January 30, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: “The Road To Destiny”: Lost Reel Collection Vol.6 (Transparency CD)

The latest volume in Transparency’s Lost Reel Collection is noteworthy for a couple of reasons: First and foremost, it offers further documentation of the Arkestra’s stand at The Gibus Discotèque in 1973. Secondly, it comes from the collection of Tommy “Bugs” Hunter, who often served as recordist for the band when he was available (he even provides a spoken introduction to the CD, wherein he states the tape was recorded “around midnight” on Thursday, October 18th or 19th). It features remarkably good sound quality, likely recorded from the stage and since it is mastered from the original tape, it does not suffer from the kind of gross distortion and generational loss that plagues most of the volumes in this series. All this makes it of interest to Sun Ra fans, but the music is not particularly revelatory. If the Atlantic—France LP, Live at The Gibus, indicated a change in direction, this CD demonstrates that Sun Ra was still up to his old tricks.

The disc starts off strong with a spacey version of “Astro Black.” A smattering of horns precedes June Tyson’s entrance, who sweetly sings to Ronnie Boykins’s spare bass accompaniment. Drums are heard faintly in the background, but soon become more prominent as the song comes to a conclusion and a blaring space chord signals a brief group improvisation. The music quiets and one of the Space Ethnic Voices does her crazy, super-high-pitched vocalise trick along with some twisty trumpet obbligato from Kwami Hadi. Impressive, but very strange! This goes on for barely a minute or so before Danny Ray Thompson’s baritone sax riff introduces “Discipline 27,” which is taken at a relaxed, easy-going tempo, buoyed by Boykins’s sure-footed bass-playing. This is a cheerfully pleasant version of the big-band swing number, with Hadi and Akh Tal Ebah providing dual trumpet lead and Sonny soloing fluidly on “vibra-organ” before the reprise. Nothing special, but a solid performance nonetheless.

Then the Arkestra drops the tempo and smoothly segues into an extended “Discipline 27-II,” complete with its full complement of chanted declamations. The recording foregrounds the instruments at the expense of the vocals, which sound distant and hard to hear, as if coming from monitors at the other end of the stage. That’s OK since, as is usual, the endlessly morphing horn arrangement is what keeps the piece interesting to listen to while Sun Ra’s space-preacher shtick can get a little tedious, to say the least. But don’t worry, when he and June raise their voices (which happens often enough), you can hear them loud and clear. After nearly twenty-seven minutes (!), the Arkestra finally abandons the composition and descends into a chaotic group improvisation with terrifying saxophone battles, bashing drums and throbbing bass. Sadly, the tape fades out just as things get going. Oh well—I would love to hear what came next! Instead, the disc ends with a series of space chants, cutting in on Tyson’s lead on “Prepare for the Journey to Other Worlds.” Others join in for “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Why Go to the Moon?,” but the vocals are swamped by layers of distortion and feedback—yet you can still our unknown Space Ethnic Voice doing her screeching thing amidst all the mayhem, so that’s something to listen for. Just as Gilmore starts to wail on tenor saxophone, the tape brutally cuts off. Argh!

Lost Reel Collection Vol.6 is a mixed bag: good sound and excellent playing (especially from the ever-inventive Ronnie Boykins), but the song selection is rather mundane. We’ve heard all this stuff many times before and this CD offers very little in the way of fresh insights. The most interesting thing here is the weird, post-Yoko vocalizing of the anonymous Space Ethnic Voice on “Astro Black” and during the closing chants, but that’s not saying a whole lot. Fanatics and completists will be happy to have this as an adjunct to Live at The Gibus, but others will wonder what all the fuss is about. Nice, but non-essential.

January 29, 2011

Playlist Week of 1-29-11

Blood On The Tracks

* Machaut: Motets (Hilliard Ensemble) (ECM CD)
* Gesualdo: Tenebrae (Hilliard Ensemble) (ECM 2CD)
* Biber: Mensa Sonora (Musica Antiqua Koln/Goebel) (Archiv Produktion CD)†
* Ben Webster with Strings: Music For Loving (Verve 2CD)
* Sun Ra: Live In Paris at the “Gibus” (Atlantic/Universe CD)
* Sun Ra: “The Road To Destiny”: The Lost Reel Collection, Vol.6 (Transparency CD)
* Herbie Hancock: Mwandishi: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (Warner Archives 2CD)
* Music Revelation Ensemble: In the Name Of (DIW CD)
* Music Revelation Ensemble: Knights of Power (DIW CD)
* Music Revelation Ensemble: Cross Fire (DIW CD)
* Weasel Walter/Mary Halvorson/Peter Evans: Electric Fruit (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips Vol.3, No.4: PennState-Cornell ’80 (GDP/Rhino 3CD)(‡)
* Grateful Dead: Freedom Hall, Louisville, KY 6-16-93 (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Jerry Garcia Band: Don’t Let Go: Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco 5-21-76 (Arista 2CD)
* Bob Dylan: Blood On The Tracks (Columbia SACD)
* Bob Dylan: Blood On The Outtakes (boot CDR)
* Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol.1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 (selections)(Columbia 3CD)
* Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol.5: Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue (Columbia 2CD)
* Bob Dylan: Desire (Columbia SACD)
* Bob Dylan: Hard Rain (Columbia LP)
* Bob Dylan: Street Legal (Columbia SACD)
* Bob Dylan: Bob Dylan At Budokan (CBS—Sony 2LP)
* Bob Dylan: Slow Train Coming (Columbia SACD)
* Bob Dylan: Saved (Columbia LP)
* Can: Prehistoric Future: June 1968: The Very First Session (Tago Mago/boot CDR)
* Chrome: Half Machine Lip Moves/Alien Soundtracks (Touch & Go CD)
* Mekons: Fun ’90 (A&M/Twin Tone CDEP)
* Mekons: Journey to the End of the Night (Quarterstick CD)
* Mekons: Punk Rock (Quarterstick CD)
* Mekons: Fitzgerald's, Berwyn, IL 9-13-02 (SBD 2CDR)
* Beck: Sea Change (Geffen/Mobile Fidelity 2LP)

†=iPod
‡=car

Commentary:

Blogger tells me this is my 500th post. Well, how about that? Thank you very much for reading my rambling! Here’s to 500 more!

+++

Most people would agree Bob Dylan’s 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks, is a masterpiece. But some people (including me) think it could have been even better. Finished tracks were recorded quickly over four sessions at Columbia’s A&R studios in New York in September, 1974, a test-pressing was prepared and promo copies were sent out to selected radio stations in late fall. As the story goes, Dylan began to have second thoughts while visiting family in Minnesota for the holidays; when he played the test pressing for his brother, David, he was told it sounded monotonous. Local musicians were hurriedly mustered for last-minute sessions at Sound 80 Studios in Minneapolis, where several songs were re-recorded in late December. The album as released the following January is a deeply felt meditation on love and loss—but the original takes of “Tangled Up In Blue,” “You’re a Big Girl Now,” “If You See Her, Say Hello” and, especially, “Idiot Wind” are almost unbearably anguished and intense. It is perhaps too easy to conclude that Dylan was uncomfortable with such naked displays of emotion and chose to withdraw behind a mask—a persona—which he has worn more or less ever since. The New York version of “Idiot Wind” reveals a heartbreaking vulnerability beneath the surface of anger and hurt while the re-make puts up a (not so) brave front and almost gleefully revels in self-pitying bitterness and withering contempt. Sure, it’s cathartic—downright hysterical in concert—but the original take, with its swirling, ghostly organ and Dylan’s humbled delivery is exquisitely painful, almost redemptive in its fragile, conflicted beauty. Although various alternate takes from these sessions have appeared on the Biograph box set and The Bootleg Series Vol.1-3, most of the original test-pressing versions remain unreleased (contrary to the latter’s misleading liner notes). Blood On The Tracks would be an excellent candidate for one of those two-CD “Deluxe Editions” containing both the album as released, the original test-pressing songs and all other extant alternate takes. I’d buy that in a heartbeat. Until then, I guess we’ll just have to settle for “genuine” bootlegs for this crucial material.

