March 20, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Mythic Science Arkestra:
The Paris Tapes: Live at Le Théâtre Du Châtelet 1971 (Art Yard/Kindred Spirits 2CD)

Before moving on to 1974, I need to catch up a bit and comment on The Paris Tapes: Live at Le Théâtre Du Châtelet 1971, recently released by Art Yard (in collaboration with the Dutch label, Kindred Spirits). This nicely packaged two-CD set officially came out last fall, but has been somewhat difficult to find here in the States. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s worth making the effort to track down. As we know, this concert from November 29, 1971 was broadcast by French radio and a horribly degraded tape fragment circulates amongst collectors. Therefore, this upgraded and expanded edition is a most welcome addition to the official discography. Even so, don’t be throwing away that crummy-sounding bootleg just yet—some very interesting and unique music has been edited out of this otherwise excellent release! Mastered from what appear to be the pre-broadcast reels, the sound quality is superb with spacious ambience and startling instrumental clarity. But according to producer, Peter Dennett, about an hour of music was omitted due to technical problems with the tapes and to limit the release to a more economical two CDs. That is completely understandable, if unfortunate for us crazy completists, who would love to hear every note, sonic warts and all.

What we do get is very good indeed, with an extra-generous serving of Sun Ra’s incredibly outrageous electronic keyboard playing. Right from the start, Sonny is shooting laser beams and cracking whips with his MiniMoogs, summoning up torrential storms of noise and distortion, pounding out thundering low-register grumbles on the organ, or stringing delicate and wobbly portamentos against thick, dissonant tone clusters. That's just the "Introduction!" Then he turns in a groovy, blues-inflected electric piano solo on a “pre-mitotic” version of “Discipline 27” while the hypnotic, dark metallic funk of his organ comping dominates an extended version of “Love In Outer Space.” The rarely-heard “Third Planet” also features a tasty, reedy Rocksichord excursion a la Night Of The Purple Moon while Ra’s space-age barbeque organ makes an appearance on “Discipline Number Unknown.” And, finally, the album concludes with an astonishing tour de force of Sun Ra’s patented, mad-scientist-style mayhem: fifteen minutes of spooky murmuring, shrieking sirens and bursting bombs, all culminating in the arrival and departure of the alien spaceship to take us back to Saturn. Wow! This is truly one the all-time great Sun Ra epics! If there was ever any doubt of Ra’s visionary genius and sheer instrumental prowess, this release should put that notion to rest for good.

In between, there’s the usual thing—yet the vocal numbers such as “Somebody Else’s Idea,” and “Space Is The Place” as well as the dance/drums workout, “Watusi” greatly benefit from the luxurious sound quality and tightly focused performances (notorious drummer, Clifford Jordan, exhibits remarkable restraint throughout). A meandering “Angels and Demons At Play” is perhaps overlong, but Marshall Allen’s evocative flute periodically adds interest to the percussion jamming. Particularly noteworthy is the discovery of yet another never-before-heard “Discipline” composition on disc two wherein characteristically interlocking horn riffs are cast upon an enchantingly off-kilter space-groove in seven. During a series of solos (Kwami Hadi on trumpet, Ra on BBQ organ and Eloe Omoe on bass clarinet), the arrangement gradually morphs into a wild group improvisation for massed saxophones and skittering, clattering polyrhythms. Pretty exciting stuff!

So, what’s missing? The “Enlightenment” after the opening improvisation has been cut and while that in itself is no great loss, the following unknown “Discipline” piece has also been omitted. Now, that’s a real shame as this is the only known performance of one of Ra’s most strikingly beautiful compositions (and the bootleg tape appears to be incomplete). Moreover, there are no big John Gilmore solos on either of these two discs, which feels wrong given his usual prominence in the Arkestra—I suspect “The Shadow World” made an appearance at this concert and no doubt Gilmore did his thing there (and elsewhere). So, that’s a little frustrating. Regardless of any technical anomalies, I, for one, would love to hear the rest of the tapes from this gig and would have gladly paid extra for a complete, three-CD set. Oh well. Perhaps, if this sells well, a volume two will be forthcoming.

But I quibble. Art Yard and Kindred Spirits have done a fabulous job with The Paris Tapes and it is an essential purchase for any self-respecting Sun Ra fan (if you can find it). Despite the absence of certain crucial material, Sun Ra’s performance here more than makes up for the loss with amazing displays of keyboard pyrotechnics. And the overall sumptuous sound quality will gratify even the most casual of listeners, making this a most highly recommended release.

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