November 13, 2011
Sun Ra Sunday
Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Jordan Hall, Boston, MA December 1975 (AUD CDR)
Ah, The New England Conservatory of Music, NEC, my alma mater (of sorts), otherwise known by my cohorts at the time as “The Disturbatory” or “Not Exactly College” (among other amusing epithets). It’s frankly hard to imagine Sun Ra and his spaced-out, ragtag Arkestra gracing the stage at Jordan Hall in December 1975. But although NEC was (and always will be) a bastion of stuffed-shirted classical music snobbery, its president at the time was Gunther Schuller, who was hip enough to allow Ran Blake to start the “Third Stream” department (where weirdoes like me were admitted) and encouraged the development of a “jazz” curriculum to compete with the Berklee College of Music down the street. So I guess it’s not so surprising that Sonny was invited to perform in one of the most acoustically perfect concert halls in the country—not that you would know it from the sound of this primitive audience recording. Gosh, it sounds awful! Hissy, warbly, distorted, unbalanced and, to make matters worse, most tracks cut off with a loud pop. Ugh! Upon close listening, it seems the original master might have sounded decent, but generational loss has obliterated what fidelity there was. Still, you can still hear Ra on his best behavior in this prestigious venue, introducing some well-rehearsed new material and keeping the polemical excesses in check.
The seventy-one minute tape (unlisted in Campbell & Trent) contains almost a complete set, cutting in on the opening improvisation which features Marshall Allen’s keening oboe over ominous percussion. Suddenly, Ra queues “Love In Outer Space” with some blasting organ chords—but the taper apparently didn’t care for this tune (or experienced technical difficulties) as the recording cuts off just as it gets going. Oh well. Eddie Thomas announces “Images” and, after a moody organ introduction, the tune takes off at brisk tempo. Kwami Hadi was out of the band at this point so the high-trumpet part has been assumed by Ahmed Abdullah and he takes a long, winding solo over several choruses. The hotshot bass player we heard at The "New" Five Spot is still present, holding down the swinging rhythm section and closely following Abdullah as he takes it increasingly “out” and deftly leading the band through the reprise of the head. A stellar tour de force from Abdullah and Mr. Anonymous! Not to be outdone, John Gilmore takes over—a cappella at that—doing his best post-Coltrane tenor thing. Without missing a beat, the rhythm section slips in behind him and, supported by Ra’s piano, he really starts to fly! Yep—another incredible Gilmore solo! Get used to it! Ra follows with some impressionistic piano, showing off his underappreciated keyboard skills before the Arkestra returns with the finale. A superb rendition of this classic tune—too bad it sounds so crappy!
Sonny then moves to the Rocksichord, to which he’s attached a whooshing phase-shifter—a sound that would dominate the Cosmos album the following summer (one of my favorite Ra albums of all time). This unknown title would have fit right in on that record, opening with a long introduction from Ra that moves from pretty, modal chords to roiling, industrial dissonances and back again before the band comes in with a stately melody. With its lumbering rhythms and sweet’n’sour harmonies, the piece brings to mind the Discipline series of compositions but with the relaxed, languid feel of Ra’s hypnotically grooving space ballads. A short bass clarinet solo almost sounds like Gilmore but Abdullah soon takes the reins with some more high-wire trumpet. Mostly, though, it’s Sun Ra’s creamy Rocksichording that keeps things interesting. Again, it’s a terrble shame the sound quality on the tape is so poor since the gently floating, interlocking bass and percussion parts are just about impossible to make out. Well, it’s a rare and beautiful composition, badly recorded.
“Space Is The Place” follows but is presented as a hyperactive rhumba, with Eddie Thomas and June Tyson deleriously singing the lead. Predictably, it descends into cheerful chaos soon enough, but the audience gets a big kick out of the spectacle, whooping, hollering and clapping along. “Journey To Saturn” is more of the same, climaxing with a honking alto solo from Danny Davis and ending with weird portamento organ effects from Ra. “Discipline 27-II” slows things down for a series of space chants, Eddie Thomas doing the substitute preaching—interestingly, Sonny keeps his mouth shut throughout and the pontificating is kept mercifully brief. The following “mini-set” of old jazz chestnuts is just two tunes, but they’re perfectly executed: “How Am I to Know” is a maudlin torch song made famous by Billie Holiday (and, later, Frank Sinatra) and here it showcases some of the most goopily romantic playing of Ra’s career, incongruously performed on his swelling, roller-rink organ. Meanwhile, Gilmore plays smoky tenor. It shouldn’t work, but it does—just lovely! Up next is the jump swing standard, “Rose Room, with more full-throated Gilmore and pealing trumpet from Abdullah, all punctuated by Ra’s relentlessly stabbing organ chords. Finally, the concert concludes with a vanishingly quick “Calling Planet Earth” and a fast-paced romp through “We Travel the Spaceways,” as the band marches off the stage to wild cheering and hearty applause. From the sound of it, the swells at NEC were surprisingly welcoming to Ra and his space men! Sun Ra's star was finally starting to rise.
It’s a strong show, but the tempos are generally too fast and there’s no real opportunity for wild improvisation, as if time constraints required Ra to truncate his usual set. Yet, despite the atrocious sound quality, there’s enough interesting music here to make it worthwhile to fanatical collectors. “Images,” “How Am I To Know?” and especially the unidentified Cosmos-like piece are obvious highlights. Ordinary people, however, will be suitably repulsed by the noise and distortion; you are hereby dutifully warned.