June 24, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: The Empty Foxhole Café, Philadelphia, PA 4-29-77 (AUD 2CDR)

Taking its name from the 1967 album by Ornette Coleman, The Empty Foxhole Café was a student-run venue at the University of Pennsylvania, located in the basement of St. Mary’s Church at 39th & Locust Streets, at the time a particularly run-down area of Philadelphia. It housed an actual theater with a large stage, nice acoustics and student volunteers would serve natural foods between sets—hey, it was the ‘Seventies! Weekends were mostly reserved for avant-garde artists such as Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp and The Art Ensemble of Chicago, who are all known to have performed there. The Arkestra made an appearance at The Empty Foxhole on April 29, 1977 and a two-hour audience recording circulates amongst collectors (see Campbell & Trent, p.234).

As usual with these things, sound quality is problematic, to say the least. Once again, Sun Ra’s searing electric organ dominates all the other instruments—but however good (or bad) the original (monophonic) tape might have sounded, what we have here is many cassette generations removed, with severe wow-and flutter issues and, most egregiously, a Dolby mismatch or two, resulting in elevated hiss and distortion that was clearly not present on the original recording. To make matters worse, this horribly degraded tape was then sloppily transferred to digital, evidenced by audible clicks and digital distortion present throughout, getting progressively worse and worse as it goes along. Ouch! That said, there is, as usual, some great (and not so great) music buried beneath all the noise—you just have to struggle to hear it.

The set opens with another “Strange Strings”-styled improvisation with kora, thumb-pianos, log drums and other myriad percussion instruments rattling away but it’s sadly impossible to make out exactly what’s going on. And it goes on for quite a while, moving through a variety of rhythmic feels while Vincent Chancey provides some lugubrious French horn and someone (probably Richard “Radu” Williams) (Id.) taking a rare bass solo. Just as the crowd becomes audibly restless, the horns split the sonic universe with a raucous space chord and one of the Space Ethnic Voices starts singing, “Make Way For the Sunshine.” But then June Tyson comes in with “(The World Is Waiting) For The Sunrise” and the two songs are sung at the same time in weird, polytonal counterpoint—very interesting! After Sonny’s big entrance, Danny Ray Thompson takes up the bari-sax riff for “Discipline 27” and it’s another hot rendition with an extended freakout section, Marshall Allen and Danny Davis duking it out on altos and Craig Harris going his own way on trombone. So far, so good.

Then Sonny moves to the Rocksichord for “How Am I To Know?” but his stomp-box phase-shifter is shorting out: it crackles, pops and cuts off and on of its own accord. The Arkestra carries on, though, with Rusty Morgan singing lead (Id.) and Gilmore taking a splendidly idiomatic solo that gets a nice round of applause. But Ra is clearly frustrated with the Rocksichord and abandons it altogether to join in the singing, only to let the song sort of peter out. Oh well. “Love In Outerspace” is the usual thing: a bit tedious at over fourteen minutes, but no doubt a delightful visual spectacle. The next thirty minutes are devoted to the big-band classics, “Lightnin’,” “Yeah Man!,” “Take The ‘A’-Train,” “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Red Room” and it’s an oddly uneven performance. John Gilmore displays his stunning virtuosity on the B-flat clarinet (a/k/a “The Misery Stick”) on “Yeah Man!” and delivers a typically rousing tenor saxophone solo on Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose”—yet he seems bored with “Take The ‘A’-Train” and unusually breathless on “Red Room.” We do get to hear the laconic Akh Tal Ebah take a rare trumpet solo on “Take The ‘A’-Train” while Ahmed Abdullah, is elsewhere his usual showy self. But by and large, this is not the Arkestra at its best: the ensembles are ragged and the band sounds unsure of the arrangements at times. It doesn’t help matters much that the sound quality is so terrible, no doubt clouding my opinion of the musicyour mileage may vary.

Moving on: Allen and Ra duet on an untitled ballad, possibly through-composed: similar in feel to “Taking a Chance on Chancey” and other French horn duets we’ve heard, Sonny is outlining definite harmonies while Allen freely extrapolates on alto saxophone—whatever it is, it’s just lovely. “King Porter Stomp” brings us back to the Swing Era and Gilmore sounds more inspired here, taking a small motivic figure introduced by Harris’s trombone solo and running with it. “The Mayan Temples” settles into a gentle, spacey groove with flutes on top and Ra taking a pleasantly ruminative electronic solo—but the recording is marred by numerous technical difficulties, including an inconvenient tape flip and a faulty microphone cable. And so it goes…”Outer Spaceways Incorporated” is resurrected and reimagined as a weirdly asymmetric, mid-tempo swinger with a complexly hocketed vocal arrangement and Sonny pontificating amidst an increasingly enervating din. Whoah! I’m not sure if we’ve heard this arrangement before (or if we’ll hear it again), but it is an unusually refreshing take on this sometimes overdone singalong.

Finally, we get “The Shadow World,” which is always welcome. And, as usual, it’s a barn-burner: fast and tight with frenzied horns and pummeling percussion. Ra takes one of his patented “mad scientist” organ solos where he sounds like he has three hands, summoning up an astonishing variety of otherworldly textures, from percussive, high-pitched tinkling to swooning portamentos to roaring whirlwinds of low-register noise—all at the same time. This is Ra at his most outrageous — yet he is firmly in control of every nuance possible from his crude electronic keyboards. A string of horn solos follows, both accompanied and a cappella, with James Jacson delivering another lengthy and impressive display instrumental facility on the difficult and unwieldy bassoon—but then Harris destroys the mood with an overly cute, bluesy pastiche on trombone. He manages to elicit some bemused chuckles from the audience but our recordist is clearly not impressed; running short on tape, he shuts off the machine until mid-way through Gilmore’s solo. Although Gilmore sounds great, the effect is ruined and—to add insult to injury—horrific digital distortion starts to creep in, completely overwhelming everything by the return of the head. Ugh. The tape mercifully ends there.

So, here we have another crummy “bootleg” with enough tidbits of interesting music to be worthwhile only to the most fanatical Sun Ra collector. One wishes the original master tape would resurface and be given a fresh transfer as it would sound a lot better than this inferior facsimile. Given what we currently have, most listeners will find the sound quality utterly repellent and should not even bother hunting it down — the rest of you know who you are.


Sam said...

Getting caught up here...

Okay, yeah, I'm one of the ones who know who I am! I really like this show. The "Honeysuckle Rose" Gilmore solo is great, as you say...but "unusually breathless" on "Rose Room"? I don't hear that. Overall, yeah, it's a rough recording, but in for a penny, in for a pound. And the "Discipline 27" improv is outstanding. The performances at this stage haven't gotten quite as formulaic as they will in the mid- to late-80s; there's still enough variation and spice here (such as the "Outer Spaceways" arrangement) to keep things hopping. Thanks for another great write-up!

Anonymous said...

This post brought back my own memories of Sun Ra at The Empty Foxhole, but this was back in either late 1970 or early 1971 -- wintertime, for sure, as there was precious little heat in the venue. And there was no "large stage", just a tiny one in a tiny room. The acoustics were about the same as someone's living room. And Ra's organ was deafening! The whole experience was overwhelming to me and my friend -- we were both green suburban teenagers getting our ears cleaned out. I have equally vivid memories of hearing the Sam Rivers Trio, Charles Mingus, and McCoy Tyner in that space. (The Tyner gig was in the summer, and it must have been 100 degrees in the club! A wonderful place, the Foxhole...