At the time of its release, Blood On The Tracks was seen as a long-overdue return to form and became the measure of Dylan’s subsequent output—and a convenient yardstick for lazy critics. Records were routinely heralded as “his best since Blood On The Tracks” while otherwise ignoring the relative merits of the works at hand. Ever mercurial, Dylan was already off in another direction, writing controversial and convoluted story songs with Jacques Levy and Sam Shepard and making an improvised, surrealist film called Renaldo And Clara, to be shot while on tour with The Rolling Thunder Revue in the fall of 1975. Sadly, the movie was a tremendously expensive flop and has since disappeared from view. In 2002, Vol.5 of The Bootleg Series compiled several of Dylan’s performances from this tour (and the limited “Deluxe Edition” contained a short DVD of two songs) but the four-hour original cut of Renaldo and Clara has remained unseen since its disastrous premiere in 1978. A two-hour edit was quickly assembled and withdrawn in 1979 and a subsequent European television broadcast of this edit is the only source of circulating bootleg copies. An uncut version of Renaldo and Clara would be a most welcome release on DVD/Blue-Ray. It’s amazing to me that, despite decades of archival releases, there are still many such examples of important (if not always wholly successful) work that remains unavailable. Come on, Sony, give us the stuff!

While the initial Rolling Thunder Revue received rapturous reviews and played in front of sold out crowds on the east coast, by the time the second leg of the tour hit the road in the spring of 1976, critics and audiences had turned dismissive. Part of it may have been a result of yet another change in musical direction: Dylan had been hanging around with Patti Smith for a while and the sound was starting to take on a decidedly harder edge. Gone is the country-fied tinge of the pedal steel and Mick Ronson’s glammy guitar flash is way up front and coolly abrasive. The songs are not so much reinvented as deconstructed from within, Dylan’s desperately shouted declamations straining against a howling storm of electronic noise. It’s powerful stuff—almost punk rock—but audiences at the time were not ready for it. At the end of the tour, two shows were recorded and filmed for an NBC television special called Hard Rain, which aired in late September. Despite heavy-duty promotion and a cover story in TV Guide, the broadcast received disappointing ratings and the eponymous album sold poorly. I’ve always been a fan of the record, despite its obvious flaws: the guitars are out of tune, the mix is murky and one-dimensional but the music still packs a devastating emotional wallop. Rumor has it that a DVD of the television special is being prepared for release, which might help bring about a critical reappraisal of this underappreciated period of Dylan’s career. In the meantime, here are a couple of clips so you can see for yourself. It may not be for everybody, but I love it. Dylan looks like a Biblical prince delivering (not so glad) tidings to his subjects, while the wildly raging rock and roll carries him aloft on a churning sea of sound. Check it out:





Blood On The Tracks very well may be Dylan’s last truly great record, but he continued to make interesting and ambitious albums throughout the ‘Seventies, experimenting with a Vegas-styled big-band a la Elvis Presley (who had died on August 16, 1977) on Street Legal (1978) and Bob Dylan At Budokan (1979), culminating in a dramatic conversion to evangelical Christianity on the full-blown gospel records, Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980). Ever fickle, critics and fans alike praised the former, making it a top-ten hit, while disparaging the latter as “dogmatic” and “pompous,” sending it directly to the cut-out bins. The truth is: they’re both strong albums, even if Dylan’s Hell-fire-and-brimstone preachifying will make unbelievers squirm. Certainly, Dylan sings of his new-found faith with the kind of guileless sincerity unheard since. . .well, those Blood On The Tracks outtakes. But the so-called “born again” era was short-lived and as the ‘Eighties wore on, Dylan’s personal religious beliefs were as inscrutable as his increasingly erratic albums. After a tour backed by The Grateful Dead in 1987, Dylan miraculously (re)discovered a fresh approach to live performance and thereafter embarked on the so-called “Never Ending Tour,” which continues to this day. His hard-rocking (yet musically versatile) bands will routinely kick up the kind of whirlwind of sound found on Hard Rain, Dylan confidently surfing the sonic tsunami. What once sounded anomalous now sounds prescient.

January 27, 2011

Away With the Snow

Walkway Without Snow

OK, this is more like the Tennessee I know and love. At 6:00AM, the ground was covered with four or five inches of snow where I live, but the sun came out and temperatures rose up into the mid-forties so by the time I got home from work, the snow was pretty much all gone. Now, that's more like it! I really should not complain; folks back in New England are having to deal with snowstorms that dump three or more FEET of snow at a time. That is, of course, one of the reasons why I moved away! So I'm going to try to stop complaining about the weather.

January 26, 2011

January 23, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Live In Paris at the “Gibus” (Atlantic—France/Universe CD)

Unlike the previous European tour (an extended sojourn which ranged widely across the continent, culminating in an impromptu trip to Egypt), the 1973 visit seems to have consisted of barely a handful of gigs in and around Paris. Also unlike the well-documented 1971 excursion, there were no high-profile radio broadcasts and very few amateur recordings survive. The tour likely began with the ill-fated Fête de l’Humanité at the end of September (possibly found on Transparency’s Lost Reel Collection Vol.5) and while Prof. Campbell mentions a 180-minute audience tape from the Nancy Jazz Festival on October 14, that’s about it (p.203) (and I haven't heard this tape). Otherwise, it seems the Arkestra settled into a multi-night stand at the famed Gibus Discotèque in Paris until their return to the states sometime in mid-to-late-October. Fortunately, the French division of Atlantic Records recorded a portion of this gig and released it as Live In Paris at the “Gibus” (Atlantic 40540) in 1975—but only in France (Id.). It remained an obscure collector’s item until 2003, when the Italian Comet label reissued it on CD on their Universe imprint in a deluxe, gatefold mini-LP package with excellent sound quality. Finally! This is one of the essential Sun Ra albums: an impeccable performance, well-recorded, documenting a crucial period in the Arkestra’s development.

It helps that the repertoire and sequencing is particularly inspired, possibly assembled by Sonny himself from several night’s recordings (he was, after all, a master of the razor blade and splicing tape). Who knows?—the liner notes are deliberately vague. The album begins with two of Ra’s most whimsically captivating compositions, both of which had been out of the setlists for a while and are now radically rearranged. “Spontaneous Simplicity” dispenses with the horn statements altogether and becomes a feature for Ra’s chiming organ and the “space-rhumba” groove is a bit looser, with Boykins leaning heavily on the riff. Suddenly, Ra goes into a frenetic double-time feel but the rhythm section keeps right with him to the end. An interesting re-imagining of this piece. The beautiful and tranquil “Lights On a Satellite” which follows is intricately through-composed, from the flute and trumpet harmonizations right down to the arco bass pedals and pitter-pattering percussion figures—and it is taken at a glacially slow tempo. The Arkestra sounds a little restrained but they deliver a note-perfect performance of this chamber-jazz masterpiece, one of my very favorite Sun Ra compositions.

A deft edit (indicative of Sun Ra’s hand) puts us smack in the middle of “The Shadow World” (mysteriously re-titled “Ombre Monde #2”), with Danny Ray Thompson’s baritone sax riffing just tailing off. John Gilmore comes in with another spine-tingling tenor solo, made all the more intense by Sun Ra’s insistently busy organ figuration. Kwami Hadi then solos on trumpet, easily holding his own against the rumbling thunderclouds and lightning flashes of electric organ but Sonny finally takes over with an apocalyptic fury before another surgically precise edit dramatically brings the track to an end. Wow! It would be nice to have the whole thing, but this is a powerfully edited fragment that stands alone as a coherent piece of music. Whether constructed by Ra or unknown French engineers, this is a bravura bit of record making.

Then we have something completely different: The Arkestra busts out a free-wheeling arrangement of Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp,” a proto-jazz number dating back to 1923. This signals a brash new direction for the Arkestra: resurrecting the old (if not old-fashioned) practices of the swing-era big bands within their futuristic space music and re-connecting the so-called avant garde to the deepest roots of early jazz. This kind of stuff was always an element of Sun Ra’s music, with its old-timey shuffle rhythms and pre-bop formalism, but here it becomes explicit. Of course, at age 59, Sonny was older than almost everyone else in the band by a number of years and had worked with Fletcher Henderson in Chicago back in 1946. Henderson was Herman Poole Blount’s childhood idol in 1930s (see Szwed, pp.11-12) and it may very well be one of Henderson’s arrangements the Arkestra plays here. By 1973, “[t]he recent deaths of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong had him reflecting about the forgotten masterworks of that era” and he began to introduce “mini-concerts of swing classics” at every performance.

