February 6, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Concert for the Comet Kohoutek (ESP-Disk’ CD)

It’s unclear when exactly the Arkestra returned to the states, or what they did (if anything) until the end of the year, when ESP-Disk’ mounted an ambitious Concert for Comet Kohoutek at New York City’s prestigious Town Hall on December 22, 1973. Given the supposedly cosmic significance of this astronomical event, Sun Ra was asked to headline a marathon concert featuring other ESP-affiliated artists such as the Miamis, Randy Burns, Amanda, Buddy Hughes, Donald Raphael Garrett and Paul Thornton (of the Godz). Like the eponymous comet, the concert was something of a bust. I’m old enough to remember the hype surrounding Kohoutek and the deep sense of disappointment that followed its weak display. In retrospect, the deflation of naïve idealism that accompanied Kohoutek’s passage by our planet seems to fittingly symbolize the end of “The Age of Aquarius.” It’s not surprising to learn the Town Hall concert was “rather poorly attended” (Campbell & Trent p.204) or that the tapes of Sun Ra’s set would become a source of bitter contention, unreleased until 1993, a year after Sonny’s death and twenty years after its recording. The times had indeed a-changed—but not for the better.

Originally released via the licensing deal with German ZYX label, that disc was marred by poor sound, random indexing and woefully incorrect titling. Concert For Comet Kohoutek was eventually reissued in a slightly expanded and remastered edition by the re-formed ESP-Disk’ in 2006, although the graphics are noticeably fuzzier and it dispenses with the thick booklet of text and photographs which accompanied the ZYX version. Instead, we get a bizarre, two-page essay by ESP-Disk’ founder, Bernard Stollman, wherein he accuses Sun Ra of stealing the original (presumably stereo) master tapes from his apartment, which necessitated the use of a mono reference copy for the CD (contra. Campbell & Trent p.204-205, both editions are mono). Stollman further insinuates Sun Ra extorted a royalty advance from him shortly after this concert and, later, breached a contract regarding concert recordings to be made on the upcoming Mexican tour. Well, whatever the veracity of these allegations, the tone of cynicism and bad faith is certainly in keeping with the post-‘Sixties malaise the Comet Kohoutek seemed to auger. Indeed, this posthumously released album presents the end of an era in Sun Ra’s music: the outrageous experimentalism would thereafter be tempered by an increasingly regimented formalism and the space-age cosmo-philosophy would be subsumed into more a more calculated sense of showmanship. Sure, he continued to make interesting music, but it inevitably changed with the times.

A profound sense of anticlimax pervades the opening remarks by the hapless M.C., who earnestly attempts to narrate a slideshow of NASA space photographs. The Arkestra can be heard noodling around and tuning up in the background and as he begins to expound upon the drug-addled fantasies of Timothy Leary, the audience becomes audibly restless. “Somebody has asked me to get the f*** off [the stage],” he announces with a nervous chuckle. “Is there anybody here that wants to hear more about [Leary’s] Terra 2? Otherwise, I’ll get the f*** off.” The audience responds with resounding cheers. “By popular demand, I will get the f*** off.” This little exchange (omitted on the ZYX CD) neatly summarizes the cultural zeitgeist of the mid-'Seventies.

Then the Arkestra goes at it, opening with a earth-shattering space chord and “Astro Black.” June Tyson sings a cappella, then with quiet accompaniment from bass and drums, ringing cymbals and cowbell. Beautiful! Then John Gilmore leads some assaultive group improvisation which quickly melts into the melodious strains of “Discipline 27,” but the tempo is oddly plodding and off-centered. After a brief but intriguingly out-there solo from Gilmore, they lurch into what Prof. Campbell calls “Journey Through the Outer Darkness” (p.204) but I believe is another “Discipline” piece, a heaving minor key vamp in five. But again, while Boykins tries to anchor the rhythm section, the multiple drummers and percussionists fail to coalesce, even during Hadi’s otherwise fluid trumpet solo. As if sensing defeat, Sonny starts interjecting weird synthesizer squiggles, eventually taking over with a long keyboard solo, occasionally punctuated with conducted blasts of high-energy group improvisation, climaxing with a typically mind-blowing tenor solo from Gilmore. Good stuff! After some more scary electronics, Sonny launches into “Enlightenment” and it’s the usual, with Tyson and Gilmore singing in harmony along with the Space Ethnic Voices and host of clanking percussion. Unfortunately, Marshall Allen’s flute obbligato is off-mic and hard to hear, but it’s still a nice version of this concert staple.

