January 16, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: “The Universe Sent Me”: Lost Reel Collection, Vol.5 (Transparency CD)

There is some confusion as to when exactly the Arkestra’s third European tour began. The last four tracks on Transparency’s Lost Reel Collection Vol.5 were purportedly recorded in Paris on September 8, 1973 while Szwed says the first concert was on September 9 at the Fête de l’Humanité (p.335). Neither date is possible since the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival performance definitely occurred on September 10. Prof. Campbell (via Julian Vein) suggests the Fête de l’Humanité took place on either September 18 or 28 with another concert at the Olympia in Paris on September 30 (p.202). These later dates make more sense, with September 28 being the most likely.

In any case, I believe this fifty minute fragment was probably recorded on that date at the Fête de l’Humanité, an event sponsored by the Communist Party and which almost turned into a full-scale riot. Recorded from the stage (presumably by drummer, Tommy Hunter), you can hear a sizable audience in the background and, more tellingly, “Discipline 27-II” makes an unusually early appearance in the set, allowing Sonny an opportunity to cast his spell upon the surly crowd. Szwed describes the scene:

When they arrived at the festival grounds they found the audience in an especially ugly mood, having driven Jerry Lee Lewis off the stage, and Chuck Berry was leaving fast (the word was that their arrival in limos had been enough to set that volatile post-May ’68 crowd off). When the Arkestra reached the stage a moratorium began as the crowd froze in amazement: audience and critics alike were bewildered by what they saw, then won over. But what had they seen? A particularly arcane black nationalist paramilitary display? A ridiculous parody of European avant-garde theater?. . .[F]or whatever reason—shock, delight, puzzlement—the Arkestra brought the audience to its feet seven times that day, clapping and cheering. “Music,” Sonny said matter-of-factly, “soothes the savage beast.” It soothed them enough, in fact, that the Ballet Folklórico de Mexico which followed next was also received well, for which the dancers and the Minister of Culture of Mexico credited the Arkestra (pp.335-336).

We pick up in the middle of “Discipline 27-II” and while the vocals are distant, the horns are upfront and reasonably clear. The accompanying declamations can get a little tiresome but it’s always worth paying attention to how the arrangement changes from night to night: it’s never quite the same, the instrumentation subtly shifting with each repetition of the theme. Ronnie Boykins is present holding down the rhythm section, joined by Hunter and the usual gang of percussionists. After about ten minutes, John Gilmore signals a free, bashing, group improvisation which quickly gives way to Sun Ra’s scary sci-fi electronics. Four measures of stately organ chords introduce “Discipline 99” in yet another rearrangement: the tempo is a little faster than we heard in Ann Arbor while flutes and piccolos take the lead amidst some added horn riffing. This is one of Sun Ra’s more interesting compositions, with a wistful, slightly melancholy mood evoked by the descending minor-mode melodies. But, apparently, he was dissatisfied with it as it was performed only a handful of times during this period before being briefly resurrected in the early-‘80s and then abandoned (see Campbell & Trent p.818). Sonny takes a short but dramatic solo before Gilmore lays down some deeply penetrating soul-blues and the rhythm starts to loosen up the backbeat. Akh Tal Ebah essays on flugelhorn while Sonny’s organ grinds away and horns circle and dodge. Marshall Allen finally takes over with a delightful flute solo and the texture starts to thin. Rather than recapitulating the theme, it just sort of dissipates, which is kind of disappointing, given the fact that “Watusi” is up next. It’s the same old thing: after a quick run through the head, drums and percussion, whooping and hollering, dancing and chanting go on and on for ten tedious minutes. I’m sure it was quite the spectacle!

But then something happens: Kwami Hadi starts into a pealing high-register thing and the rhythm shifts into high gear, Boykins setting down an insistently throbbing bass line. Swirling organ and quicksilver horns enter the fray and now we’re into a ferocious group improv—only to have Sonny suddenly signal the reprise of “Watusi.” Wow! This gets a big hand from the audience and Hunter boldly steps up with a (relatively rare) drum solo. Unlike Clifford Jarvis, he keeps it short and tasteful, establishing a tribal beat on the tom-toms appropriate for Eloe Omoe’s bass clarinet rumblings which follow. Sun Ra cues a harrowing space chord but it quickly dissolves into flickering, pointillist horn figures. Boykins gets out the bow for a mysterioso bass solo and is later joined by Marshall Allen’s oboe and Ebah’s flugelhorn, a rare and beautiful sonority. Sonny is out front hectoring the audience about “The Impossible Equation” but it’s hard to hear. That’s OK because the Arkestra is in deep space exotica mode, all orbiting horns and solar drums. As things heat up, Gilmore blasts off with some hair-raising altissimo runs and someone (Ra?) starts honking what sounds like a car horn (?). Just as the intensity level becomes almost unbearable, the tape cuts off. Argh! Surely there was a lot more to this set…

According to Szwed, the events at Fête de l’Humanité prompted an outpouring of typically French theorizing:

One critic wrote that [the Arkestra] was a quasireligious phenomenon, and like the Church itself, the band used cheap props and son et lumière effects. But, he asked in all seriousness, could a secular group like this move forward and progress, or would they be trapped forever in their rituals like the Church? Whatever they were, the Arkestra was disrupting critical predispositions and habits, their show calling attention to the critics’ limitations. A performance like this would require multiple levels of readings, and a fuller understanding of different genres, different forms of media, and different styles of playing (pp.335-336).

Indeed. It’s pure speculation on my part that this recording is from the Fête de l’Humanité debacle, but, after listening to other documents from this tour, it makes sense. Regardless of exactly when or where it was recorded, this volume of the Lost Reel Collection (which also includes a fragment from the Southport Seaport Museum on July 9, 1972) is of definite historical interest to all Sun Ra fanatics. Be forewarned: as usual with Transparency, the sound quality is not great—clearly several generations away from the master (presumably, um, lost)—but it’s certainly listenable, as these things go. Musically, the Arkestra is at its best, bringing a fresh enthusiasm to even the most overplayed repertoire and improvising with an almost telepathic cohesion. The rarely heard “Discipline 99” and the (truncated) closing improvisation are particularly satisfying, despite the bootleg sound quality. Newbies should start elsewhere, but Sun Ra afficianadoes who know what to expect will be amply rewarded by The Lost Reel Collection Vol.5.


Anonymous said...


Just want to tell you that I love your blog! I am reading Space Is the Place and your blog while going through some of the Sun Ra discography. I had known some of his work but now I feel like I "get it" a little more and it's fascinating.

Please keep writing about Sun Ra.


Anonymous said...

have you heard Lost Reels vol. 4 dance of the living image??

i'm really enjoying it, would love to hear your thoughts.


Rodger Coleman said...

@Q: Thank you for your comments! Re: Lost Reel Collection Vol.4, we'll get there, eventually! As I recall, it's a rehearsal tape, which is always interesting to listen to! Thank you for reading!

Rod Stasick said...

Hi! Just came across this posting of yours. Thanks for the words. Yes, actually, the Sun Ra performance was on Sunday evening, September 9, 1973 (just after Luther Allison), so this would've meant that the Arkestra would've had to play Paris on Saturday night and Ann Arbor on Sunday - highly unlikely. I agree with your date of the 28th.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I was at la Fete de l'Humanite, this year). The Sun Ra concert took place on the saturday night, 8th september, just AFTER (not BEFORE), les Ballets de Mexico.