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. And even if he moved toward the middle, his goals were still the same: “My music is self-underground—that is, it is out of the music industry: I’ve made records with no titles, primitive, natural and pure. I’m also recording standards so that people can compare what I do with those in the past. The avant-garde can’t play other people’s music because they’re not mature enough” (Szwed, pp.337-338).

One may agree or disagree with his last assertion, but it is in keeping with Ra’s musico-philosophy, which was about discipline, not freedom, and this little swing revival within the Arkestra was in keeping with a living tradition that was perhaps obscured by the “out-there” music and space-age trappings. The Arkestra's exuberant performances of these old chestnuts are anything but polite re-creations made for nostalgic, easy listening. No, the music is as sweaty and funky as a roadside saloon, a room full of crazed jitterbuggers ecstatically dancing the night away. The music is alive! Thence forward, every concert would feature a number of swing tunes from the ’20s and ‘30s, done up with rousing enthusiasm. It’s over before you know it and now we're blasting off into outer space. “Salutations From The Universe” is a group improvisation which opens with a some jittery space chords and a brief declamation from Ra, but he soon embarks on a long synthesizer/organ solo full of scary spaceship sounds; hieroglyphic counterpoint; weird, microtonal effects; and hair-raisingly aggressive, two-fisted noise attacks. The howling space chords return and Sonny sounds the air-raid sirens as bombs boom forth from his speaker cabinets. Finally, a repeated organ note cues “Calling Planet Earth” and everyone joins in the chanting (including someone with a policeman’s bull-horn), all of them gleefully hectoring the crowd while Ra continues his sonic onslaught. Another perfectly timed edit ends the album with a dramatic silence. Whew!

Live At The Gibus is one of the great live Sun Ra albums, not only because of the interesting song selection and excellent sound quality. The Arkestra is at its disciplined best and Sonny is the star of the show—not only as master composer and bandleader, but also as virtuoso instrumentalist. His electronic keyboard solos on this record are truly out of this world. Sun Ra was a visionary player; no one even tried to sound like him on synthesizer or organ! He is sui generis! This record also shows the band in transition: swing numbers are coming to the fore and the Cosmo Drama is being reinvented and routinized. But the routine was paying dividends, both commercially and artistically, and within that structure, Ra could continue to work his magic. Pushing sixty, he was well aware of transient nature of fads and fashion and was positioning himself, as always, for the long haul. Live At The Gibus documents the Arkestra at a mid-career peak and showcases Sun Ra’s outrageous musicianship to stunning effect. An absolute must-have record.

January 22, 2011

Playlist Week of 1-22-11

Freelancing

* Musica Florea (Stryncl): Schloss Eggenberg, Graz, Austria 9-01-08 (FM CDR)
* Julian Bream: Popular Classics for Spanish Guitar (RCA-Victor CD)
* Poulenc: Sacred & Secular Choral Works (Groupe Vocal de France/Aldis) (EMI Classics 2CD)
* Poulenc: Works for Piano (Parkin) (d.1) (Chandos 3CD)
* Ornette Coleman: Beauty Is A Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (d.1-4) (Rhino 6CD)
* Andrew Hill: BBC Gateway Studios, Kingston, London, England 4-29-00 (FM CDR)
* Andrew Hill Sextet: Saalfelden Jazz Festival, Austria 8-24-01 (FM CDR)
* Sun Ra: Live in Paris at The “Gibus” (Atlantic—France/Comet/Universe CD)
* Sun Ra: “The Universe Sent Me”: The Lost Reel Collection, Vol.5 (selections) (Transparency CD)
* Sun Ra: “The Road To Destiny”: The Lost Reel Collection, Vol.6 (Transparency CD)
* Sun Ra: Concert for Comet Kohoutek (ESP-Disk’ CD)
* Sun Ra: “Treasure Hunt” (mix CDR)
* World Saxophone Quartet: Live at Brooklyn Academy of Music (Black Saint LP)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Moment’s Energy (ECM CD)
* Anthony Braxton & Gerry Hemingway: Old Dogs (2007) (d.1) (Mode/Avant 4CD)
* Henry Threadgill: This Brings Us To, Vol.2 (Pi CD)
* Myra Melford’s Be Bread: The Image of Your Body (CryptoGramophone CD)
* Music Revelation Ensemble: No Wave (Moers CD)
* Music Revelation Ensemble: Music Revelation Ensemble (DIW—Japan CD)
* Music Revelation Ensemble: Elec. Jazz (DIW—Japan CD)
* Music Revelation Ensemble: After Dark (DIW—Japan CD)
* James Blood Ulmer: Freelancing (Columbia LP)
* James Blood Ulmer: Black Rock (Columbia LP)
* The Music Never Stopped: Roots of The Grateful Dead (Shanachie CD)
* Grateful Dead: Buckeye Lake Music Center, Hebron, OH 6-11-93 (3CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Freedom Hall, Louisville, KY 6-15-93 (SBD 3CDR)
* The Band: Rock of Ages (Capitol/MSFL SACD)
* Little Feat: Waiting For Columbus (Warner Bros./MFSL 2LP)
* Tom Waits: Akron, OH 8-13-06 (FM CDR)
* Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians: Fegmania! (Yep Rock CD)
* U2: The Unforgettable Fire (Deluxe Edition) (Island 2CD)†/(‡)
* Echo & The Bunnymen: Porcupine (Sire LP)
* New Order: Low Life (Deluxe Edition) (d.1) (Island 2CD)†/‡
* Cocteau Twins: Lullabies to Violane (d.1) (selections) (4AD 4CD)†/‡
* Spiritualized: “Feel So Sad” (Dedicated CDEP)
* Spiritualized: “Run/I Want You” (Dedicated CDEP)
* Guided By Voices: Suitcase 3: Strike Out Or Go Ahead (d.1-2) (GBV, Inc. 4CD)
* Robert Pollard: Space City Kicks (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Radiohead: In/Rainbows (webcast 12-31-07) (DAB CDR)

†=iPod
‡car

Commentary:

Could someone please tell me why James Blood Ulmer’s first two albums on Columbia Records have never, ever been reissued on CD? It hardly matters now, I guess, since the major labels have made themselves irrelevant, but it also serves as an object lesson in how far they’ve fallen.

Ulmer came up through John Patton’s lip-smacking, chicken-shack organ groups and later worked with Ornette Coleman to invent harmolodic funk, retuning his guitar along the way. He also sang authentically bent soul/blues numbers with a scary authority and wrote quirky but captivating compositions perfect for intensely grooving group improvisation. Some folks at Columbia apparently thought they could turn him into a star and, in 1980, offered him a three-album deal. Ulmer accepted and set about making the best records of his career, all of which were respectfully reviewed at the time and widely distributed across the land. So why are Freelancing (1981) and Black Rock (1982) still out of print? What happened?

I don’t know. But I’ll tell you this: those two records were hugely influential on me and the rest of the band back in the day. We covered “Hijack” and “Moon Beam” with respectful, if over-eager enthusiasm and I consciously modeled my own guitar histrionics on Ulmer’s jittery, spattered articulation. I also loved the way he could easily move around from the most abstract free jazz to raunchy disco-funk to sultry, soulful love ballads to splintery post-bebop swing to hard rocking blues and beyond—sometimes all within the same song—and sound as natural as the day. This kind of pan-stylistic approach has always been my musical holy grail and Ulmer has always epitomized for me the positive postmodernist. Genre is no longer relevant as critical marker, only another tool in the toolbox.

He also embraced the high-tech studio technology available to him courtesy of Columbia’s generous advance, adding thoughtful overdubs and electronic effects to produce a big, polished sound suitable for a major label. I swear: these records are perfect! He even pulls off the salacious sex-god thing on “Where Did All The Girls Come From” on Freelancing, following up with gooey love songs like, “Family Affair” and “Love Have Two Faces” on the even more densely produced Black Rock (duetting with Irene Datcher). In another context, all this might be embarrassing, but somehow he makes it work. It certainly helps having Amin Ali and Grant Calvin Weston in the rhythm section, pumping out a deliriously propulsive, intricately detailed groove that never quits. But it is Ulmer's gravelly vocals and craggy guitar that carries the day on these songs. He really could have been a big star, in an alternate universe.

