June 26, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Jazz Showcase, Chicago, IL 9-08-74 (AUD CDR)

The Arkestra was apparently quite active in the fall of 1974, including a two-week stand at the “new” Five Spot in New York. Four-hour sets were the norm and, according to witnesses, “the band books carried by the musicians were thick as two phone books; except for a few numbers like ‘Watusi,’ many otherwise unknown compositions were played along with some 1950s pieces and few were repeated” (Campbell & Trent p.215). Sadly, there are no known tapes from this legendary engagement. However, we do have this sixty-minute audience recording from Chicago’s Jazz Showcase on September 8, which hints at the Arkestra’s expanding repertoire during this period. The (mono) sound quality is typically awful—but it is by no means the worst sounding tape we’ve had to suffer through during this project. Despite the obvious sonic flaws, it’s a terrific performance well worth hearing.

“Images” dates back to 1958 and Sun Ra’s first Saturn LP, Jazz In Silhouette, and is here given an extended reading, including a dramatic piano intro which moves from ominous rumblings to skittering dissonances before settling into the slightly old-fashioned swing rhythms and chord changes of the piece itself. The Arkestra enters with the subtly off-center big-band arrangement, the saxes and trumpets filled out with flutes and piccolo. Kwame Hadi solos first, but John Gilmore steals the show with a series of increasingly expressionistic choruses, demonstrating his mastery of both pre- and post-bop tenor stylings. Just gorgeous. Then Ra takes a weirdly “inside-out” solo before the band returns with the oblong coda.

“Somewhere Else” is similarly structured, with another lengthy piano introduction before the band comes out and struts its stuff. Besides Akh Tal Ebah and Hadi, a mysterious third trumpet player can be heard. Chicagoan Phil Cohran seems a likely candidate, but Prof. Campbell says it’s not him (Id. p.213). There’s also a bassist present—his big tone and fleet soloing almost brings to mind the inimitable Ronnie Boykins, but it’s obviously someone else, whose identity is unknown (Id.). At almost twenty minutes, just about everyone gets a chance in the spotlight on this medium groover, including all three trumpeters, Marshall Allen and Danny Davis on alto sax, Gilmore on tenor, our unidentified bassist (who earns a nice ovation) and, of course, Ra himself.

“Discipline 27” is given a focused reading – with some jazzy electric guitar audible (possibly Dale Williams). Ebah acquits himself admirably, but again, Gilmore upstages him with another incredibly inventive and precisely articulated tenor outing. Ra moves to organ for “Outer Spaceways Incorporated,” almost drowning out June Tyson and the Space Ethnic Voices with its electronic roar. But he eventually drops back and the sound clears up considerably. Of course, it’s the usual thing, if a little restrained—until Allen (or is it Davis? I have a hard time telling them apart sometimes) steps up with a blistering solo on alto sax before the reprise. Ra’s groaning organ chords also threaten to overwhelm the delicate “Lights on a Satellite,” mostly obscuring the intricate counterpoint of flutes, trumpets and saxophones. Regardless, you can tell the Arkestra is tight and well-rehearsed: it’s a note-perfect performance, short and to the point; beautiful, in spite of the dreadful sound quality.

Sonny introduces “Barbizon” as an original piece he wrote “in France, near Fontainbleau, an artists’ colony” and it’s another brief but elaborately orchestrated, through-composed work, devoid of any opportunity for improvisation. The dirgey, sweet’n’sour harmonies and tense voicings remind me of the early “Discipline” numbers and, like those works, “Barbizon” was only sporadically performed. That seems a shame, as it is another fascinating composition demonstrating Ra’s mastery of unusual forms and creative arrangement. Then again, the audience doesn’t quite know what to make of it. Is this “jazz?” No—it’s something else altogether.

Ra again steps up to the microphone to introduce “The Shadow World,” offering a clue to its meaning:

The next song is entitled, ‘Shadow World.’ To me, the Earth is a place of shadows and dreams and not the reality of the cosmos. This ‘shadow world’ concerns the potential of humanity and not the reality, which I have to reject.

He hammers out the organ ostinato at a fast clip and the horns rip through the complexly hocketed melodies with fearsome intensity. Hadi solos over boiling percussion but quickly drops out. Then Gilmore takes over and—well, yes, it’s another a cappella blowout, but a particularly inspired one. Ra attempts to steer him back to the head, but Gilmore will have nothing of it. He continues to blow his brains out, ranging across the entire register of the horn (and beyond), capping it off with an astonishing display of multiphonic pyrotechnics. Wow! Gilmore is on fire! This elicits several outbursts of whooping and hollering and stunned applause when he finally finishes. Not even five minutes long, this is probably one of the shortest performances of “The Shadow World” ever, but boy is it ever potent! “Space Is The Place” follows, but, unfortunately, the tape cuts off after only a minute and a half. Oh well.

Aside from Gilmore’s outstanding soloing (will he ever get the credit he deserves?), what’s interesting about this set is how tightly controlled it is. Foregoing the usual long, open improvisations, freewheeling medleys and cosmic pageantry, the Arkestra is on a fairly short leash. Sonny's straight-faced spoken intros are also highly unusual. Whether it was the venue’s posh ambience or simply a measure of Sun Ra’s developing professionalism, these discrete performances are taut, lean and immediately appealing. Of course, it’s quite possible the rest of the set was completely off the hook. But it is clear Sun Ra was continuing to refine his vision and, next time, we’ll listen in on a lengthy rehearsal session from later in the year, which provides some insight into his peculiarly effective working methods.


UPDATE: This was written out of order. Two nights before this gig, the Arkestra performed at the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival in Exile, documented on It Is Forbidden. John Sinclair identifies the bass player as Reginald "Shooby-Doo" Fields and the guitarist is definitely Williams. I apologize for the confusion.

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