February 19, 2012
Sun Ra Sunday
Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, MA, Nov. 1976 (AUD CDR)
According to Prof. Campbell, the Arkestra appeared at York University in Toronto on October 7, 1976 and at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore on October 10 under the auspices of the Left Bank Jazz Society, but no recordings are known to exist of these performances (p.228). The Arkestra returned to The New England Conservatory of Music for another concert at Jordan Hall sometime in November and the first forty minutes or so was recorded from the audience. This tape surfaced sometime after the second edition of the discography, so dates and personnel are sketchy at best. However, the sound quality is actually quite good for the period with the stereophonic image roughly capturing the warm, resonant acoustic of this prestigious venue.
The concert begins with June Tyson intoning “Tapestry From An Asteroid” mostly a cappella, followed by a blast of horns and a brief rendition of “Astro Black.” Then the rest of the band joins with Tyson in singing “(The World Is Waiting) For The Sunrise,” with the audience heartily applauding Sonny’s entrance on stage. Baritone saxophones lead the way into “Discipline 27” and it’s the usual thing but with a particularly exuberant trumpet solo from Ahmed Adullah. However, the piece quickly descends into a long group improvisation consisting of various solos and duets punctuated with splashy space chords and bashing percussion. Interestingly, there appear to be two bass players here, one playing arco and one pizzicato. There is some nice soloing from Ra on piano and “mad-scientist-styled” electric organ (not to mention an out-there trombone solo from Craig Harris), but nothing is really allowed to fully develop despite the fifteen-minute duration. Sonny seems to be keeping the band on a pretty short leash. Two classic big-band numbers follow: “Yeah Man!” and “Lightnin’,” which are taken at absurdly fast tempos—yet the band is super-tight and, of course, John Gilmore rips it up on tenor sax. Although Ra has been provided a piano, he sticks to the buzzing Rocksichord and roller-rink organ, giving these old-timey numbers a weirdly modernized sound. Good stuff!
Then an unsual thing happens. Sun Ra speaks: “Not all of America is dis-integrated, there some things that are unified. With me tonight, I have two members of the band who have been with me for about twenty years, Robert Barry and John Gilmore [who will] improvise some outer space stuff for you.” Never mind that Barry the drummer had been absent from the band since 1968 (Id. p.784), he and Gilmore duet in a groovy, post-Coltrane style, but condensed down to a riveting four minutes. Then Ra introduces Tommy Hunter and Marshall Allen, who duet in a more aggressively avant-garde manner, but, again, all too briefly. Finally, Ra sets Danny Davis’s alto sax against James Jacson’s bassoon for a quickie two-minute honk-fest before the tape ends. I’m not sure what Sonny was up to here. He seems to be trying to school these Conservatory kids on the art of instant composition—I only wish these duos were allowed to go on a bit longer.
As for the last track on my CD, I do not think it is actually taken from this same gig—the ambience is very different, obviously recorded in a bigger venue in front of a much larger audience. In fact, I do not think this is Sun Ra at all, but rather the Grateful Dead circa.1974, when bassist Phil Lesh would duet with synthesizer player Ned Lagin between sets in the manner of their weird and woolly Seastones album. At first listen, you might think it is Sun Ra at his spaciest—but I am almost positive it is the Dead. A couple of minutes in, you can hear someone in the audience yell out “St. Stephen!”—a dead giveaway, if you will.
So, even though this concert fragment is less than completely satisfying, the better-than-usual sound quality and the brief but powerful duo segments make it worth the effort to track down. There is some excellent playing here—I just wish we could hear the rest of the concert!