seventy-three minute set (see Campbell & Trent p. 201) and a tape of this broadcast apparently circulates amongst collectors, but I haven’t heard it. Finally, in 1999, Sinclair released a fifty-two minute fragment (omitting “Discipline 27” and “Astro Black”) on his Alive!/Total Energy label on a compact disc entitled, Outer Space Employment Agency. To be honest, it's a mixed bag.

Sinclair certainly means well—but as Prof. Campbell points out, he “continues the tradition of incorrect titling that has afflicted so many commercial releases of Arkestra concerts” (Id. p.202). That’s putting it politely! The first track is actually an untitled improvisation (mistitled “Discipline 99”), opening with a bit of “mad scientist” keyboard noodling before a brutal splice takes us into the middle of a howling space chord—what’s that about? Whatever, the group improv that follows is a real corker—and you can plainly hear the sizable crowd rapturously whooping it up in the background. The great Ronnie Boykins is once again present on bass and right away he starts bowing away, widely ranging from rich, low-register double stops bristly sul ponticello scraping. Lex Humphries returns on drums, joined by Tommy Hunter, and (along with a battery of conga players) they kick up a suitable din for a series of solos and duos, climaxing with some barn-burning saxophone from John Gilmore on tenor and Danny Davis on alto. After a brief organ interlude, “Discipline 99” (mistitled “Love In Outer Space”) follows, and it’s a treat to hear this rarely performed number in such exquisite high fidelity. A languid, almost melancholic ballad, the Arkestra sounds well-rehearsed on this lush, intricate arrangement with Gilmore briefly taking the lead with a soulful, bluesy solo before giving way to Akh Tal Ebah’s mellow, burnished flugelhorn. Just lovely.

After that, the rest of the disc is something of a letdown. Kwami Hadi’s fiery trumpet enlivens an otherwise desultory “Love In Outer Space” but the following “Watusi” is the usual percussion jam (featuring about fifteen clanking cowbells) accompanying some hysterical chanting and the pharaonic dancing (this segment is mistitled “Watusa/Discipline 27-II” on the CD). No doubt this was a mesmerizing visual spectacle in person, but it comes across as a diffuse and a little dull on disc—nothing new there, I guess. A medium tempo “Discipline 27-II” concludes the set in the usual fashion, with Sun Ra furiously preaching the Cosmo Drama, his rhetorical—sometimes downright inflammatory—declamations echoed by June Tyson, a crooning Ebah and various Space Ethnic Voices. It’s the usual stuff and the ultra-spacious sound quality lets us clearly hear the subtly morphing orchestration of “Discipline 27-II“ beneath all that vocal carrying-on. Even so, at over twenty minutes, it’s more than a little much. Again, I think you had to have been there.

Still, there’s a lot to like about this CD. The sound quality is much improved over the 1972 set (released as Life Is Splendid) and the crackling opening improvisation and beautiful rendition of “Discipline 99” make it a necessary acquisition for the hardcore Sun Ra fan. But the shoddy documentation, meandering percussion jams and endless, inscrutable chanting will likely leave novices scratching their heads. With a choice of live recordings available from this period, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this one. Yet be aware that all three of the Alive!/Total Energy releases are now out of print; if you’re interested, better grab them now before they disappear for good.


Sam said...

You're right--the real gems here are the first two tracks. Gilmore's solo on "D.99" is sublime!

Anonymous said...

Got to disagree. This is one of the best live Sun Ra sets I know due to its energy and wildness and philosophic discourse on the last track. Ra is pushing it on all cylinders here and often sounds as if the band is going to take off into the stratosphere.

Rodger Coleman said...

@ Anonymous: Fair enough. It's possible I'd listen to it again and feel differently. And part of it is just burning out on the hectoring and my own biases. Thank you for reading and commenting!