April 8, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: A Quiet Place In The Universe (Leo CD)

This one is a stumper. Half of the music was originally released in 1987 as filler on A Night In East Berlin (Leo LR 149) (one of the very first Sun Ra CDs ever made), but in 1994 it was re-released in complete form as A Quiet Place In The Universe (Leo LR 198). It’s unclear when this material was recorded since, according to Chris Trent’s liner notes, the original tape provided to the record company merely contains a handwritten label identifying some (but not all) of the track titles. However, it’s obvious that all of the tracks are taken from a single concert, probably recorded in 1976 or 1977, based on personnel and repertoire. Prof. Campbell’s “best guess” is “early 1977” but there are some anomalies (such as Pat Patrick’s presence on alto saxophone) which make a date certain impossible to determine (see p.235). In any event, it is a terrifically full-bodied stereo recording, well-balanced, with a warm, dry acoustic and a worthy addition to the official discography, despite its mysterious provenance.

The disc starts off with the title track, a rare Sun Ra composition in its only known recording. After an announcement from John Gilmore, it starts off as a conventional big-band ballad a la Sun Ra—but as it goes along, the yearning harmonies get progressively more dissonant and strange, eventually wandering far away from the initial key center as it slowly builds to a harrowing climax. Moreover, the horns play at the extreme ranges of their instruments, raising the intensity level even further as the volume increases, similar to the earlier “Discipline” series of compositions. Interestingly, Vincent Chancey takes the only solo, his French horn being an odd choice for such a challenging composition; nevertheless, he acquits himself admirably on the unwieldy instrument. What Chancey lacks in technique he makes up for in ethusiasm for the music! After an elongated reprise, the piece ends with a flourish from Gilmore and another announcement: “’A Quiet Place In the Unverse’, a composition by Sun Ra!” And what a great composition it is!

“I, Pharoah” picks up at the end of “Friendly Galaxy No.2,” with Sun Ra eventually taking up the microphone for a lengthy declamation. At over eighteen minutes, this sort of thing could be tedious (to say the least), but the recording manages to minimize the distorted vocals and enhance the delicate flute arrangement, making for a surprisingly enjoyable listening experience. Although the next track was labeled “Images” on the original tape, that’s not what was played. Instead, we essentially get a duet improvisation between Ra’s electric organ and Chancey’s French horn, with the rhythm section supplying some subtle swing changes about half-way through. Very nice. “Love In Outer Space” follows, featuring a rather over-long conga workout from (possibly) Atakatune—nothing special, but the sound quality is superb.

Then we have the hoary chestnut, “I’ll Never Be the Same.” The instrumental version by “Matty” Malneck and Frank Signorelli was originally titled, "Little Buttercup" when it was recorded by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra but with lyrics (and a new title) courtesy of Gus Kahn, the song was a hit for Mildred Bailey in 1932. The tune would become a regular in Sun Ra’s live sets in the years to come but this version is unusual in that Pat Patrick takes the lead on alto saxophone. This suggests a later date than 1977, but then again, who knows? Patrick was in and out of the band during this period and would eventually abandon the baritone sax with which he made his name for the lighter, more flexible alto. Not surprisingly, he gets the same gruff, expressionistic sound out of the smaller horn, making his playing instantly recognizable. This version is a delight, with Ra’s organ swells adding an appropriately romantic nostalgia to the proceedings. Finally, “Space Is The Place” concludes the disc, but fades out after a few minutes. No great loss there, I suppose.

As befitting the title, A Quiet Place In The Universe is a somewhat subdued affair lacking any wild, skronky improvisations, rip-snorting big-band numbers—or even a single Gilmore solo. Nevertheless, it is a uniquely satisfying album with the title track worth the price of admission for its rarity alone. It also helps that the sound quality is excellent throughout. Leo CDs can be a little hit-or-miss, but this one is a keeper.


Jean K said...

This is a particular favourite of mine although almost nothing about its provenance seems to quite make sense. I absolutely love “I, Pharaoh” on this record - there's something about the combination of Ra's voice with the flutes and percussion that works beautifully.

There is a casualty of all this Sun Ra research. My copy of The Earthly Recordings, always somewhat fragile from overuse is now held together by rubber bands.

Sam said...

Overall, this record just doesn't do it for me. The title track is definitely the highlight, and it's too bad that it doesn't appear on a release with more compelling companions. The backing to "I Pharaoh" is nice because it's more energetic than it usually is (it can often get sluggish, but then again maybe that's my impatience with the hectoring), but my favorite part is at around 18 minutes in when June Tyson is singing "Pharaoh." The rest of the disc is underwhelming (good sound quality notwithstanding).

To Jean K.: I haven't gotten to rubber bands yet, but the binding is severely cracked on mine--it's only a matter of time!

Rodger Coleman said...

@Sam: I guess I appreciate the nice sound quality on this more than anything else. Too many bootlegs will do that to me. I agree it's ultimately a lesser album in the discography, but it's nice to have.

@Jean K: I'm in the same boat: the spine cracked with days of receiving it and it gets ever more precarious. I'd love to see a new edition in two (three?) volumes, sewn hardbound. Heh. Well, I can dream, right?