“Love in Outer Space” is one of those wonderfully heavy, organ-driven versions with Danny Davis joining Allen in a dual alto saxophone display towards the end. This elicits some hearty applause after which Ra begins playing “Discipline 15” (mistitled “Kohoutek” on this CD). A mournful, rubato ballad, this composition was rarely performed yet the Arkestra sounds remarkably well-rehearsed, unfazed by Ra’s weird and increasingly frenetic organ plinking. After its solemn conclusion, Sonny takes charge with another display of electric pyrotechnics, full of thunderous, low-register rumbling; two-handed, staccato runs; and dissonant organ clusters. A cued space chord signals the entrance of bass and drums and then things get really crazy, with Ra building up forbidding walls of synthesizer/organ noise while horns chirp and squeal in the background. Just as the texture becomes impossibly dense, a trombone makes a dramatic entrance (probably Dick Griffin or Charles Stephens) (Id.) and more mayhem arises in its wake. Wow!

Finally, Sonny guides the band into “Discipline 27-II,” taken at a moderately fast clip, and the keyboard attack continues for several minutes before he takes to the microphone to ask “What planet is this?” The usual series of declamations follow, echoed by Tyson and the Space Ethnic Voices while the ensemble arranges and re-arranges the endlessly malleable composition, all held together by Boykins’s endlessly creative bass playing. Thankfully, it doesn’t go on too long and everyone quiets down for some of that post-Yoko screeching and screaming from one of the Space Ethnic Voices. Nice! Then Tyson announces, “We’re openin’ up the doors of the Outer Space Employment Agency!” and short but super-funky version follows. Only forty-seven seconds long, I would have liked to hear a bit more of this killer groove, but before things are allowed to get going, it's interrupted by Ra’s insistence on “Space Is The Place.” After an over-amped organ introduction, the singing, dancing and chanting begins in earnest, with Akh Tal Ebah doing his soul-man thing along with Tyson’s more reserved crooning. Eventually, the percussion drops out leaving the vocalists supported only by Boykins, who is riding the wave, in the pocket and he doesn’t want to stop! Sun Ra steps up to say, “There’s no place for you to go except for in or out…try the out!” This gets a big hand from the audience. Saxophones scribble, the Space Ethnic Voice shrieks and screams, while Boykins just keeps on rockin’ until finally bringing it to a close with big cadence. The small but enthusiastic audience claps and hollers its appreciation while the musicians exit the stage.

The actual Concert For Comet Kohoutek was, like its namesake, something of a letdown for its promoters. But the music preserved on this CD is a stunning reminder of Sun Ra’s prowess as instrumentalist and bandleader during this period. His keyboard solos are some of the most hair-raisingly intense to be found on record and his control over the Arkestra’s resources is complete, deftly steering the music in contrasting directions as it unfolds. Despite the acrimonious history surrounding the tapes and the less-than-perfect sound quality, this is still a worthy addition to the official canon. If the original stereo masters still exist somewhere, let’s hear ‘em! Until then, Concert For Comet Kohoutek (particularly the expanded and remastered edition) is highly recommended.


Sam said...

This one's a sentimental favorite for me. I love the rough and ready ambience of the whole thing. The track right after "Astro Black" actually starts with melodies of "D.27-II" --the part usually thought of as "D.27" proper doesn't kick in until around 2:24. I love the part about 4:30 minutes in, when Ra's moog breaks in under Kwame Hadi's blistering trumpet solo. Ra's moog work here is outstanding.

I only have the XYZ version--so the sound is noticeably improved on the remastered version? Damn--add another disc to my want list.

Rodger Coleman said...

Yes, weird how that D.27 goes--was Sun Ra getting sick of it too? :)

I'd say the sound is noticeably improved and getting that MC intro and the bitter end of "Space of the Place" makes it definitely worthwhile. But, as with other ESP discs, I will be holding onto the older version as well.

Andrei said...

As always, excellent review, Rodger! Thank you. Don't stop.

Rodger Coleman said...

Thank you, Andrei!