January 30, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: “The Road To Destiny”: Lost Reel Collection Vol.6 (Transparency CD)

The latest volume in Transparency’s Lost Reel Collection is noteworthy for a couple of reasons: First and foremost, it offers further documentation of the Arkestra’s stand at The Gibus Discotèque in 1973. Secondly, it comes from the collection of Tommy “Bugs” Hunter, who often served as recordist for the band when he was available (he even provides a spoken introduction to the CD, wherein he states the tape was recorded “around midnight” on Thursday, October 18th or 19th). It features remarkably good sound quality, likely recorded from the stage and since it is mastered from the original tape, it does not suffer from the kind of gross distortion and generational loss that plagues most of the volumes in this series. All this makes it of interest to Sun Ra fans, but the music is not particularly revelatory. If the Atlantic—France LP, Live at The Gibus, indicated a change in direction, this CD demonstrates that Sun Ra was still up to his old tricks.

The disc starts off strong with a spacey version of “Astro Black.” A smattering of horns precedes June Tyson’s entrance, who sweetly sings to Ronnie Boykins’s spare bass accompaniment. Drums are heard faintly in the background, but soon become more prominent as the song comes to a conclusion and a blaring space chord signals a brief group improvisation. The music quiets and one of the Space Ethnic Voices does her crazy, super-high-pitched vocalise trick along with some twisty trumpet obbligato from Kwami Hadi. Impressive, but very strange! This goes on for barely a minute or so before Danny Ray Thompson’s baritone sax riff introduces “Discipline 27,” which is taken at a relaxed, easy-going tempo, buoyed by Boykins’s sure-footed bass-playing. This is a cheerfully pleasant version of the big-band swing number, with Hadi and Akh Tal Ebah providing dual trumpet lead and Sonny soloing fluidly on “vibra-organ” before the reprise. Nothing special, but a solid performance nonetheless.

Then the Arkestra drops the tempo and smoothly segues into an extended “Discipline 27-II,” complete with its full complement of chanted declamations. The recording foregrounds the instruments at the expense of the vocals, which sound distant and hard to hear, as if coming from monitors at the other end of the stage. That’s OK since, as is usual, the endlessly morphing horn arrangement is what keeps the piece interesting to listen to while Sun Ra’s space-preacher shtick can get a little tedious, to say the least. But don’t worry, when he and June raise their voices (which happens often enough), you can hear them loud and clear. After nearly twenty-seven minutes (!), the Arkestra finally abandons the composition and descends into a chaotic group improvisation with terrifying saxophone battles, bashing drums and throbbing bass. Sadly, the tape fades out just as things get going. Oh well—I would love to hear what came next! Instead, the disc ends with a series of space chants, cutting in on Tyson’s lead on “Prepare for the Journey to Other Worlds.” Others join in for “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Why Go to the Moon?,” but the vocals are swamped by layers of distortion and feedback—yet you can still our unknown Space Ethnic Voice doing her screeching thing amidst all the mayhem, so that’s something to listen for. Just as Gilmore starts to wail on tenor saxophone, the tape brutally cuts off. Argh!

Lost Reel Collection Vol.6 is a mixed bag: good sound and excellent playing (especially from the ever-inventive Ronnie Boykins), but the song selection is rather mundane. We’ve heard all this stuff many times before and this CD offers very little in the way of fresh insights. The most interesting thing here is the weird, post-Yoko vocalizing of the anonymous Space Ethnic Voice on “Astro Black” and during the closing chants, but that’s not saying a whole lot. Fanatics and completists will be happy to have this as an adjunct to Live at The Gibus, but others will wonder what all the fuss is about. Nice, but non-essential.


Sam said...

As usual, I totally agree with your assessment here. "Discipline 27" is quite nice--it swings more than usual. "Astro Black" is nice and always welcome. Otherwise, just so-so. Ra sounds particularly hectoring on "D.27-II," and it's probably just as well I can't make out everything he's saying.

Anonymous said...

You are far more knowledgable on SUn Ra than I am. But I want to add that the 28min version of Discipline 27-II really floored me.

Anonymous said...

Can you recommend a better version of Discipline 27-II?

Rodger Coleman said...

@Anonymous: Certainly the sheer length of this version of D.27-II is notable, as is the super-smooth segue from D.27. But of the ones we've heard recently, probably the one on "What Planet Is This" is more satisfying to me personally. But please don't let my crankiness inhibit your enjoyment!