July 17, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Arkestra:
At the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival in Exile 1974: It Is Forbidden (Alive!/Total Energy CD

The Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival had enjoyed increasing commercial success in its first three years and promoter John Sinclair made sure to prominently feature Sun Ra’s Arkestra ever since their triumphant appearances in 1972 and 1973. So, by all appearances, 1974 was looking to be more of the same—only better—with a lineup including such heavyweights as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Cecil Taylor (!) along with the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, headlining the event. Ra’s Impulse! albums had started hitting the stores earlier in the year, garnering favorable press. Moreover, there were plans for a sixteen-track recording and a film documentary of the festival; this was going to be a big opportunity for the band.

However, it was not to be. A mere six weeks before opening night, the Ann Arbor City Council denied Sinclair’s Rainbow Multimedia organization the requisite permit, citing their failure to clean up the festival site in 1973. Sinclair admits: “The clean-up problem was troubling” (liner notes). The crew had effectively gone on strike after the payroll money disappeared in a “multi-ton marijuana deal that, unhappily for all, failed to come off” (Id.). But there was more to it than that: political machinations were actively seeking to undermine his plans. Sinclair’s Rainbow People’s Party, itself an outgrowth of the notorious White Panthers, was splintering into competing factions and its influence (modest as it was) had precipitously declined in the municipal power struggle. “The Establishment” was fighting back against the hippies and, as a result, the 1974 Blues & Jazz Festival was simply not going to be allowed to happen—at least not in Ann Arbor.

“It Is Forbidden,” the City of Ann Arbor ruled in July, and pandemonium reigned for several days until the festival organizers were invited to bring the banned event across the Detroit River and into the lovely outdoor amphitheater at St. Clair College in Windsor, Ontario … Canada. Radio powerhouse CKLW-AM agreed to serve as sponsor of the event, pledging lots of free ad spots, and the Canadians waxed enthusiastic in their professions of support for the orphaned music festival (Id.).

Not surprisingly, it was a bust—literally. Ticket sales were thin while crowds of would-be festival goers were turned back at the “fiercely guarded border”(Id.)—including Sinclair himself, who was detained while escorting the Arkestra through Canadian customs. Ultimately, he was deported on the basis of his 1969 marijuana conviction (also the subject of John Lennon’s eponymous song, which really didn't help things). “This marked a major turning point in my life,” according to Sinclair:

I went back to my room in the Shelby Hotel Friday afternoon and watched myself talk to a television news reporter who had covered the impromptu deportation proceedings. As I witnessed the farthest-out group of characters I had ever seen in America being allowed entry into Canada while I was turned back as “too far out,” I was struck hard with the realization that I my public persona as dope fiend, ex-convict and virulent revolutionary agitator had now cut me off from the participating in the most important event in my career as a music promoter (Id.).

Needless to say, the festival lost untold amounts of money and the planned record and feature film never materialized when the master tapes were “quite reasonably withheld” by their recordists after payment was not forthcoming (Id.). Sadly, these tapes seem to have disappeared for good. Nevertheless, Sun Ra’s sixty-four minute set on Friday, September 6, was preserved on a cassette tape recorded from the soundboard and was released on Sinclair’s Alive!/Total Energy label as Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Arkestra at the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival in Exile 1974: It Is Forbidden (NER 3029-2) in 2001. Accustomed, perhaps, to their sub-underground status, Sonny and the band were not dissuaded by the small crowd or the tense backstage atmosphere and deliver a typically committed performance while they “visualized their paychecks floating off into the darkening gloom” (Id.).

The opening improvisation is particularly intense, with pummeling percussion, pealing trumpets, skronky blasts of saxophone and Nepunian libflecto—and some crazed, psycho-delic guitar from Dave Williams, whose nastily distorted, wah-wah-infused tone brings to mind the sort of dark, metallic funk Miles Davis was brewing up with Pete Cosey during this period. Wild! After about thirteen minutes, the strutting baritone sax riffs of “Discipline 27” emerge from the chaos. But while bassist, Reginald “Shoo-Be-Doo” Fields, tries his best to hold down the odd-metered groove, Clifford Jarvis is his usual hyperactive self, overplaying the drums and nearly derailing the tune. Oh well; with no one quite able to navigate an effective solo, they quickly give way to one of Sun Ra’s jaw-droppingly awesome “mad scientist” synthesizer and organ displays. A throbbing space chord yields more group improvisation (led by Hadi’s trumpet) before Sonny signals “Love In Outer Space” and it’s the usual, groovy thing, but marred by a wonky, drum-heavy mix. Still, it’s a pleasant romp. After a brief, spooky organ intro, the band launches into “The Shadow World” at maximum velocity, yet they perfectly execute the tricky, interlocking melodies—even as the rhythm section suddenly drops out. Wow! Then Gilmore takes over with a fearsome tenor sax solo, accompanied by chattering electronics and bashing drums, followed by Hadi’s high-wire acrobatics and a brief arco segment from Fields, all of which receives a round a polite applause from the intrepid crowd.

