March 6, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra Arkestra with Wilbur Ware: House of Ra, Philadelphia, PA 1973 (CDR)

In 1987, Columbia University's WKCR-FM embarked on a “Sun Ra Festival,” broadcasting 116 straight hours of music and interviews with members of the Arkestra, including the man himself, who brought with him several never-before-heard recordings for the occasion. A tape of this broadcast circulates widely amongst collectors and contains a wealth of interesting material, including this twelve-and-a-half minute piece recorded at The House of Ra in 1973 with bassist, Wilbur Ware. Born in 1923, Ware had worked with Sonny briefly back in Chicago and can be heard on one of Ra’s earliest known recordings as a leader (see Campbell & Trent p.43). Ware was well-regarded for his bebop skills, playing with folks like Stuff Smith, Sonny Stitt, Roy Eldridge and Art Blakey but he was probably best known for his work with Thelonious Monk in the late-1950s. By 1973, however, his career was at a standstill due to a combination of health issues and drug abuse and he had relocated to Philaldephia, where he hooked up with the Arkestra for this impromptu jam. “It’s quite different, you know, to hear him play what you might call avant-garde,” Sonny remarks during the interview. “It sounds very nice.”

Actually, it’s more than just a jam and while it would appear that Ware is leading the way, it is actually Sun Ra who guides the Arkestra through the improvisation, cueing entrances and exits and various changes in feel in his own inimitable way. Despite Ware's personal difficulties during this time, he sounds great here, playing with supreme confidence and big-eared sensitivity, exploring the entire compass of the instrument and even pulling out the bow for a short interlude. Rarely do all eight musicians play at the same time, giving this piece an austere, modern chamber music quality while Ra moves from slippery synthesizer to a wobbly, wah-wah organ, emphasizing a rising portamento which is echoed by the bass throughout. Soloists include John Gilmore, who introduces a long-breathed melody and multiphonic variations on tenor saxophone; blurry trumpet from Akh Tal Ebah (later joined by Marshall Allen and Danny Davis on alto saxophones); and Eloe Omoe on bass clarinet. Sometimes the horns drop out altogether, leaving Ware to duet with Sun Ra’s keyboards; at other times they engage in fleeting bouts of group improv. Drummer Lex Humphries makes only a brief appearance mid-way through only to conclude the piece with a solo of his own. Amazingly, Ware keeps things going with strong yet supple support, no matter what’s going on around him.

It’s tempting to speculate this was a sort of audition for Ware, since the bass chair was often empty due to the comings and goings of the brilliant Ronnie Boykins (who would leave the band for good after 1974). From the evidence, it seems like Ware would have been a good fit for the Arkestra. Although he was rooted in the language of bop, Ware was obviously a good listener. As Sonny points out in his interview, the ability to listen is the most valuable skill a musician can possess and key part of his cosmo-philosophy:

Every band has something to say. The good part about it is that you have men together, who are not in the army to destroy people, they—it’s something to have men working together for beauty, and for precision and discipline. It’s wonderful. It’s the most wonderful thing about the planet that you do have men who are in the armed forces—who have to be in there—but you have some more who are doing some other things that’s not destructive, with unification and discipline. Because they have to be disciplined to play music. If they’re in a band, they got to listen to somebody and that’s what all men ought to learn, that they need to listen to somebody. Because you take the basketball players, they got to listen. Prizefighters got to listen. Actors got to listen to a director. So I would say every individual person needs to listen to somebody because successful people are those who listen to somebody and do as they’re told. Or try to.

Sadly, Ware withdrew from the music scene altogether and died of emphysema in 1979. This tape presents an opportunity to hear this underappreciated musician in an unusual context and, for that reason alone, is worth checking out. (Photo of Wilbur Ware by Francis Wolff/Blue Note Records.)

No comments: