May 1, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Out Beyond The Kingdom Of (Saturn 61674 LP)

By 1974, the Impulse! deal was starting to bear fruit, with almost a dozen LPs coming out during the course of the year, including several reissues from the old Saturn catalog. In addition, the Saturn label had been resurrected and new releases were being pressed in tiny editions for sale at gigs and at select record stores. Given the fact that all this product was suddenly flooding the marketplace, it is not surprising very few new recordings were made during the year. Much like 1973, 1974 is rather sparsely documented (relatively speaking), but most of what’s there is worth a listen.

In Feburary, shortly before Sonny’s sixtieth birthday, the Arkestra travelled to Mexico for an extended tour at the invitation of the Ministry of Culture—an invitation which dated back to the Fête de l’Humanité fiasco in September 1973, where Sun Ra’s music quelled a near riot and allowed for a triumphant performance of Ballet Folklórico de Mexico. While the musicians were given “plush accommodations,” by the grateful Mexican government, the musician’s union protested and prohibited them from performing—as musicians. The Actors Union interceded and the shows went on as “Sun Ra and His Cosmo Drama.” Szwed writes: “Sun Ra told the band that an earthquake would even the score, and later it was said that the Union’s office building had been leveled [in 1985]” (p.338). The Arkestra stayed in Mexico two or three months, playing two concerts at the Pallacio de Bellas Artes, a two-week stand at the Teatro Hidalgo, as well as concerts at Chapultepec Park (“where they played on a little island while people rowed around them in boats”) (Id.), the University of Mexico, and in front of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán. The Arkestra also appeared on TV in Mexico City on Siempre en Domingo, “a variety show rather like Ed Sullivan’s” (Campbell & Trent, p.206). According to Francisco “Ali” Mora, a Mexican drummer who joined the band during the tour, concert tapes probably exist (Id.) but no recordings have surfaced to date.

On June 16, the Arkestra performed at Hunter College in New York City and the concert was recorded, possibly by the college itself (the sound quality is remarkably good). Portions were compiled by Ra for release as Out Beyond The Kingdom Of (Saturn 61674) later in the year (although some copies are titled Discipline 99) (Id.). The first thing you notice is the school has provided Sonny with a decent grand piano, and he relishes in the opportunity to tickle the ivories. “Discipline 99” is given a stately, confident reading by the band and features a long piano solo, alternating pretty harmonies with flurries of dissonant tone clusters. The following medley of old standards (an impossibly romantic ballad, “How Am I To Know?” and the up-tempo, “(Keep Your) Sunnyside Up”) allows Ra to show off his inimitable, inside/outside comping skills behind John Gilmore’s big-hearted, languorously swinging tenor solos. “How Am I To Know?” is a thing of rare beauty and the presence of Ronnie Boykins on bass and Clifford Jarvis on trap drums gives new life and humor to the old-fashioned rhythms of “(Keep Your) Sunnyside Up.” Good stuff!—and a harbinger of things to come: a mini-set of jazz standards would increasingly become a fixture of the Arkestra’s live sets as the ‘70s rolled on.

Side two shifts gears, with an emphasis on space chants and ensemble freak-outs and is, frankly, a lot less interesting to my jaded ears. But to be fair, this record must be considered in context, as a historical artifact. An obsessive collector in the year 2011 will have heard these routines many times before, but in 1974, live recordings were scarce. Sonny was shrewdly filling the gap, documenting the Arkestra’s current show for eager fans. Considered in that light, Out Beyond The Kingdom Of was exactly what it needed to be: a souvenir you could take home with you from the Cosmo Drama. As such, side two is fun, with June Tyson and Ankh Tal Ebah at their soulful, hortatory best and Boykins and Jarvis keep things grooving nicely. The highlight is “Cosmos Synthesis,” a wild group improvisation for horns and free-bashing rhythm section which stays heavy longer than usual. But Sun Ra himself is inaudible for most of the side until the very end of “Journey To Saturn,” when some spooky organ chords fade up and fade down.

For me, Out Beyond The Kingdom Of is a half-great album, with side one being of particular interest to Rafficianadoes. Unfortunately, it is way out of print and the “needle-drop” which circulates is a less-than-perfect transfer (though I’m certainly glad to have it). I wonder if other tapes from this concert exist? If so, it would be a good candidate for an expanded CD edition (see below). In any event, it deserves an official release, despite my antipathy to side two.


Prof. Campbell describes two different audience recordings made at this concert. One is ninety-five minutes long and contains most of the first set and the end of the second. The other tape is purported to be over a hundred minutes long and more complete (see pp.206-209). I have a copy of “Tape 1,” and it’s a typical bootleg and suffers from the usual sonic defects: veils of hiss, a boomy and distant acoustic, plenty of extraneous noise and distortion, etc. Nevertheless, it’s not completely unlistenable and contains some interesting music. Any opportunity to hear the Boykins/Jarvis rhythm section is worth the effort.

After the brief opening improvisation and a series of space chants, “Tapestry From An Asteroid” sets the stage for a full-scale freak-out from the Arkestra, culminating in an outrageous alto sax solo from Marshall Allen. Despite the clouded sound, this is still very impressive. A strutting “Discipline 27” is marred by a typically overlong drum solo from Jarvis, made worse by the noise and distortion on the tape. Ugh. With that out of the way, Boykins then picks up the bow for a beautiful unaccompanied solo joined later by Ra on Rocksichord before moving into a long, spacey synthesizer outing. Sadly, as the texture thickens and the Arkestra joins in, the wretched sound quality almost completely obscures the details of what’s going on. Well, the audience liked it and they offer a nice round of applause before the band launches into “Enlightenment.” It’s the usual thing, but with Allen’s flute counter-melodies coming through sharp and clear for a change. The percussion barrage of “Love In Outer Space” is reduced to a dull roar on the tape, with Sonny’s metallic organ comping occasionally peeking through the din. It’s tough going, but when Kwami Hadi comes in just at the right time with the aching, long-toned melody, it almost makes it worth the while. Almost.

The tape then picks up in the middle of “The Satellites Are Spinning,” June Tyson with her all-male chorus soulfully singing it and Boykins laying down some heavy-duty bass riffs. Ra then interjects some “mad-scientist” keyboard inventions before they venture off into “The Shadow World.” It’s a fractured, abstract version: the insistent ostinato is only hinted at while the full ensemble sections are not actually stated. Instead, John Gilmore erupts into a ferocious tenor sax solo as if he’d been waiting all night for this moment. He is ready to play! Yes, ladies and gentlemen: it’s another incredible Gilmore solo! Too bad the sound is so funky. Then Danny Davis does his thing on the Neptunian Lipflecto and it gets a big rise out of the audience. Just as Hadi starts to play, the tape cuts off. Then we pick up with “Angels And Demons At Play,” which, like “Love In Outer Space,” suffers from exceptionally bad sound. Finally, we have “How Am I To Know” and “(Keep Your) Sunnyside Up” as heard on Out Beyond The Kingdom Of (but in significantly worse sound quality).

I have a second disc which supposedly contains part two of “Tape 1,” but since it consists of overlapping music recorded from different (inferior) source, I am confused. Is this part of “Tape 2” or is it something else? Whatever it is, it sounds atrocious, like the microphone was stuffed down the recordist’s pants. We get “How Am I To Know” and “(Keep Your) Sunnyside Up” again, only this one is more complete with solos from Hadi, Pat Patrick on baritone sax, Ra on piano and Boykins arco before the reprise of “Sunnyside.” Or at least I think that’s what’s happening; it’s kind of hard to tell. An unidentified title has all the earmarks of a “Discipline” number: densely arranged horn figures in sweet and sour harmony over interlocking bass and baritone sax riffs. Very interesting—yet another lost Ra composition (and a nice flugelhorn solo from Ebah)—too bad the recording sucks. “Sun Ra And His Band From Outer Space” ends the tape (and the set) with a thud.

I can’t really recommend these bootleg recordings to anyone except the most obsessed Sun Ra fanatic. There is some fascinating music here, but it only makes me want to hear an expanded, remastered Out Beyond The Kingdom Of. Here’s hoping those tapes still exist and some intrepid label will make it happen.


Sam said...

One thing that rally struck me again on reading this: Sun Ra was already 60 by 1973, and still had 20 years of playing ahead of him! What an amazing accomplishment. Life certainly wasn't over at 40 for him!

Nice write-up, as always. I'm with you on the side 1 vs. side 2 thing, but it is helpful to look at it in context, as you point out.

paul w. said...

hi rodger,

i've just read your very interesting opinions and review of "out beyond the kingdom of...". let me give you my opinion on this record. i like most of sun ra recordings very much, especially the most avant-garde/free-jazz pieces. i have all or almost all of the officially released records. and i'm sorry but i don't like "out beyond" at all... my opinion on it is so bad that i excluded this record from my sun ra collection and i put it into other house where i keep obsolete things. i have several reasons for it - the music isn't interested from my point of view, the sound on the LP is very so-so, i can't find even the interesting free solo parts and sun ra is almost inaudible for the part of the LP. i think that about 150 sun ra official records are much better than this one.

keep your sun ra sundays alive, they are great. it was after reading your opinions on sun ra bootlegs from the red garter 1970-07, j.p. widney los angeles 1971-06-12 and stockholm 1971-10-12 that i started looking for them and finally got them all.

best regards.

paul w.