December 18, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Live At Montreux (Inner City 2LP/2CD)

Not much is known about the Arkestra’s activities in the first half of 1976, but according to Douglass Walker and John Szwed, they performed at an event sponsored by the so-called People’s Revolutionary Convention on July 4 and, predictably, clashes between police and demonstrators flared up outside the church during the concert (see Campbell & Trent p.222). The “revolution” was on its last legs.

Immediately thereafter, the Arkestra headed to Europe for the first time since 1973. It was, as usual, both boom and bust. Szwed writes:

In the summer of 1976 the Arkestra began their fourth tour of Europe with twenty-eight people and ended with fourteen, playing all the major festivals, Paris, Montreux (where they recorded Live at Montreux), Pescara, Nimes, Northsea, Juan-les-Pins, and Arles, and were greeted everywhere as celebrities. Yet once they returned home to Philadelphia, they still sank back into semiobscurity, the band playing down the block at the Red Carpet Lounge to a neighborhood audience of twenty, or at outdoor free concerts in the parks of North Philadelphia, to which sometimes no one came (p.341).

While very little documentation survives of this tour, Live At Montreux was to become a watershed album for Ra. Recorded for a state television broadcast at the legendary Swiss jazz festival on July 9, 1976, it was first issued as a two-LP set as Saturn MS87976 and reissued by Inner City as IC1039 in 1978 (Campbell & Trent, pp.222-224). Live At Montreux would be one the few Sun Ra records to be widely available in the late-1970s and early-1980s and it was, for many people my age, their first (and perhaps only) exposure to his music. But what a great record it is! Ra was provided a decent piano and he makes good use of it (along with his battery of electronic keyboards), guiding the Arkestra through a remarkably inventive setlist. The enormous band includes many returning alumnus, including Pat Patrick on baritone sax and flute, Chris Capers on trumpet and Craig Harris on trombone, and their performance is uniformly first rate. Moreover, the sound quality is excellent—a blessed relief after all the grungy bootlegs we’ve been listening to lately. In fact, it might be one of the best-sounding releases in Ra’s enormous discography. In many ways, Live At Montreux is the definitive Sun Ra album.

Unfortunately, its history in the digital age is somewhat spotty: It did not appear on CD at all until 2003 when the Italian Universe label reissued it in a handsome gatefold mini-LP-style package, but they reversed the labels on the discs and inexplicably omitted four minutes of “On Sound Infinity Spheres.” To make matters worse, the track numbers do not line up correctly with the music. Sheesh! The Japanese edition on P-Vine corrected these errors but it was horribly expensive and just about impossible to find in the U.S. For a recording that was formerly ubiquitous, it was frustrating to find it suffering from such callous neglect in the CD era (thankfully, I kept my old LP). Finally, in 2008, Inner City reissued Live At Montreux domestically in its complete form, remastered from the original tapes and available at a reasonable price. Although the pedestrian jewel box packaging is not as deluxe as the Universe or Japanese editions, this is the one to have. The LP has that warm, analog sound and an extended top-end (including a fair amount of tape hiss), but I prefer the CD, which lets the music seamlessly unfold, rather being interrupted by having to flip and change the records every twenty minutes.

As many times as I’ve listened to this record over the years—and repeatedly over the last several weeks—I still am at a loss for words for how to describe it. Any attempts at rote description miserably fail to convey what makes this album so special, even beyond its significance in the Sun Ra canon. While there are long periods of intensely skronky improvisation where it seems like everyone gets to solo, it all magically holds together from beginning to end. Everyone plays at such a high level that no one soloist – not even Gilmore!—stands out above the others. The Arkestra is truly speaking with one voice: Sun Ra’s. There’s even some weird new compositions (“From Out Where Others Dwell” and “On Sound Infinity Spheres”), a couple of rarely-played oldies (“Lights On A Satellite” and “El Is The Sound Of Joy”) and a monumental rendition of the Strayhorn/Ellington classic, “Take The A-Train” which needs to be heard to be believed—not even Jarvis’s drum solo can derail it!. Throughout it all, Sonny’s piano playing is just spectacular, with his introduction to “A-Train” being one of his most impressive solos on record, a history lesson tracing the development of the instrument from ragtime to avant-garde and on into outer space. If there is one Sun Ra album I would take to the proverbial “desert island,” it would probably be this one. Live At Montreux is just about exactly perfect.

I would assume that if you’re bothering to read this, you already own Live At Montreux, so there’s really no need for me to go into further detail. If you are reading this and don’t own it, well, what are you waiting for?


Sam said...

Thoroughly agreed on this album: a masterpiece. I love how he blends piano and synth on this one. And, yeah, maybe all the soloists shine, but whenever I think of this album I think first of Gilmore's monumental solo in "Take the A Train." Jarvis's grandstanding solo is the only mar on this otherwise perfect release. I have the Universal CD; thanks for the pointer to the Inner City CD.

Rodger Coleman said...

Sam -- I almost added a footnote to that comment to point out the incredible Gilmore solo on "A Train" but the truth is, as great as that solo is, it doesn't stand out quite like other shows. What really impressed me re-listening to this again and again is how strong that first disc is: out but in, group improv tightly controlled--and Sun Ra at his finest! I wimped out on this one, but really what is there to say except, "it's great!"

Anonymous said...

Thought you should know about this

Special Show - - Air Time: Tuesday, December 27, 2011 - 10:00pm - Wednesday, December 28, 2011 - 12:00am - Central Standard Earth Time

The KItchen Sink Tone Scientists of Ecstatic Space will bring you the annual Sun Ra New Years Party on WWOZ. At least 2 hours of Sun Ra from the over 60 recordings that the Scientists have accumulated. Expect Space, Time, Jazz, Space Time Jazz, and the Astro Infinity Arkestra from the limitless repetoire of Sun Ra. Doo Wop, Swing, Avant Garde - it will all be here. And as an added bonus, we'll be featuring Sun Ra poetry from the Kick Books ( edition of "The Planet is Doomed" published in 2011.

Roddus said...

This was one of the first Ra albums I heard after borrowing a copy from our public library. What always stood out in my memory was the monumental piano solos on disc one. It was many years later that I managed to get my hands on a digital copy and not long after I discovered the Inner City release which now resides in my collection and my memories of those colossal Piano solos are vindicated.

Anonymous said...

links please!! thanks in advance for Sun Ra