Columbia dropped Ulmer after his most successful record, Odyssey, came out in 1983. A dark and moody album with an unusual trio of Ulmer on guitar and vocals, Warren Benbow on drums and Charles Burnham on violin, it received the usual accolades but failed to sell in sufficient numbers to satisfy the bean-counters at Columbia and quickly went out of print, along with the rest of his catalog. Interestingly, all these LPs are still fairly easy to find in the used bins, most of them stamped “For Promotion Only: Ownership Reserved By CBS.” No doubt this was done ex post facto in order to dispose of product at below wholesale and thereby deny Ulmer any royalties and accounting he would otherwise be entitled to. Ah well, such is the way of the music business.

Even though Ulmer’s career has continued with varied success in the ensuing years, Freelancing and Black Rock have remained perennially unavailable, some of the very few records I can think of which have never—ever—been re-mastered or reissued during the CD boom of the last two decades. It’s almost as if the label has some sort of grudge against Ulmer for not delivering on the promise of free-funk riches or some other petty transgression (curiously, Odyssey was issued on CD in 1996—but it, too, is, of course, long out of print). The fact that original LPs can still be found cheaply indicates that the label way overestimated the commercial potential of Ulmer’s brand of “fusion” (already by 1982 a vague. pejorative term) and took a serious bath on the venture. This stuff could never escape the jazz ghetto and become something…else. Only a fringe audience would ever really dig it and the rest found it easy to ignore. It’s not like Columbia pushed Black Rock on radio and television. Who knows, it could have sparked a harmolodic revolution! Alas, that was not what happened.

My beat-up vinyl copies still sound pretty darn good and I enjoyed cranking ‘em up this evening. But I still think they deserve a spot (however marginal) in the digital pantheon. Guess I’ll just have to make my own CDR so can transfer it to the iPod…but, oh, what a hassle! Come on, Columbia/Sony/Universal—whoever—this is some of the best music your hideous corporate monster ever spit forth! Let it be heard!

January 21, 2011

Cars On Ice


Icy Car, originally uploaded by Rodger Coleman.

Here in Middle Tennessee, a couple of inches of snow will often turn into a sheet of ice overnight. We tried to get to work this morning, but upon encountering an accident on a surprisingly slippery main road, we decided to turn back. Lizzy's new Honda was a real champ getting us back up the windy, twisty hill and safely back home. Frankly, I was not sure we would make it, but she handled like a dream--with some finessing of its automatic transmission. I've been a Honda fan for a long time, but I was really impressed! Snow is one thing; ice is another. I was amazed how well the car handled in such trecherous conditions. Bravo, Honda--and thank you!

January 16, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: “The Universe Sent Me”: Lost Reel Collection, Vol.5 (Transparency CD)

There is some confusion as to when exactly the Arkestra’s third European tour began. The last four tracks on Transparency’s Lost Reel Collection Vol.5 were purportedly recorded in Paris on September 8, 1973 while Szwed says the first concert was on September 9 at the Fête de l’Humanité (p.335). Neither date is possible since the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival performance definitely occurred on September 10. Prof. Campbell (via Julian Vein) suggests the Fête de l’Humanité took place on either September 18 or 28 with another concert at the Olympia in Paris on September 30 (p.202). These later dates make more sense, with September 28 being the most likely.

In any case, I believe this fifty minute fragment was probably recorded on that date at the Fête de l’Humanité, an event sponsored by the Communist Party and which almost turned into a full-scale riot. Recorded from the stage (presumably by drummer, Tommy Hunter), you can hear a sizable audience in the background and, more tellingly, “Discipline 27-II” makes an unusually early appearance in the set, allowing Sonny an opportunity to cast his spell upon the surly crowd. Szwed describes the scene:

When they arrived at the festival grounds they found the audience in an especially ugly mood, having driven Jerry Lee Lewis off the stage, and Chuck Berry was leaving fast (the word was that their arrival in limos had been enough to set that volatile post-May ’68 crowd off). When the Arkestra reached the stage a moratorium began as the crowd froze in amazement: audience and critics alike were bewildered by what they saw, then won over. But what had they seen? A particularly arcane black nationalist paramilitary display? A ridiculous parody of European avant-garde theater?. . .[F]or whatever reason—shock, delight, puzzlement—the Arkestra brought the audience to its feet seven times that day, clapping and cheering. “Music,” Sonny said matter-of-factly, “soothes the savage beast.” It soothed them enough, in fact, that the Ballet Folklórico de Mexico which followed next was also received well, for which the dancers and the Minister of Culture of Mexico credited the Arkestra (pp.335-336).

We pick up in the middle of “Discipline 27-II” and while the vocals are distant, the horns are upfront and reasonably clear. The accompanying declamations can get a little tiresome but it’s always worth paying attention to how the arrangement changes from night to night: it’s never quite the same, the instrumentation subtly shifting with each repetition of the theme. Ronnie Boykins is present holding down the rhythm section, joined by Hunter and the usual gang of percussionists. After about ten minutes, John Gilmore signals a free, bashing, group improvisation which quickly gives way to Sun Ra’s scary sci-fi electronics. Four measures of stately organ chords introduce “Discipline 99” in yet another rearrangement: the tempo is a little faster than we heard in Ann Arbor while flutes and piccolos take the lead amidst some added horn riffing. This is one of Sun Ra’s more interesting compositions, with a wistful, slightly melancholy mood evoked by the descending minor-mode melodies. But, apparently, he was dissatisfied with it as it was performed only a handful of times during this period before being briefly resurrected in the early-‘80s and then abandoned (see Campbell & Trent p.818). Sonny takes a short but dramatic solo before Gilmore lays down some deeply penetrating soul-blues and the rhythm starts to loosen up the backbeat. Akh Tal Ebah essays on flugelhorn while Sonny’s organ grinds away and horns circle and dodge. Marshall Allen finally takes over with a delightful flute solo and the texture starts to thin. Rather than recapitulating the theme, it just sort of dissipates, which is kind of disappointing, given the fact that “Watusi” is up next. It’s the same old thing: after a quick run through the head, drums and percussion, whooping and hollering, dancing and chanting go on and on for ten tedious minutes. I’m sure it was quite the spectacle!

But then something happens: Kwami Hadi starts into a pealing high-register thing and the rhythm shifts into high gear, Boykins setting down an insistently throbbing bass line. Swirling organ and quicksilver horns enter the fray and now we’re into a ferocious group improv—only to have Sonny suddenly signal the reprise of “Watusi.” Wow! This gets a big hand from the audience and Hunter boldly steps up with a (relatively rare) drum solo. Unlike Clifford Jarvis, he keeps it short and tasteful, establishing a tribal beat on the tom-toms appropriate for Eloe Omoe’s bass clarinet rumblings which follow. Sun Ra cues a harrowing space chord but it quickly dissolves into flickering, pointillist horn figures. Boykins gets out the bow for a mysterioso bass solo and is later joined by Marshall Allen’s oboe and Ebah’s flugelhorn, a rare and beautiful sonority. Sonny is out front hectoring the audience about “The Impossible Equation” but it’s hard to hear. That’s OK because the Arkestra is in deep space exotica mode, all orbiting horns and solar drums. As things heat up, Gilmore blasts off with some hair-raising altissimo runs and someone (Ra?) starts honking what sounds like a car horn (?). Just as the intensity level becomes almost unbearable, the tape cuts off. Argh! Surely there was a lot more to this set…

According to Szwed, the events at Fête de l’Humanité prompted an outpouring of typically French theorizing:

One critic wrote that [the Arkestra] was a quasireligious phenomenon, and like the Church itself, the band used cheap props and son et lumière effects. But, he asked in all seriousness, could a secular group like this move forward and progress, or would they be trapped forever in their rituals like the Church? Whatever they were, the Arkestra was disrupting critical predispositions and habits, their show calling attention to the critics’ limitations. A performance like this would require multiple levels of readings, and a fuller understanding of different genres, different forms of media, and different styles of playing (pp.335-336).

Indeed. It’s pure speculation on my part that this recording is from the Fête de l’Humanité debacle, but, after listening to other documents from this tour, it makes sense. Regardless of exactly when or where it was recorded, this volume of the Lost Reel Collection (which also includes a fragment from the Southport Seaport Museum on July 9, 1972) is of definite historical interest to all Sun Ra fanatics. Be forewarned: as usual with Transparency, the sound quality is not great—clearly several generations away from the master (presumably, um, lost)—but it’s certainly listenable, as these things go. Musically, the Arkestra is at its best, bringing a fresh enthusiasm to even the most overplayed repertoire and improvising with an almost telepathic cohesion. The rarely heard “Discipline 99” and the (truncated) closing improvisation are particularly satisfying, despite the bootleg sound quality. Newbies should start elsewhere, but Sun Ra afficianadoes who know what to expect will be amply rewarded by The Lost Reel Collection Vol.5.

