February 27, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Flushing Meadow Park, Queens, NY, July 4, 1973 (CDR)

As it turns out, I was mistaken in my review of What Planet Is This?: Not only did a copy of the July 6, 1973 Carnegie Hall concert circulate amongst collectors prior to its release by Leo Records, but this “bootleg” edition also included Sun Ra’s appearance at the memorial tribute to Louis Armstrong held in Flushing Meadow Park in Queens, New York on the afternoon of July 4. In fact, I used to have a copy, but threw it away after purchasing What Planet Is This?, not realizing this track was missing on the official release. Oh well—just goes to show I should never get rid of anything without more careful consideration! Big thank you to the Sun Ra fans who pointed out my error and kindly provided me with a copy.

Like the Carnegie Hall concert, this was recorded by Voice of America but never broadcast, the tapes deposited into the Library of Congress and promptly forgotten (see Campbell & Trent p.199). It’s a curious fragment, about six minutes of music played by a small band consisting of Ra on electric piano, John Gilmore on tenor sax, Ronnie Boykins on bass and Beaver Harris on drums, in his only known appearance with the Arkestra. The whole thing has a very impromptu, ad hoc feel to it, as if it had been organized at the last possible minute. The announcer is harried and clueless, first introducing the bassist as Reggie Workman and then, after the band corrects him, calling him “Ronnie Barkin” (and, later, “Ronnie Bodkin”) Sheesh! Sonny gingerly fingers a Fender Rhodes piano, an instrument he was not associated with at this time, and its politely chiming, bell-like tone clearly displeases him. So, he starts to work it, cranking up the gain, making it distort, adding skittering, polyphonic voices while Boykins and Harris set up a churning, free-jazz groove. Now Ra is really going for it, attacking the keyboard with two-fisted fury—but the engineer freaks out and turns down Sonny’s volume, greatly reducing the effect. Argh! Gilmore enters with what sounds like a pre-composed, modal theme and a set of full-throated, late-Coltrane-style variations. Despite the wonky sound, this is pretty exciting stuff! Harris gets maybe a little too excited and starts to overplay while Boykins tries his best to rein him in. Suddenly, Harris gets the message and drops out altogether, leaving Gilmore to solo a cappella, continuing in an atonal, post-bop vein, peppered with bluesy call and response effects and concluding with a dramatic flourish. Although brief, this is yet another incredible Gilmore solo!

In the aftermath of Gilmore's stunning display, piano filigrees float up from the stillness and Boykins picks up the bow, accompanied by softly tinkling cymbals. Ra sets the mood with celeste-like chording to surround the pleading, arco bass solo while Harris starts to turn up the heat. Then Boykins plays alone for a minute before the full band returns with a bashing storm of dissonant wailing. Sadly, the mix is horribly unbalanced by this point, with Ra’s dense figurations appearing way off in the distance while the tumultuous drums and squealing saxophone are way up front. The intended texture is obviously thick and rich, but is rendered thin and incoherent on tape (maybe it sounded better in person). Eventually, even Gilmore wanders off-mic, leaving Ra to bring it all to an end with a huge, harsh tone cluster. Our hapless M.C. rushes back to the microphone to defend this outburst of avant-garde mayhem to an audience that was perhaps expecting to hear a more traditional-sounding tribute to “Satchmo”: “I know a lot of you are thinking…well, you know...but it’s the energy that Louis had and all musicians have which comes out in a little bit different form, and yet a very valid thing as far as these men are concerned.” Well, he gets that right!

Too bad Leo declined to include this track on What Planet Is This? since it would have easily fit (and dodgy sound quality has never prevented them from releasing stuff in the past). It’s an interesting if not altogether successful piece, marred somewhat by Harris, who while a fine drummer, does not quite fit into Sun Ra’s cosmic equation here. And it’s really a shame Sun Ra’s Fender Rhodes assault is mixed so far back, as a more balanced recording would have made this a much more powerful and effective listening experience. Even so, the diminutive, four-piece Arkestra packs a lot of music into a short amount of time, Boykins holding it all together with his sure-footed bass playing while Gilmore is his typically brilliant self. Not essential by any means, but if you’re a Sun Ra fan, this little artifact is definitely worth seeking out—and holding onto.

1 comment:

Andrei said...

Sun Ra Sunday is back! Thank you for this supplement to 1973.
I was in similar situation when threw away my Roger Waters "The Wall: Live in Berlin" VHS after purchasing DVD. Oh! Sound and vision! And all these additional features! ...and then I found out there is no concert introduction on DVD edition. Oops. Fortunately now I have factory-pressed DVD of that VHS version.