September 11, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Smiling Dog Saloon, Cleveland, OH 1-30-75 (FM CDR)

A month later, the Arkestra found itself far removed from the mild and mellow California climate, shivering in the brutal cold of a mid-western winter. A gig at the Smiling Dog Saloon in Cleveland, OH on January 30, 1975 was broadcast by WMMS-FM and preserved on this sixty-minute recording but the band sounds a bit ragged, exhausted, perhaps, by the long-distance travel and inclement weather. Sadly, they never quite seem to get warmed up. But somewhere along the way, Sonny has picked up a hotshot bass-player, whose identity is unknown (see Campbell & Trent p.218). Whoever it is, he provides an unusually funky bottom-end to the proceedings. The Arkestra had to make do without a bassist at many shows during this period (particularly after the final departure of the inimitable Ronnie Boykins in mid-1974) making the rhythm section sound thin and incomplete, so the presence of the bass is always a welcome addition during this period (even if it isn’t the best show ever). Audio quality is pretty good (especially compared to other “bootlegs” we’ve been listening to recently) suffering more from careless microphone placement and poor balance than subsequent generational loss (my copy indicates the original broadcast was recorded to reel-to-reel, with only one cassette generation prior to being converted to digital). For better or worse, our anonymous bassist is certainly mixed front and center throughout!

After an introduction from the resident DJ, Ra fingers a dissonant organ chord before launching into “Astro Nation.” Loud electric bass anchors the groove and though he tends to overplay, he never loses the beat. The whole band joins in on the weirdly assymetrical chant , clapping and singing as they traipse around the nightclub with vocalist/dancer Eddie Thomas (a/k/a Thomas Thaddeus) adding some soulful yelps and moans. But it goes on for far too long without anything happening, ending with a desultory space chord. I’m sure it was a visual spectacle if nothing else. Sonny teases “Love In Outer Space” before changing his mind and queuing up “Enlightenment” in a new, rhythmically clipped vocal arrangement, ending a cappella. Sort of interesting, but nothing special. Then “Love In Outer Space” follows, propelled by Ra’s BBQ organ comping. Curiously, the theme is never played and after a few minutes, Ra drops out completely, leaving spacey African percussion and handclaps. Eventually, the organ vamp returns, accompanied by some bleating horns, but it ends inconclusively.

“Theme of the Stargazers” and “The Satellites Are Spinning” are presented as a brisk medley and is nicely sung by the band—but the audience doesn’t quite know what to make of it. When it ends, there’s total silence, not even a smattering of applause! Undeterred, Sonny brings up the pulsing drone of “Friendly Galaxy No.2” joined by the electric bass and, later, by pealing trumpets. The mellifluous flutes are woefully off-mic but a ringing vibraphone is crystal clear (presumably Damon Choice). But then Sonny steps up to pontificate, riffing on “I Am The Brother The Wind” and “I, Pharoah.” Here we go again! The unbalanced recording combined with an uncharacteristically subdued performance is disappointing: rather than hypnotic, it is merely boring. Oh well. Next up is a long keyboard solo which also seems to be less than totally inspired. It’s the usual spaceship synthesizer noises and dissonant organ clusters and the fact that the tape repeatedly fades up and down (and cuts in and out) doesn’t really help matters very much. However, after about seven minutes, Sonny speeds up the cheesy “rhythm machine” on his organ and plays along briefly, a hint of Disco 3000 to come!

Finally, we get a very strange rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” Opening with a skronky free-improv (led by Kwami Hadi’s trumpet), Ra quickly moves to (distant-sounding) acoustic piano for a rhapsodic intro, sprinkling thunderous pounding with pretty, impressionistic harmonies. Then he goes into the slightly-old fashioned rhythms of the tune, taken at a lugubrious tempo and accompanied by walking (well, plodding) bass. The Akrestra comes in, sounding slightly shaky on the arrangement led by John Gilmore’s tenor saxophone, whose breathy tone evokes Ben Webster in his prime. Akh Tal Ebah takes a nice, smeary solo on trumpet accompanied by riffing saxophones before giving way to Gilmore. Unfortunately, this is not one of Gilmore’s better efforts, with halting, incoherent phrasing and wobbly intonation. Well, it just goes to show the guy was not super- human. But then Sonny and Thomas start mumbling and crooning the rarely-heard lyrics about the seemingly “sophisticated lady” who cries alone at home. But their mocking attitude is somewhat shocking as they cruelly taunt: “boo-hoo, boo-hoo for you!” After fourteen tedious minutes, the arrangement collapses into a clumsy ritardando and, mercifully, sputters to an end. Huh. Revivals of big band classics were to become a regular feature of Arkestra concerts from here on out, but there was never another performance of “Sophisticated Lady” quite like this—and that’s a good thing.

Interestingly, the circulating CDR contains two additional tracks not listed in the discography, but they are most certainly from another (unknown) performance: the ambience is completely different, in front of a large audience, possibly outdoors. Also, there’s considerable hiss and distortion—and the presence of trombones on the bandstand. Probably recorded in the mid-‘70s sometime, I have no idea where this is from. Anyone know? “Calling Planet Earth” features some intense group improvisation, but the recording is so overloaded, it’s hard to hear what’s going on and “Space Is The Place” is the typical chanting, dancing and carrying on that rarely translates well to tape. Whatever the provenance, this ten-minute fragment is hardly worth mentioning, but there it is. These “mystery tracks” are not really much of a bonus.

So the Smiling Dog Saloon gig was an off night for the Arkestra; too bad, since it’s a decent-sounding recording for the period. Hardcore fanatics and completists will want this but everyone else would be better off looking elsewhere for that Sun Ra magic.


Sam said...

Yeah, I have to agree with you on this one--it's lackluster, and the plodding bass (a local addition, maybe?) helps ruin it for me. "Sophisticated Lady" is by far the most interesting thing here, and that just barely. The arrangement is pretty close to what they were rehearsing on "Dance of the Living Image," but it doesn't help that you can hardly hear the drums, and the bass is overdone. Gilmore's solo is not as off as you say, though---it's got some nice lyrical parts. But it's not transcendent, which you can certainly say for 99.9% of his solos.

Rodger Coleman said...

@ Sam -- I guess that's it. I was hoping for transcendent and got merely fluent. Or something. The whole band sounds out of sorts to me on this. It would be nicer if you could hear the drums and not just the bass!