July 22, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: St. Louis Blues: Solo Piano, Volume 2 (Improvising Artists, Inc. CD)

On July 3, 1977, Sun Ra shared a bill with Paul Bley at Axis-In-Soho as part of the Newport in New York Festival, which was recorded by Bley’s Improvising Artists label. A portion of Sun Ra’s set was released on LP in 1978 as St. Louis Blues: Solo Piano, Volume 2 (IAI 37.38.58) and reissued on CD in 1993 (IAI 123858) (Campbell & Trent pp.236-237). If Solo Piano, Volume 1 was an introspective studio album, Sun Ra is in an expansive, playful mood in front of a live audience. As Szwed points out in his biography, “Bley was surprised to see that once he was alone on stage, ‘Sonny was a ham who liked to clown and surprise the audience’” (Szwed p.343) and there is a bit of that to be found here.

Ra’s passagework is startlingly virtuosic, displaying an astonishing independence of fingers and hands and extreme sensitivity of touch, although it sometimes comes across a bit empty and showy. “Ohosnisixaeht” is a rhapsodic blues with impressively fleet soloing, but the music wanders rather than gets anywhere. W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” is better, updated with a complex, polytonal arrangement. The simple “Three Little Words,” a 1930s showtune by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar is given an over-the-top reinterpretation that borders on corny, full of melodramatic glissandos and skittering block chords but always returning to that sweet, sweet swing. Side one closes with a short, romantic rendition of “Honeysuckle Rose” that alternates between rubato schmaltz and breezy ragtime.

Side two is more interesting, containing three originals that show off Sun Ra’s compositional skills as well as his brilliant keyboard work. “Sky and Sun” is onomatopoeic: drifting chords represent the sky and twinkling figures in the uppermost register represent the sun. This track is really quite evocative and it sounds he could do this sort of stuff all day long. Ra summons up an entire Arkestra on “I Am We Are,” from rumbling bass notes, scraping “strange strings” and  exquisitely voiced harmonies to outrageous, free-jazz scree, with moments of two-fisted aggression a la Cecil Taylor—a tour de force and probably the best thing on the album. “Thoughts On Thoth” ends the album with a slow space groove, articulated with remarkably fluid right-hand flourishes. It’s a brilliant display, but feels a little perfunctory to me.

Apparently, Improvising Artists released a 40-minute video of this concert (IAI V003), which replaces “Ohosnisixaeht” with another rendition of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” (the studio version can be heard on Volume 1) and contains some other minor editing differences from the LP (see Campbell & Trent p.237). This video was only sporadically available in the 1980s and while “bootleg” versions circulate, I have not seen a copy. And here is an tantalizing rumor: “According to Fred Conrad, the concert ended with “When There Is No Sun,” on which Ra was joined by  June Tyson (voc) and John Gilmore (voc). It is not known whether this piece was recorded” (Id.).


Thanks to reader, Yotte, for this link to the IAI video of this concert:

Suhn Rawl Sew Low Pie Ano '77 from yotte on Vimeo.


yotte said...

Hi Rodger, I'm so glad you've decided to continue with Sun Ra Sundays. I look forward to every post.

A friend sent me Improvising Artists Video Tapes. If you're interested in seeing the videos, here they are. I hope you enjoy em.

Sun Ra and Friends
Sun Ra Solo Piano

Rodger Coleman said...

Wow, Yotte, thank you! How awesome!