January 15, 2011

Playlist Week of 1-15-11

Space City Kicks

* Charpentier: Te Deum, etc. (Les Arts Florissants/Christie) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Charpentier: Messe pour le Port Royal (Le Concert Sprituel/Niquet): Paris 12-12-06 (FM CDR)
* A. Scarlatti: Il Giardino di Rose: Sinfonie & Concertos (Accademia Bizantina/Dantone) (Decca SACD)
* D. Scarlatti: 21 Sonatas for Harpsichord (Kirkpatrick) (Archiv Produktion CD)
* Schmelzer: Violin Sonatas (Romanesca CD)
* J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations & Canons (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* J.S. Bach: Suites for Violoncello (ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Mahler: Symphony No.4 (Chicago Symphony/Reiner/Della Casa) (RCA-Victor/Classic LP)
* Scriabin: The Complete Preludes (Lane) (Hyperion 2CD)
* Scriabin: The Complete Piano Sonatas (Laredo) (Nonesuch 2CD)
* Messiaen: La Transfiguation (Orch.Phil./Choeur de Radio France/Chung)(Deutsche Grammophon 2CD)
* John Coltrane: Newport Jazz Festival 7-01-61 (SBD CDR)
* Wayne Shorter: Etcetera (Blue Note LP)
* Wayne Shorter: The All Seeing Eye (Blue Note LP)
* Wayne Shorter: Adam’s Apple (Blue Note CD)
* Wayne Shorter: Schizophrenia (Blue Note CD)
* Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Arkestra: Outer Space Employment Agency (Alive!/Total Energy CD)
* Sun Ra: Live in Paris at The “Gibus” (Atlantic—France/Comet/Universe CD)
* Sun Ra: “The Universe Sent Me”: The Lost Reel Collection, Vol.5 (selections) (Transparency CD)
* Sun Ra: “The Road To Destiny”: The Lost Reel Collection, Vol.6 (Transparency CD)
* Pharoah Sanders: Save Our Children (Verve CD)
* Anthony Braxton & Gerry Hemingway: Old Dogs (2007) (d.4) (Mode/Avant 4CD)
* Gigi: Illuminated Audio (Palm/Ryko CD)
* Van Morrison: Into The Music (Warner Bros. CD)
* Grateful Dead: Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ 6-06-93 (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: The Palace, Auburn Hills, MI 6-09-93 (selections) (SBD 2CDR)‡
* Jerry Garcia Band: Cats Under The Stars (Arista/Rhino CD)
* Jerry Garcia Band: Run For The Roses (Arista/Rhino CD)
* Lucinda Williams: Sweet Old World (Chameleon/Elektra CD)‡
* Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball (Elektra/Asylum CD)‡
* The Golden Palominos: This Is How It Feels (Restless CD)
* The Golden Palominos: Pure (Restless CD)
* The Golden Palominos: No Thought, No Breath, No Eyes, No Heart (Pure Remix EP) (Restless CD)
* Spiritualized: The Abbey Road EP (Arista CDEP)
* Boston Spaceships: Our Cubehouse Still Rocks (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Robert Pollard: Moses On A Snail (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Robert Pollard: Space City Kicks (GBV, Inc. LP/CDR)

†=iPod
‡=car

Commentary:

I didn’t go to the Guided By Voices show last night. Heck, I was in bed before they ever hit the stage. But I got my own reward: Robert Pollard’s latest solo album, Space City Kicks, arrived in the mail and I listened to it over and over as I enjoyed my Friday night glass(es) of fine Kentucky bourbon. This is middle-aged rocking out at its most comfortable and convenient, just the way I like it.

So, once again, my first new record of the year is by the ridiculously prolific Pollard. One might expect that he would have taken the re-constituted “classic lineup” of GBV into the studio and capitalize on the wave of positive publicity surrounding their year-long reunion tour—but no (at least not yet). Instead, he has quietly launched GBVDigital, where soundboard recordings from the tour and the rest of Pollard’s massive discography are available for download. Meanwhile—and with little fanfare—Pollard has continued to churn out albums under his own name and various other monikers from the prog-psych studio project Circus Devils to the quasi-real rock band, Boston Spaceships. It has become cliché to remark of Pollard’s profligate output and the difficulty of keeping up. Yeah, yeah, yeah. No one—least of all Robert Pollard—expects anyone to buy it all (but many of us do). He is the master of the soft sell. Here’s the thing: if you’re a fan, Robert Pollard a collector’s dream come true. The records are consistently good—and sometimes (often, really) truly great. And just when you know what to expect, he does something different, offering the many subtle revelations of an inexhaustible creativity.

After the slick and sophisticated pop-rock of last year’s pair of solo albums (We All Got Out of The Army and Moses On a Snail), one would expect Pollard to continue along that path, but with Space City Kicks, he presents a more variegated approach, boldly opening with the noisy, art-damaged “Mr. Fantastic Must Die” and then moving freely through what he calls the “Four P’s of Rock”: Pop; Prog; Punk; and Psychedelia. Despite the widely ranging stylistic approaches, the album builds momentum as it goes along, thanks, in part, to Todd Tobias’s deft production and savvy multi-instrumentalism. And many of the songs exhibit an emotional directness that is sometimes surprising, coming from the notoriously elliptical Pollard. “Touch Me In The Right Place At The Right Time” is, as it’s pleading title announces, about as nakedly erotic as he’s ever allowed. By itself, this song might seem slight (and maybe a little creepy) but within the context of the album, it stands out as a sexy bit of pure pop goodness that elevates it beyond a rather simplistic structure. This, to me, is the essence of Pollard’s genius: he understands that the power of affective music is more about context than specifics. Blasting out of the stereo, “Touch Me” sounds like a smash hit single from an alternate universe.

It would be easy to surmise these tracks are mere leftovers from the previous year’s outpouring but, even if that is the case, so what? Then Space City Kicks is just further testimony of Pollard’s limitless songwriting abilities and another example of his uncanny sense of sequence and order, making a coherent album out of a mess of tracks, just as he has done with the three Suitcase box sets and various other compilations over the years. But I suspect that there is more forethought to this album than that. Eighteen weirdly compelling songs densely packed into thirty-six minutes, Space City Kicks feels like something more substantial than an ad hoc collection, more like a magnum opus, a rock opera, a manifesto. Coming from anyone else, this record would be greeted with high hosannas and hailed as a masterpiece, which, of course, it is. Yet, for Pollard, it’s just another day at the office. It’s easy to take the guy for granted amidst the blizzard of releases, but the truth is: he’s still got it! How many artists can you name who have maintained such a high level of production over decades? Not many. Even if you don’t like this stuff, you have to admire his tenacity and artistic integrity. Space City Kicks is more than just another great Pollard album—it is a brief summation of his myriad influences and a mature statement of purpose. Fans will adore it while others might become illuminated. Highly recommended to anyone who believes rock music can be transcendent.

January 9, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Arkestra:
Outer Space Employment Agency (Alive!/Total Energy CD)

On September 10, 1973, the Arkestra returned to play John Sinclair’s fifth annual Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival, a huge outdoor concert held at Otis Spann Memorial Field. This was a rare opportunity for Sun Ra to play in front of a large audience, appearing on the final night of the festival on a bill with Luther Allison, Hound Dog Taylor, and Otish Rush. The entire concert was broadcast over the radio, including most of Sun Ra’s seventy-three minute set (see Campbell & Trent p. 201) and a tape of this broadcast apparently circulates amongst collectors, but I haven’t heard it. Finally, in 1999, Sinclair released a fifty-two minute fragment (omitting “Discipline 27” and “Astro Black”) on his Alive!/Total Energy label on a compact disc entitled, Outer Space Employment Agency. To be honest, it's a mixed bag.

