Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Smuckers, New York, NY 4-17-77 (AUD CDR)
A month later, we find the Arkestra back in New York, appearing at Smuckers on April 17, 1977 and, at least compared to the Showboat Lounge tape, this amateur recording is a hi-fi sonic spectacular! Recorded in stereo (still something of a rarity at the time), it has a pleasing ambience and excellent instrumental balance, with the drums and cymbals coming through crisp and clear but without being overwhelming. But this tape has its share of problems: the recording levels go up and down; there is considerable distortion when things get loud; and, about halfway through, the surreptitious recordist panics and tries to hide the microphone, causing the sound quality to deteriorate significantly. Oh well; that’s just the way it is with “bootlegs” from this era. Also unlike the more accommodating Showboat Lounge, the economics of Manhattan nightclubs dictated a short, hour-long set with few surprises. All that said, this is a half-decent recording of the band on a pretty good night—plus there’s a special guest sitting in at this show, vibraphonist Walk Dickerson. Well, perhaps not that special (see below).
The set opens with a brief but ominous “Strange Strings”-styled improvisation before June Tyson comes in singing “(The World Is Waiting) For The Sunrise.” As the guys in the band join in the chorus, the words slowly morph into “The world is waiting for…Sun Ra” for Sonny’s grand entrance. A massive space chord signals Danny Ray Thompson to take up the big bari-sax riff of “Discipline 27” and it’s a barn-burner. Unfortunately, Ahmed Abdullah’s trumpet solo is so ear-piercingly loud it causes the recordist to fiddle with the input levels for a couple of minutes while the rest of the Arkestra moves into a deliciously skronky group improvisation, capped by Marshall Allen’s a cappella alto saxophone. This is a great version of this sometimes overplayed tune, albeit marred by severe technical problems with the recording. And so it goes...
Thankfully, the sound clears up a bit for “The Shadow World” and it’s another high-energy blowout with gobs of “mad scientist” organ work and a string of outrageous solos from Allen and Danny Davis on altos, Eloe Omoe on bass clarinet, James Jacson on bassoon, and, finally, John Gilmore on tenor. The music moves through a variety of feels across its eighteen-minute duration, from the frenetic opening ostinatos to a deep, dark funk jam to wild, free-jazz bashing. Jacson’s bassoon solo is perhaps his longest on record and an amazing display of virtuosity on this terribly awkward instrument and he gets a hearty round of applause from the audience. Who knew Jacson could play like that? The always impressive Gilmore is at his very best here, building an epic statement out of tiny cells of notes, effortlessly incorporating the entire range of extended techniques from impossible-sounding multiphonics to keening altissimo cries, all the while maintaining a coherent structure with a lyrical melodicism all his own. Yes, folks: it’s another incredible Gilmore solo! After the Akrestra returns with a super-tight reprise of the insanely complicated head, the audience is left in stunned disbelief. This is another fantastic rendition of a composition which could never be “overplayed” in my book—the highlight of the set, for sure.
“Enlightenment” cuts off after about thirty-five seconds—no great loss, I guess—and then we pick up in the middle of “Love In Outer Space,” the organ vamping away over a bed of percussion. Just as Sonny returns with the melody, it sounds to me like the microphone gets shoved under the table in an effort to avoid detection by the band or nightclub staff; in any event, the sound quality takes a severe nosedive from here on. “When There Is No Sun” is spiritedly sung, but suffers from muffled sound, as does “Lights On A Satellite,” which struggles to get into a groove, the tempo fluctuating wildly and, at one point, moving into a heavy-ish rock feel—but Sonny puts the kibosh on that pretty quick! Next up is an unknown title, possibly one of the “Discipline” series of compositions and it sounds vaguely familiar: strained, broken harmonies; braying horns; abstract drumming; dissonant, dramatic organ chords—but with weird, murmuring vocals. Very interesting. Then Walt Dickerson takes over with a long vibraphone solo—too long, if you ask me. Dickerson is a fine player, but he’s just noodling around here. It’s impossible to tell what else is happening on stage but sometimes it seems as if Dickerson just wants to stop playing—and Sonny won’t let him! It just goes on and on and, frankly, it gets to be quite boring—not something you can usually say about an Arkestra performance (aside from the drum solos). It doesn’t help that the sharp, metallic attack of the vibraphone causes painful amounts of distortion in the recording when he hits it hard—which is all too often. “Space Is The Place” ends the set with the typical carrying on, although notable for the inclusion of the baritone counter-melody in the head arrangement, a subtle but welcome variation to this concert mainstay. After an extended vocal segment, the Arkestra marches off the stage and that’s it.
No doubt there was a lot more music played on this night, but this is all we have: a flawed yet mostly listenable recording of one (almost) complete set, which starts off strong and then goes downhill. Committed Sun Ra fanatics will find this worthwhile for “The Shadow World” alone, but for others it is probably inessential.