April 17, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Space Probe (Saturn 527/Art Yard CD 011)

Space Probe is another super-obscure Saturn release with a tortured history. Originally released in 1974, early discographies assigned a catalog number Saturn 527, although no known copies bear this number (See Campbell & Trent, p.107, 158). Instead, matrix numbers 14200A /14200B appear on most labels, although the sides are sometimes reversed (Id.). To make things even more confusing, the album was sometimes titled A Tonal View Of Times Tomorrow, Vol.1 (Saturn 527!) and, worse, there are numerous hybrid versions of Space Probe with a completely different B-Side (See, Id. for all the gory details). And that’s just the beginning of the discographical weirdness. So it goes with Sun Ra records! And that’s essentially why I feel compelled to write about this stuff—it’s the only way I can make sense of it all. Thankfully, the Art Yard label has recently reissued the original version of Space Probe in an expanded CD edition which includes unedited performances and several unissued outtakes from the era. Hooray!

The title track was recorded in August, 1969, shortly after Sun Ra purchased his first MiniMoogs, making it one of the first epic synthesizer solos he ever recorded. And it is truly epic: almost eighteen minutes of spaceship noises, cosmic bloops and bleeps and other electronic mayhem. While not as hair-raising as later live performances would be, it’s still an adventurous solar voyage and demonstrates his near-osmotic mastery of the complex technology. Michael D. Anderson, Executive Director of The Sun Ra Music Archive, makes an interesting (if somewhat garbled) statement about Ra’s electronic keyboards in his liner notes for this release:
Sunny was great in using the moog and other organs as an extension of himself reaching out into the outer spheres. This is why later in the mid 80’s when the Moog, Farfisa and the Yamaha organs were stolen in the [sic] Sunny began to strictly play piano and more standard music material. I knew that this unnoticed by others [sic] pained him. I would look at the expression on his face and you could see that he had so much more to say but was limited without the organs.
I had never heard Sun Ra’s keyboards had been stolen and Szwed makes no mention of it in his biography. I just figured he went digital like everyone else by the mid-80’s. In any event, it’s true: the big multi-keyboard freakouts were eventually abandoned by that time.

Side B of Space Probe goes in a completely different direction, consisting of two tracks recorded at the Choreographer’s Workshop in New York City on April 29, 1962. Originally, “Primitive” was just a couple of minutes of percussion jamming, but when Evidence was preparing the CD release of When Sun Comes Out, they discovered the rest of the track. Previously, I wrote:
When working with the master tape to prepare this CD in 1993, Evidence discovered an unreleased track running backwards in an unused stereo channel. On hearing the track for the first time in thirty years, John Gilmore gave it the title “Dimensions in Time” and it appears here as a bonus track. Echoing drums and tapping glass bottles underpin Gilmore’s seductively meandering bass clarinet. His tone is dark, rich and gorgeous as he weaves delightful melodies around the pitter-pattering percussion. Unfortunately, just as he reaches a climax, the track suddenly ends. As it turns out, the second part of this piece can be found on the 1974 Saturn LP entitled Space Probe. . .Entitled, “Primitive,” the track cuts in exactly where “Dimensions in Time” ends with the last few notes of Gilmore’s bass clarinet statement after which the percussion vamp continues for another couple minutes before fading out. As discrete fragments, these two pieces are a bit frustrating to listen to (despite Gilmore brilliant playing); someday I’d like to digitally rejoin these tracks to hear the complete piece in all its original glory.
Well, the engineers at Art Yard have done just that, retitling it, “Earth Primitive Earth,” and it’s sublime! The question remains: did Sun Ra deliberately edit out Gilmore’s solo, leaving only a percussion track? Or did the first half just go missing prior to 1974? If this track is compiled from the two known fragments, it is seamlessly well done—or is this the original, unedited master? Well, in my opinion, the inclusion of Gilmore’s rarely heard bass clarinet playing greatly improves the track and the album as a whole, whatever Sonny’s intentions were. Maybe he was mad at him that day…

More discographical mysteries: Originally titled, “The Conversion of J.P.”, Art Yard has retitled this track, “The Conversation of J.P.” Huh? I’m not sure if that’s a typo or if that is the real title but it certainly changes the meaning considerably! I previously wrote:
Plopping drums create a feel similar to “The Nile” with Marshall Allen’s expansive flute melody rising and falling amidst long spells of trance-inducing percussion. Then, at about the eight-minute mark, Ra enters with some incongruously gospel-ish piano chords. I guess this is the conversion happening! Ra then moves through a whole hymnal’s worth of plain, protestant harmonies before a final, insistently repeating cadence. Hallelujah! Now, who exactly is J.P? And how are we to take all this apparent proselytizing given Ra’s complicated, downright contentious relationship with the Christian church? Indeed, the tension between the pagan percussion/Pan-flute and the holy-rolling piano never quite comfortably resolves. Another curious thing about this track is that, at almost fourteen minutes, it is by far the longest stretch of continuous recorded music from this era.
Now if the real title is “The Conversation of J.P.”, well never mind. Either way, it’s a wonderful piece—but I think “The Conversion” is a more evocative and fitting title than “The Conversation.” And we still don’t know who “J.P.” is. Oh, and while the liner notes claim this version is “complete” and previously unreleased, it is actually the same as on the original album, except for perhaps a smoother fadeout at the end.

Art Yard generously fills out the rest of the CD with five previously unissued tracks recorded during the Choreographer’s Workshop period, circa. 1962-63. Two of them are mere fragments: a forty-seven second alternate take of “Circe” featuring Thea Barbara’s dramatic vocalizing and “Destiny”, thirty-three seconds of spacey piano and percussion bathed in Bugs Hunter’s reverb/echo device. The rest are more substantive: “Solar Symbols II” is an extended alternate take from When Sun Comes Out, featuring clankety cans and bottle percussion accompanying Ra’s dreamy, rhapsodic piano while “Dance Of The Wind” works in a similarly tensile, polyrhythmic fashion, with the plodding hand drums pushing and pulling against Ra’s increasingly enervated keyboarding. Finally, “Recollections of There” again features Thea Barbara, who wordlessly intones a modal melody with Sun Ra’s densely figured piano and sparse, eerie percussion. Ra is playing at an astonishing level of virtuosity here (albeit on a beat-up, out-of tune piano). At the core of the piece is a fleeting chord sequence which appears just as quickly dissolves into controlled abandon, Sonny tossing off spiky, ten-fingered polyphony across the entire range of the instrument. It’s quite a display and reminder that he was an extraordinarily gifted and visionary pianist.

Ultimately, Space Probe is something of a mixed bag—a fact that is reflected in its unstable discographical history. The title track is a wild synth space-out—but not something I want to listen to every day. However, the Choreographer’s Workshop stuff is where it’s at for me. There is a certain vibe to those recordings—the sound, the ambience, the relaxed, experimental approach—that was never quite replicated as the Arkestra became more professional and routinized. Those recordings are magical, even if they sometimes fail to cohere musically. Even the tiniest fragments offered on this expanded CD reissue are tantalizing to listen to, full of promise. So for me, this is an essential purchase (the complete “Primitive” and “The Conversion of J.P” are classic tracks, whatever the titles). But the merely curious should consider starting elsewhere and go from there.

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