Sinclair certainly means well—but as Prof. Campbell points out, he “continues the tradition of incorrect titling that has afflicted so many commercial releases of Arkestra concerts” (Id. p.202). That’s putting it politely! The first track is actually an untitled improvisation (mistitled “Discipline 99”), opening with a bit of “mad scientist” keyboard noodling before a brutal splice takes us into the middle of a howling space chord—what’s that about? Whatever, the group improv that follows is a real corker—and you can plainly hear the sizable crowd rapturously whooping it up in the background. The great Ronnie Boykins is once again present on bass and right away he starts bowing away, widely ranging from rich, low-register double stops bristly sul ponticello scraping. Lex Humphries returns on drums, joined by Tommy Hunter, and (along with a battery of conga players) they kick up a suitable din for a series of solos and duos, climaxing with some barn-burning saxophone from John Gilmore on tenor and Danny Davis on alto. After a brief organ interlude, “Discipline 99” (mistitled “Love In Outer Space”) follows, and it’s a treat to hear this rarely performed number in such exquisite high fidelity. A languid, almost melancholic ballad, the Arkestra sounds well-rehearsed on this lush, intricate arrangement with Gilmore briefly taking the lead with a soulful, bluesy solo before giving way to Akh Tal Ebah’s mellow, burnished flugelhorn. Just lovely.

After that, the rest of the disc is something of a letdown. Kwami Hadi’s fiery trumpet enlivens an otherwise desultory “Love In Outer Space” but the following “Watusi” is the usual percussion jam (featuring about fifteen clanking cowbells) accompanying some hysterical chanting and the pharaonic dancing (this segment is mistitled “Watusa/Discipline 27-II” on the CD). No doubt this was a mesmerizing visual spectacle in person, but it comes across as a diffuse and a little dull on disc—nothing new there, I guess. A medium tempo “Discipline 27-II” concludes the set in the usual fashion, with Sun Ra furiously preaching the Cosmo Drama, his rhetorical—sometimes downright inflammatory—declamations echoed by June Tyson, a crooning Ebah and various Space Ethnic Voices. It’s the usual stuff and the ultra-spacious sound quality lets us clearly hear the subtly morphing orchestration of “Discipline 27-II“ beneath all that vocal carrying-on. Even so, at over twenty minutes, it’s more than a little much. Again, I think you had to have been there.

Still, there’s a lot to like about this CD. The sound quality is much improved over the 1972 set (released as Life Is Splendid) and the crackling opening improvisation and beautiful rendition of “Discipline 99” make it a necessary acquisition for the hardcore Sun Ra fan. But the shoddy documentation, meandering percussion jams and endless, inscrutable chanting will likely leave novices scratching their heads. With a choice of live recordings available from this period, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this one. Yet be aware that all three of the Alive!/Total Energy releases are now out of print; if you’re interested, better grab them now before they disappear for good.

January 8, 2011

Playlist Week of 1-08-11

Thermometer

* J.S. Bach: B Minor Mass (Coll. Vocale Gent/Herreweghe): Schwarzenberg, Germany 9-03-10 (FM 2CDR)
* Beethoven: Missa Solemnis (La Chapelle Royale, et al./Herreweghe) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Dizzy Gillespie & Charlie Parker: Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945 (Uptown CD)
* Sun Ra & His Mythic Science Arkestra: The Paris Tapes 1971 (Art Yard/Kindred Spirits 2CD)
* Sun Ra & His Space Arkestra: What Planet Is This? (Leo/GY 2CD)
* John Coltrane: Om (Impulse! CD)
* Bill Evans: Trio ’64 (Verve CD)
* Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil (Blue Note LP)
* Wayne Shorter: The Soothsayer (Blue Note CD)
* Muhal Richard Abrams: Vision Towards Essence (Pi CD)
* Anthony Braxton & Gerry Hemingway: Old Dogs (2007) (d.3)(Mode/Avant 4CD)
* Nina Simone: The Anthology (d.1) (RCA 2CD)
* Gigi: Gigi (Palm/Ryko CD)
* The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour (2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Yellow Submarine (2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Who: Tommy (Deluxe Edition) (d.1) (Geffen 2SACD)
* The Who: Quadrophenia (Track/Polydor 2LP)
* Grateful Dead: Cal Expo Amphitheatre, Sacramento, CA 5-25-93 (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Cal Expo Amphitheatre, Sacramento, CA 5-26-93 (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Cal Expo Amphitheatre, Sacramento, CA 5-27-93 (d.1-2) (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ 6-05-93 (SBD 3CDR)(‡)
* Anton Fier: Dreamspeed/Blind Light (1992-1994) (Tzadik 2CD)
* Sonic Youth/Mats Gustafsson/Merzbow: Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth (SYR-8 CD)
* Royal Trux: Sweet Sixteen (Virgin CD)
* Robert Pollard: Crickets: The Best of the Fading Captain Series (d.2) (FCS 2CD)†
* Robert Pollard: Moses On A Snail (GBV, Inc. CD)†
* Beck: Guero (Interscope DVD-A/CD)
* Beck: The Information (Interscope DVD-A/CD)
* Wilco: The Riviera, Chicago, IL 2-19-08 (FM 3CDR)

†=iPod
‡=car

Commentary:

Philippe Herreweghe is probably the finest choral conductor of our age, bringing coherence—not mention supreme musicality—to some of the most unwieldy works in the repertoire. His (second) recording of Bach’s B Minor Mass (Harmonia Mundi) is utterly sublime—and a recent live performance in Germany is clearly just as inspired. Even more impressive is his recording of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (also Harmonia Mundi). Herreweghe tackles this notoriously difficult work with breathtaking authority, bringing out the inherent tensions of a “secular Mass,” yet summoning forth a moving, indeed, deeply spiritual performance. The difference between Bach and Beethoven is stark: every note Bach ever wrote is imbued with unquestioned faith and religiosity, while Beethoven’s Mass is an anguished and uncertain act of will. Herreweghe understand this and allows the music speak these profundities without resorting to artificial histrionics or overblown production. This is “historically-informed performance” at its most convincing. To hear them is to believe.

January 6, 2011

The Parthenon

Nashville Parthenon

It was such a nice day today, I decided to go to Centennial Park on my lunch hour just to take some pictures. Not many people know this, but Nashville is home to the only full-scale replica of the Greek Parthenon in the world. A dubious honor perhaps, but an interesting story:

Long before it became known as “Music City,” Nashville prided itself as “The Athens of The South,” a nickname it acquired in the 1850s from its numerous institutions of higher education and as the first southern city to establish a public school system. On the occasion of Tennessee’s hundredth anniversary of statehood, an exact reconstruction of the Parthenon was the centerpiece of the Grand Exposition held in Nashville in 1896. Hastily built out of temporary materials, the structure was not meant to last past the six-month Exposition. However, when it came time to demolish the building, the townspeople revolted and it remained in situ for twenty-three years. Finally, in 1920, the City of Nashville decided to build a permanent Parthenon, a project that took eleven years to complete. Today, it houses a stunning, 41-foot tall, gold leafed statue of Athena by Nashville artist Alan LeQuire as well as small museum of Nashville history.

The people of Nashville do love their Parthenon—a major renovation of the structure was recently completed and it really looks better than ever. Sure, it’s a little tacky. But it’s also kind of awe-inspiring up close—a remarkable simulacra of ancient grandeur. And the beautifully manicured Centennial Park is not just a pretty public space: it’s also host to various art fairs and other events throughout the year. For me, the Parthenon is just another one of those quirky things about Nashville that make it a neat place to live.

January 2, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Space Arkestra: What Planet Is This? (Leo/GY 24/25) (2CD)

Although it can be assumed that the Arkestra performed as frequently as ever, live concerts in 1973 are rather sparsely documented, at least as compared to the previous couple of years. Prof. Campbell mentions a 214-minute audience tape recorded at The Village Gate on February 26 (possibly part of multi-night stand at the legendary New York nightclub) but this artifact does not circulate amongst collectors and Campbell offers no details whatsoever (Campbell & Trent p.192). Meanwhile, work continued on the Space Is The Place movie, with Sonny and Tommy Hunter flying to California in late June to film the hilarious nightclub scene wherein “Sunny Ray’s” increasingly outrageous piano playing rains destruction upon the room, thereby vanquishing the evil gangsters. This is my favorite scene in the movie! Sadly, this extraordinary bit of music was not included on the soundtrack CD released by Evidence in 1993 but can be heard (and seen) in the film (Id. pp.198-199). On July 4, Sun Ra appeared with a small group consisting of John Gilmore on tenor sax, Ronnie Boykins on bass, and Beaver Harris on drums as part of a memorial tribute to Louis Armstrong (who died on July 6, 1971) at Flushing Meadow Park, in the borough of Queens, New York. Six minutes of this performance was recorded by Voice of America but never broadcast and, although the tape exists in the Library of Congress, this tantalizing fragment of small-group Ra does not circulate as far as I can tell (see, Id. p.199). [Some of the information in this post is incorrect; please see my update here.]