Ra abruptly changes gears, cueing up the chanting and carrying on of “Space Is The Place.” By now, Jarvis is tremendously overexcited, just chomping at the bit; but Sonny keeps him on a short leash. As June Tyson exclaims, “The Second Stop Is Jupiter!,” all hell breaks loose, with one of the Space Ethnic Vocalists (either Judith Holton or Cheryl Banks) doing her terrifying, Yoko-styled shrieking. Yikes! Even so, Jarvis is denied his usual overlong drum solo as the heaving chords of “Discipline 27-II” set the stage for Ra’s rhetorical question: “What Planet Is This?” Fortunately, the declamations last only a few minutes before he moves to acoustic piano for a lovely rendition of “Images,” Fields and Jarvis locking into the jaunty, slightly old-fashioned rhythms and the Arkestra delivering a full-throated rendition of the tune. Excellent! Ebah finally gets an extended turn at the mic, his mellow, slightly smeared sound a nice contrast to Hadi’s forthright virtuosity. Gilmore follows, picking up on Ebah’s staggered phrasing and gradually builds up to a thrilling climax of impossibly fast runs, multiphonic glossolalia, and heart-stopping altissimo squealing. Yes, folks, it’s another mind-blowingly incredible John Gilmore solo! Truly, what more (or less) can I say? Just stunning.

Then the Arkestra premieres a new composition, “It Is Forbidden,” possibly written in honor of the doomed festival (and likely never performed again, that is until its posthumous resurrection in 1996 (Campbell & Trent, p.763)). As Ra pounds out a repetitive diatonic chord sequence, the band gleefully sings their heads off: “It is forbidden, it’s strictly forbidden to touch on the tree of the knowledge of the good and evil!” It’s tempting to hear this as a gentle rebuke to Sinclair and his muddle-headed politics, but I could just be projecting. “Watusi” follows and Jarvis is finally given his opportunity to wail, though tempered by myriad other percussionists and the spectacle of dancers. And again, Sonny keeps things short, calling for the reprise of the head after only a few minutes. “Sun Ra And His Band From Outer Space” happily concludes the set with a quick chant and some outer spaceship synthesizer noise. What few people who were able to attend the ill-fated festival certainly sound appreciative; they erupt into loud cheering and clapping after it is all over. Or perhaps they were just excited about James Brown.

This was the last Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival for twenty years, until the City Council finally relented and the festival was reborn in 1992—and without Sinclair’s involvement. With his organization in tatters at the end of 1974, Sinclair abandoned political activism and artist management for “less grueling pursuits,” such as journalism, poetry and grant writing (Id.). Undoubtedly, Sonny lamented the loss of a rare high-profile performance opportunity here in North America, but, in the end, it was just another gig. Two nights later, the Arkestra appeared at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago on September 8, 1974, playing a very different sort of set (which I wrote about (prematurely) here).

It Is Forbidden is perhaps the most musically satisfying of the three CDs released on Sinclair’s Alive/Total Energy label and, seeing as they are all now out of print, it is the one most worth seeking out, in my opinion. The sound quality is decent and the performance, while somewhat truncated, is mostly first-rate. Heck, “Images” alone makes this one worth the cost of admission! But it should be noted that all three feature extensive (if self-congratulatory) liner notes from Sinclair and wonderful photographs of the concerts by his wife, Leni; so, all are well worth having as a historical document. But this is the one I’m more likely to pull off the shelf. My only quibble is their continued failure to index any of the titles on the disc, requiring an hour-long commitment from the listener. Well, maybe that’s the way it should be heard: with commitment, with Ra-like discipline, as it happened in real time. Highly recommended.

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