January 22, 2012
Sun Ra Sunday
Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Châteauvallon, France 8-24-76 (AUD 2CDR)
The Arkestra stayed in Europe almost two months during the summer of 1976, opening the tour at Mutualité in Paris on July 8 and immediately traveling to Switzerland to record Live At Montreux on the 9th. On July 10, the band was in Pescara, Italy where an eighteen-minute portion of their performance was broadcast on RAI, Italian state television but I have not seen this (I do not believe a recording circulates). From there, the tour crisscrossed the continent: July 11 in Nimes, France; July 18 at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Gravenhage, Netherlands; July 20 at Giornate del Jazz in Ravenna, Italy (an audience recording is purported to exist, but I don't have it); July 25 at La Pinéde, Juan les Pins, France; back to Montreux on August 6; Arles, France on August 7; and, after recording Cosmos at Studio Hautefeuille in Paris, concluded the tour with two shows at Châteauvallon on August 24 and 25. (See Campbell & Trent pp.222-227.) These last two concerts were recorded from the audience (probably by the same person) and is widely traded amongst Sun Ra collectors. The sets are mostly complete and while the sound quality is not very good (hissy, boomy, distorted, etc.), they are certainly listenable, as these things go (a little tweaking of the EQ helps tremendously).
At only about one-hundred minutes, the concert on the 24th is considerably shorter than on the 25th and is notable for the absence of June Tyson (leaving John Gilmore to lead the way on most of the sing-a-longs). Perhaps this was an impromptu appearance by the Arkestra, with the “official” gig being the 25th? Moreover, Sonny has not been provided a piano, meaning the old-timey numbers have a souped-up, electrified feel quite different from the Montreux arrangements. In any event, they would play a more conventional set the following night.
The opening improvisation has a wonderfully exotic, “Strange Strings” sound that goes on for a few minutes until Gilmore starts chanting “For The Sunrise” and Sun Ra enters the stage to enthusiastic applause. After a world-shattering space chord, “Discipline 27” follows. The band sounds big and full-bodied (if dimly recorded), the baritone saxophones heading the charge while Ahmed Abdullah delivers a tasty trumpet solo. Then Sonny charges into “The Shadow World” and we’re off! Despite the dodgy sound quality, this seventeen-plus minute version is extraordinary. We get the usual freakouts from Gilmore on tenor sax and Eloe Omoe on bass clarinet, followed by a mad-scientist organ solo from Ra—but then there’s a long, spacey group improvisation featuring colorfully smeared trumpet (Chris Capers?) and James Jacson’s throaty bassoon (!) and it goes about as far out there as the I've ever heard the Arkestra go! Astounding! After Ra signals a quick reprise of the fanatically complicated head, the sudden ending is met with stunned silence from the crowd. Seriously, all you can hear is tape hiss!
Undeterred, Duke Ellington’s “Lightnin’” is taken at a rollicking tempo but the ensembles sound a little shaky and Ra’s phasey Rocksichord sound is just plain strange. Meanwhile “Watusi” is the usual (including an overlong drum solo from Clifford Jarvis), but it has an unusually skronky improv in the middle that makes it worthwhile. The old Noble Sissle/Fletcher Henderson stomper, “Yeah Man!” is even better, with Gilmore on clarinet for the surrealistically authentic-sounding ensemble sections and switching to tenor sax for a rip-snorting solo. Incredible! But then an awkward version of “Taking a Chance on Chancey” follows, Ra duetting with Vincent Chancey’s wobbly French horn, sometimes accompanied by eerie drum taps and a distant flute. Very weird—and not in a good way. The new composition, “Jazz From An Unknown Planet,” is given one last performance and yields a nice trombone solo from Craig Harris. Too bad this tune was apparently dropped from the repertoire; it definitely had some promise. Next up, Ra’s swirling organ gives “Take The A-Train” a circus-like feel and although Gilmore tries his best during his solo, he never quite builds up a full head of steam and the overall effect is muted by the incongruously maudlin organ swells. Oh well; it is a noble effort nonetheless.
“Space Is The Place” is given a surprisingly energetic reading, led by Gilmore’s vocals and augmented by a howling alto solo from Danny Davis. Or, rather, I’m guessing it’s Davis. Honestly, I have a hard time telling him apart from Marshall Allen. Based on his flute and oboe playing, I think Allen’s playing is slightly more lyrical and brilliantly virtuosic than Davis—but I could be wrong. Anyway, it’s ragingly great solo, whoever it is. The tempo slows as they effortlessly segue into “Lights on a Satellite,” which features a gorgeous tenor solo from Gilmore atop a delicate arrangement of swooshing Rocksichord and twittering flutes. Although the woefully unbalanced recording is difficult to hear through, it is a lovely rendition of one of my favorite Ra compositions. A hypnotic “Love In Outer Space” is driven by Sonny’s furious comping on the Rocksichord and a tasty solo from Abdullah. For some reason, “Images” is less successful: although Abdullah and Gilmore deliver the goods, the band never really takes flight. Well, they certainly make up for it during the lengthy “space chant” segment that opens with “Theme of the Stargazers” and moves through “Next Stop Mars,” “Second Stop Is Jupiter” and concludes with “Calling Planet Earth.” The singing and chanting is ultimately overwhelmed by waves of freestyle group improvisation which gets crazier and more intense as it goes along: buzzing trombones, screaming saxophones, bashing drums and impressionistic, almost rock-ish chording from Ra—until, finally, Sonny goes completely nuts on the electronic keyboards, driving the crowd into a spaced-out frenzy. Just when you can’t take it anymore, Ra eases the band into “We Travel The Spaceways” to end the set. Wowza!
This show is a decidedly mixed bag with iffy sound and inconsistent performances—yet the group improvisations are particularly strong and “The Shadow World” is just about as good as it gets. Accordingly, it’s definitely worth seeking out if you’re a hardcore fan—but I wouldn’t recommend it to a novice. We’ll take a listen to the second Châteauvallon show next time on Sun Ra Sunday. See you then!