On July 6, the Arkestra performed at the “Newport In New York Festival” in a marathon concert at Carnegie Hall which included an opening set by Cab Calloway. This billing must have seemed completely incongruous to those in attendance, but, in later years, Sonny’s connection to Calloway’s brand of pre-war swing and proto-R&B would become increasingly clear. Ra’s entire two-hour set was again recorded by Voice of America but, for some unknown reason, never broadcast. The tapes languished in the Library of Congress until their discovery by researcher Larry Applebaum in the mid-1990s (see, Id. pp.199-200). Subject of rampant speculation in the ensuing years, the small but enterprising British label, Leo Records, finally released these recordings on their Golden Years imprint in 2006, somehow exploiting the grey areas of international copyright law and carefully avoiding any mention of the concert’s venue or the tape’s unusual provenance. Despite its rather non-descript packaging (and potential ethical/legal quibbles), What Planet Is This? Is, for any Sun Ra fan, a most welcome release indeed as the sound quality is (for the most part) first-rate and the maximum-strength Arkestra was well-rehearsed and in top form for this prestigious concert.

Opening with the usual processional/improvisation, the first thing you notice is a full contingent of low brass, including two trombones and tuba (likely played by Charles Stevens, Dick Griffin and Hakim Jami, respectively). Sonny often had to make do without the rich, warm sonorities of the trombone in his working ensembles, but he would usually recruit players for high-profile gigs such as this, re-tooling the arrangements to accommodate an expanded sonic palette. The second thing you notice is the presence of Ronnie Boykins, who brings his sure-footed authority on the double-bass, anchoring the proceedings in his own inimitable fashion. Curiously, Clifford Jarvis is absent, replaced by Lex Humphries on trap drums. While Humphries’s laconic style may lack the fiery, propulsive drive of Jarvis, we are also spared the interminable drum solos that would have inevitably resulted—and that is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.

Once the twenty-five member Arkestra has assembled on stage (including an array of percussionists and The Space Ethnic Voices), June Tyson solemnly intones “Astro Black,” accompanied by delicate bass thrumming but ending with an explosive, full-band space chord and free-form freak-out. Whew! Then, just as suddenly, the chaos melts into the big-band swing of “Discipline 27,” led by Pat Patrick’s baritone sax riffing. The Arkestra sounds great, with the trombones and tuba prominently featured amidst the reeds and trumpets. But Ra is playing a different kind of organ than usual (or perhaps he’s just poorly miked)—it sounds oddly muffled and distant here. Fortunately, he was provided a decent grand piano and, in the long improvisation which follows, he makes excellent use of it, throwing off astonishingly dexterous runs and thick, dissonant harmonies a la Cecil Taylor. Then he moves to the MiniMoog synthesizer to create pulsating walls of industrial noise against which the horns spatter notes like graffiti. And again, the organ sound is…strange, kind of like “The Mighty Wurlitzer” at a baseball park. Is there a theatre organ at Carnegie Hall? Is that what he’s playing? Who knows! This remarkably compelling improvisation goes on for almost thirty minutes, dominated by the shifting hues of Ra’s keyboards and held together by Boykins’s macroscopic sense of structure and groove (not to mention the thrilling crescendos of tympani). Various solos and ensembles are queued by Ra, giving shape to an improvised construction of remarkable cohesiveness and expressive beauty. Despite the seemingly excessive length, it’s actually over before you know it and the band launches smoothly into “Space Is The Place.” Wow! One of the Space Ethnic Voices (who?) does some of her insane, post-Ono vocal acrobatics before the band eases into lush and dreamy versions of “Enlightenment” and “Love In Outer Space.” These arguably over-played numbers could sometimes sound glib and tossed-off in performance, but here they sound poised and purposeful, aided, in part, by the relaxed drumming of Humphries and the rock-solid bass of Boykins.

But Humphries shows he’s no slouch on “The Shadow World,” kicking up furious polyrhythms in tandem with Aye Aton [Robert Underwood] and a host of burbling congas. Starting from a dead stop, the Arkestra executes the dauntingly difficult composition with startling precision, the hi-fi recording allowing us to hear deep into the densely orchestrated ensemble. The improvisation that follows is another perfect example of Ra’s disciplined freedom at its most cogent—even Gilmore’s unaccompanied solo (often a show-stopping tour de force) is ultimately curtailed and subsumed within the evolving group dynamic, just a part of the intricately woven musical fabric. After about fifteen minutes, the band settles into a quiet, Afro-Asian feel, with Alzo Wright’s cello providing some “Strange Strings”-style bowings and Marshall Allen wailing away on a plangent oboe—both of which elicit surprisingly respectful applause from the audience, given how weird and otherworldly the sounds. It is a magical moment. By this point, the audience has been transported, if not into outer space, then into Sun Ra’s alternative reality, where such sounds are as natural and nutritive as the air we breathe. This is truly an exemplary rendition of “The Shadow World” and needs to be heard to be believed. “Watusa” and “Discipline 27-II” conclude the set in the usual fashion, with a percussion/dance workout and a seventeen-minute sermon of cosmic declamations. Yet the ultra-spacious sound quality and the richly textured Arkestra’s near-definitive performances make them worth listening to—even if, like me, you think you’ve heard these routines too many times already.

So, yeah, this one is a keeper. No doubt the incendiary rhetoric found at the conclusion of this concert scared the pants off the bureaucrats at the VOA, who, upon hearing the tapes, shipped them off to some remote storage facility of the LOC, never, they hoped, to be heard by anyone else ever again. I’m speculating about all this, of course—and I have no idea about the legal ramifications of this CD (I am NOT a lawyer)—but the tangled history of this tape is certainly intriguing. All I care about is having the opportunity to hear this music after all these years, by whatever means. Please don’t get me wrong: Leo is a well-established label with impeccable bona fides—their loving devotion to Anthony Braxton’s most ambitious music is to be wholeheartedly supported—and I do not mean to impugn the label’s business ethics in slightest. For all I know, everything is kosher, the rights-holders are paid and everyone is happy. Whatever, I don’t really care (my only complaint is that the Flushing Meadow Park fragment was not included). Hey, this is the record business—the shadiest business ever. As a fan, I only rejoice at its current availability and recommend to others they grab a copy before it goes out of print forever, as these things often do. Carpe diem!

January 1, 2011

Playlist Week of 1-01-11

* Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610) (La Capella Reial, et al./Savall) (Alia Vox 2SACD)
* Biber: Missa Salisburgensis (Musica Antiqua Koln, et al./Goebel/McCreesh) (Archiv Prod. SACD)
* Ravel: Bolero, La Valse, etc. (Boston Symphony Orchestra/Munch) (RCA SACD)
* Charlie Parker: Charlie Parker With Strings: The Master Takes (Verve CD)
* Wayne Shorter: Night Dreamer (Blue Note CD)
* Wayne Shorter: Juju (Blue Note CD)
* Wayne Shorter: The Soothsayer (Blue Note CD)
* Anthony Braxton & Gerry Hemingway: Old Dogs (2007) (d.1-2) (Mode/Avant 4CD)
* Myra Melford’s Happy Whistlings: Firehouse 12, New Haven, CT 4-09-10 (AUD 2CDR)
* Mary Halvorson: Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12 CD)
* Tom Rainey Trio: Pool School (Clean Feed CD)
* Ingrid Laubrock’s Anti-House: Anti-House (Intakt CD)
* Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: Heeltop Home Studio, Kingston Springs, TN 12-27-10 (2CDR)
* Nina Simone: Anthology (d.2) (RCA/BMG Heritage 2CD)
* The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1987/2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Revolver (2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)
* Grateful Dead: Rockin’ The Rhein With The Grateful Dead (GDP/Rhino 3CD)
* Grateful Dead: Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, Long Island, NY 4-04-93 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, Long Island, NY 4-05-93 (SBD 2CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Sports Arena, San Diego, CA 12-12-93 (SBD 2CDR)
* Jerry Garcia Band: Warner Theatre March 18, 1978 (Pure Jerry 2CD)
* Chicago: X (Columbia LP)
* Chicago: XI (Columbia LP)
* Rickie Lee Jones: Girl At Her Volcano (Warner Bros. 10”EP)
* Can: University of Essex, Colchester, England 5-08-72 (AUD 2CDR)
* Can: Waldbuhne, Berlin, W. Germany 5-22-72 (AUD CDR)
* Genesis: Selling England By The Pound (Charisma LP)
* Genesis: A Trick Of The Tail (Atco LP)
* Genesis: Wind And Wuthering (Atco LP)
* Peter Gabriel: [4] [a/k/a “Security”] (Geffen LP)
* Fleetwood Mac: Fleetwood Mac (Reprise LP)
* Sonic Youth: Sonic Youth (Geffen CD)
* Guided By Voices: Live in Daytron ?6° (CDR1) (Rockathon 3LP/FLAC)
* Robert Pollard: Crickets: The Best of The Fading Captain Series (d.1)(FCS 2CD)†/‡
* Radiohead: Hail To The Thief (Capitol CD)
* Radiohead: “Go To Sleep” (Capitol CDEP)
* Radiohead: “There There” (EMI CDEP)
* The Flaming Lips: Christmas On Mars (soundtrack) (Warner Bros. CD)
* The Flaming Lips: Embryonic (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* The Flaming Lips: At War With The Mystics 5.1 (stereo) (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Animal Collective: Sung Tongs (Fatcat CD)

