November 6, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: The “New” Five Spot, New York, NY 6-11-75 (AUD CDR)

Over the past couple of years, Sun Ra had introduced a few Swing-Era jazz standards into the Arkestra’s live sets but, for the most part, they were loosely arranged and casually executed. By 1975, this repertoire would suddenly become an integral part of every live performance, with “mini-sets” of historical big-band numbers, expertly re-orchestrated and performed with astounding authenticity. Szwed suggests that this was a shrewd business maneuver as much as anything:

It was a move both oppositional and prescient: he had seen the limits of the avant-garde, and sensing a shift beginning in American sensibilities, he was unwilling to give up the large audiences he had drawn (p.338).

Indeed, the free jazz scene had virtually disintegrated, at least in the United States. While it might have seemed like a good idea for Impulse! to sign Sun Ra to a multi-album deal back in 1972, by 1975 it was a bust and the records were deleted and sold off as “cut-outs,” thereby depriving Ra of any royalities otherwise due him. Accordingly, Ra’s revival of the standard jazz repertoire might seem to anticipate the rise of 1980s conservatism and the shallow, “well-dressed jazz” of Wynton Marsalis and his ilk. But Sun Ra was deeply affected by the recent deaths of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (Id. p.337) and it must be remembered he was also of that era. Ra was by now in his sixties, much older than most of the members of the Arkestra and his growing audience of college students and urban hipsters. Moreover, I’m not sure this old-timey music had much commercial appeal at the time—it certainly took me a while to come around to liking it, much preferring the wild spacey stuff. Instead, I believe Sun Ra’s intention was mostly pedagogical, to teach his musicians and audience about this beautiful, highly disciplined music that was in danger of disappearing into the past (or coopted and smoothed over for contemporary, postmodern tastes).

This monophonic audience recording from The “New” Five Spot in New York City on June 11, 1975 opens with a fully-developed “mini-set” of Big-Band era classics and, unlike the loosey-goosey renditions previously heard, the Arkestra sounds super-tight and thoroughly well-rehearsed. When they tear through this old repertoire, they sound rough-and-ready and totally into it! This is probably how this stuff actually sounded on roadside bandstands during its glory years of the 1920s and ‘30s—it is more than just “authentic,” it’s real. The recording's primitive sound quality simultaneously enhances and detracts from the listening experience. On the one hand, the hissy mono recording sounds like it’s from a distant time-zone, an intergalactic transmission faintly audible on our humble earthbound receiver units. Nevertheless, it sure would be nice to hear this in high fidelity! Well, we take what can get and this one is a keeper, despite its sonic flaws. Sonny rhapsodizes on “Yesterdays” at the piano for a few minutes before Gilmore solemnly announces: “And now, Duke Ellington’s 'Lightnin’'!”—and they’re totally smoking, with Ra turning in a rollicking piano solo. Ellington’s “Slippery Horn” from 1932 is presented in an unusual arrangement with Robert Northern taking the lead on French horn (!) and Gilmore making a rare appearance on clarinet. Just lovely! Finally, the “mini-set” ends with a romantic piano interlude and a rip-snorting “King Porter Stomp.” Gilmore helpfully informs the crowd it was “composed by Jelly Roll Morton and arranged by Fletcher Henderson.” Taken at a slightly more relaxed tempo than later versions, the performance is confident and assured with newcomer Ahmed Abdullah coming through with a weirdly swinging trumpet solo. In all, a scintillating ten-minute history lesson from the Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

The rest is more typical of the era, but played at an extremely high level. Notable is the presence of a very fine bassist, whose identity is, sadly, unknown. Although Prof. Campbell suggests Ronnie Boykins or John Ore could be present (p. 218), I’m not so sure it’s either one of them. Whoever it is, he confidently holds down the groove on a lengthy jam on “Moonship Journey,” which moves through a series of space chants/songs including “Third Heaven,” “Journey to Saturn” and “Outer Space Employment Agency” without ever losing a beat. A dramatic synthesizer solo leads into “The Shadow World,” always a welcome occurrence. After blazing through the hyper-complicated head, everyone gets a chance to solo—including Northern’s French horn—but Gilmore steals the show with a ferocious outburst of saxophone pyrotechnics. Yes, it’s another amazing Gilmore solo! After a quick reprise, the set concludes with “Space Is The Place,” but cuts off just as it starts to get going. Oh well. Interestingly, my copy tacks on “Space Is The Place/We Roam The Cosmos” from the side-B of What’s New. Aside from a slight change in sound quality and volume level, the ambience and energy of the performance fits right in with the rest of the “New” Five Spot show—the unknown bass player certainly sounds the same. Could this be from the same gig? Is this “bootleg” actually an on-stage recording copied from Sonny’s stash, another “Lost Reel”? Who knows? In any event, this track works better in the context of an entire set than as a stand-alone (and far too brief) album side, making it a satisfying bit of filler.

Despite the less-than-perfect sound quality, this “bootleg” recording is worth hearing, if only for the expertly performed “mini-set” of obscure jazz classics and spectacular version of “The Shadow World.” That it may also contain the missing material from What’s New just makes it all the more tantalizing.

1 comment:

Sam said...

Interesting notion, Rodger, that the "What's New" material is a continuation of the Five Spot set. They do sound very similar conceptually. RLC does cite two different dates for the material, and typically I see no need to second-guess the dates assigned. "Lightnin'" and "Slippery Horn" are two brilliant 30s-era Ellington pieces--I wish Ra had returned to them a bit more often than he did some of the more overplayed Fletcher tunes like "Yeah Man!" But yeah, the band sounds well-rehearsed and ready to roll on these numbers here, and boy do they swing!