February 26, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Jazz Showcase, Chicago, IL 11-27-76 (AUD 2CDR)

Paging through the Discography, it is apparent that, beginning with the Châteauvallon tapes (August 24 and 25,1976), we have entered a new era of audience recordings. With portable compact cassette recorders becoming widely available in the late-1970s, “bootleg” tapes would start to proliferate, resulting in a flood of generally high-quality tapes by the 1980s as the technology matured. When I first dipped my toe into reviewing these types of recordings, I hesitated, knowing full well what I was in for: variable sound quality, repetitive setlists and occasionally uninspired performances. In many ways, I wanted to avoid these things altogether and concentrate of the officially released albums—there are certainly enough of those to deal with! Yet, since my goal has been as much to discover Sun Ra’s music as to memorialize it, it made sense to dive into the world of “bootleg” recordings and see for myself just what was out there. But, honestly, it can be something of chore to sit through some of this stuff and my antipathy towards the exercise is no doubt reflected in my sometimes hastily concocted judgments. I try to be fair: I listen to everything several times (which is partly why this project is taking so long) and there is almost always something worth hearing, even on the worse-sounding tape. But I must apologize for the lack of enthusiasm I often demonstrate when confronted with yet another dodgy “bootleg.”

This ninety-minute recording from the Jazz Showcase in Chicago from November 27, 1976 is a case in point and presents the usual sorts of challenges. Sound quality is actually pretty decent—so vivid, in fact, it sounds like it was recorded from the stage (right next to Sonny’s amplifier!)—but the set is dominated by an overlong declamation segments and interminable percussion jams that might have been highly amusing in concert but are almost intolerable to listen to on tape. Moreover, the CDR dispenses with any index markers, meaning you can’t skip to the good parts. I quibble, but there you go (it’s my blog and I can cry if I want to). Nevertheless, there is some interesting music here and there, if you have the patience to sit through the rest of it.

The set begins with processional drums to introduce June Tyson, who sings “Astro Black” accompanied by pitter-pattering percussion. Then a throbbing space chord sets up “Along Came Ra,” a weirdly dissonant fanfare with vocals led by John Gilmore—an evocative opening, for sure. But Sun Ra enters the stage and immediately starts lecturing: “I Have Many Names!” “You’re On the Right Road, Going In The Wrong Direction!” Etc. Meanwhile the dual bassists (probably Tony Bunn and Richard “Radu” Williams) (Id. pp.228-229) hack and saw away with their fingers and bows and the horns interject skronky improvisations. Well, OK then! Ra moves to organ and we get a bouncy, slightly uptempo “Friendly Galaxy No.2” but, unfortunately, the delicate flute arrangement is buried under his thick electronic chords and brassy solos from Ahmed Abdullah on trumpet, Craig Harris on trombone, and Vincent Chancey on French horn. Even so, it’s an enjoyable (if somewhat meandering) rendition, held aloft by Tommy “Bugs” Hunter’s laconic groove on trap drums. Then Ra starts declaiming “I, Pharoah” over it all and things start to get a bit tedious. The ensemble tries to maintain interest by displacing and elaborating upon the hypnotic tattoos of “Friendly Galaxy” but Ra is intent on hectoring the audience: “Who’s gonna save you now?,” he demands. Moving back to the organ, Sonny brings the proceedings to a close and introduces “The Satellites Are Spinning,” which is also played at a faster than usual clip. After a brief sing-along, “Calling Planet Earth” signals more bashing out-jazz improv, culminating in a frenzied, “mad-scientist-style” organ solo from Ra. Sadly, the tape cuts off in mid-flight. Oh well.

Disc two picks up in the middle of “The Shadow World,” taken at an impossibly quick tempo, with Ra’s skittering, pulsating organ driving the band to the breaking point. Gilmore tries to do his thing on tenor, but he seems overwhelmed by Ra violent keyboard attack and is left sputtering and honking in desperation. Eloe Omoe is similarly overtaken but space finally opens up a bit for Abdullah and, afterwards, Gilmore comes charging in for another shot—and he does not disappoint, offering up a ferocious a capella solo before the reprise. A shrill organ cluster sets up “Watusi” which has a less frenetic feel than usual courtesy of Hunter’s laid-back drumming style, although it still goes on for far too long. This was undoubtedly a visual spectacle, what with the dancing and carrying on that accompanied the percussion workout, but that stuff just doesn’t come across on tape. “Rose Room” starts with a romantic organ intro before moving into the jaunty swing arrangement, led by Gilmore’s tenor. He wails for several choruses, but is again nearly subsumed by the grinding organ chords and thrumming basses. Abdullah’s piercing trumpet is easier to hear (and nicely executed) but Chancey’s three-note solo seems perversely out-of-place amidst the continuously cycling pre-Bop chord changes. Frankly, it is not the most satisfying version of this big-band classic. “What’s New” begins with another rhapsodic organ solo before the head arrangement—but then the bottom drops out and it’s just Gilmore and drums. Gilmore gamely keeps the tune’s structure intact during his lengthy improvisation but he ultimately sounds restrained by the absence of accompaniment. Interestingly, Ra ditches the organ and returns on acoustic piano—which sounds so nice!—but the tape cuts off just as he begins to solo. Argh!

So, here we have another semi-frustrating “bootleg.” The sound quality is decent, but the instrumental balance is woefully off-kilter, with Sonny’s organ and booming basses dominating the sonic space. The ensembles sound fresh and inspired yet the soloing is merely OK—aside from his second blow-out on “The Shadow World,” Gilmore sounds tentative and subdued here, at least compared to his usual mind-blowing displays. Then again, perhaps my opinion is colored by the technical flaws which make this recording difficult to listen to, despite the reasonably good sound quality. But that’s how it goes with “bootlegs”: I’m happy to have them as historical documents, but I don’t necessarily enjoy listening to them. Your mileage may vary.

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