†=iPod
‡=car

Commentary:

Looking back at the past year’s playlists, a few themes are apparent: First, 2010 was the year I finally “got” Animal Collective and set about obtaining their complete discography. It took me a while to come around on them, but now I think they’re brilliant. They didn’t release anything this year except for a strange hour-long music video called Oddsac, which didn’t really do much for me the first time through and it’s unclear what their plans are for 2011. But that’s OK as I am still absorbing the recordings I already have. Each one is very different than the others—an unusual approach for a “pop” band—but these guys are more ambitious than even Radiohead when it comes to making brainy yet appealing rock music. I anxiously await whatever comes next.

The second theme is prog-rock from the 1960s and '70s: from Soft Machine to Frank Zappa; from Chicago (who are not really prog) to Genesis (who abandoned prog for pop in the '80s). This was not a mere nostalgia trip: there was also a serious attempt to get into Yes, a band I had long dismissed as the lightweight antithesis of my ultimate art-rock heroes, King Crimson. I’m still unconvinced of their magnum opus, Tales From Topographic Oceans, but the series of records from The Yes Album through Relayer are mostly great—and even Going For The One and Tormato have their moments of glory. My relationship with Zappa remains fraught, but I have enjoyed periodically dipping into the discography now and then. What I love about this kind of music is the sheer virtuosity of the players and the elaborate (if sometimes overly-pretentious) compositional structures orchestrated for a humble rock band’s instrumentation (augmented with Mellotrons, synthesizers, and occasionally a full-blown orchestra). I’m now curious about some of the more obscure groups from this era, such as Gong, Amon Duul (I & II), Gentle Giant, Hawkwind, etc. Perhaps this is something I’ll look into in 2011. Please feel free to make suggestions in the comments section.

Third, there are the chronological surveys: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, The Beatles, Can, Zappa, etc. (not to mention Sun Ra Sundays). Sometimes I start from the beginning, sometimes in the middle. Sometimes I listen intently, sometimes my efforts flag and I abandon ship. Sometimes I pick up where I left off, sometimes I don’t. Listening this way can be extremely rewarding, particularly for artists whose catalogs are immense and far-flung. Progress is rarely strictly linear and the byways and backwaters of a musician’s oeuvre can offer rich rewards and seemingly lesser efforts can offer profound insights into the artist’s acknowledged masterpieces when heard in context. Some artists I hope to delve into in 2011 include the early jazz giants, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Django Reinhardt. The sound quality of these pre-War 78s severely diminishes my enjoyment of these recordings, but I am going to try and get beyond that and appreciate the music for what it is and be grateful for the miracle of technology which brings these masters to life in my living room. The JSP CDs sound as good as this stuff ever will.

Finally, there are new records. For me, 2010 is notable for the emergence of Mary Halvorson as both innovative guitarist and creative composer with not only the release of her second Firehouse 12 CD, Saturn Sings, but also a spate of appearances on a bunch of spectacular recordings by her peers in the Downtown New York (now Brooklyn) scene, including Tom Rainey’s Pool School, Ingrid Laubrock’s Anti-House, and Ches Smith’s These Arches. She toured Europe with Anthony Braxton in the spring and returned with Marc Ribot in the summer while also performing with the collective Thirteenth Assembly, with Taylor Ho Bynum's Sextet and as part of Myra Melford’s Happy Whistlings, among other groupings. Saturn Sings is the Record Of The Year as far as I’m concerned: an almost perfect realization of Halvorson’s unique vision of post-modern jazz. Listeners who might take exception to the avant-skronk of Anti-House or Pool School will still find much to enjoy in the tasteful horn arrangements and sprightly soloing—while also opening the door to the more adventuresome side of Mary’s musical concept. For there is plenty of ear-challenging music here: the compositions are thoughtful and sometimes oblique and Halvorson’s guitar playing is a miracle of all-encompassing inventiveness. While limited distribution means it is somewhat hard to find, the release of Saturn Sings makes me hopeful for the future of jazz. Not since the hay-day of “fusion” has such demanding music been so immediately likeable. This is a record everybody needs to hear, despite its limited distribution. I hereby, once again, sing my praises. Trust me, you won't be disappointed.

Otherwise, there is the usual onslaught of music from Robert Pollard and 2010 has been an especially good one with Moses On A Snail being an especially solid solo album and Our Cubehouse Still Rocks showing Boston Spaceships’s potential as a viable band. Of course the big news was the reunion of the “classic” line-up of Guided By Voices for a massive tour and the launch of GBVDigital. GBV is making one final appearance in Nashville on January 14 and I’m thinking seriously about going. The year ended with a deluxe “official bootleg,” Live In Daytron ?6°, which captures the Isolation Drills-era band in full-flight in their hometown. The triple-gatefold three-LP-only package (on colored vinyl!) also includes a lossless FLAC download of the whole thing. Nice!

Then there’s reissues, re-packagings, and archival releases from old favorites like Bob Dylan and, of course, the Grateful Dead. I have not picked up The Whitmark Demos yet, but I will probably pass on the mono editions of Dylan’s first seven albums. After all, I already have the Sundazed LP issues from a few years ago and I’m happy with them (although I wouldn’t mind having this stuff on CD) (yes, the mono mixes are as significant as with The Beatles’ first records). Meanwhile, the Dead’s quarterly Road Trips series continues to be hit-or-miss but the annual box-set extravaganza was absolutely stellar this year, consisting of the entire two-night run from Hampton Virginia in 1989. These are perhaps the most highly-regarded concerts of their later years, stunningly well-recorded and mixed from multi-track masters and presented in a lavish, cigar-box-style package. Crimson, White & Indigo, recorded that summer, seems lackluster by comparison.

Audiophile labels such as Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, Audio Fidelity, and Music Matters continue to push the envelope of high-fidelity sound reproduction and while the repertoire is limited and the price of admission steep, these are some of the best-sounding records ever made. The two-45RPM pressing of Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch is absolutely phenomenal but the fifty-buck price-tag prevents me from purchasing any more of these lavish Blue Note reissues no matter how tempting they may be. But Mobile Fidelity’s SACD of The Band’s Rock of Ages is a revelation, one of the finest examples of this sadly neglected format and is a bargain by comparison. But so is Steve Hoffman’s remaster of Phil Collins’s classic Face Value, which single-handedly proves that Redbook CD can sound stunningly good if done right. As physical product gives way to the ephemera of downloads, audiophile labels have found a niche providing high-quality sound and packaging for those of us who still care about such things. Mobile Fidelity’s vinyl reissues of Elvis Costello’s early records have garnered high praise. I may try to save my pennies in 2011 and pick these up before they go out of print forever.

So it’s been a good year in music! I’m looking forward to sharing my obsessions and new discoveries with you all in the New Year!

Happy New Year!

10-11

Here’s to 2011! I wish for you all a very Happy New Year!