January 27, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: WKCR Studios, Columbia University, New York, NY 7/8/77 (FM CDR)

So, where did we leave off? Oh yeah, the summer of ’77 and Sonny’s solo piano adventures, some of my very favorite Sun Ra records: the introspective studio LP, Solo Piano Vol.1, and the more flamboyant live recording, St. Louis Blues. There was also one more solo piano set that month: a radio appearance on July 8 at WKCR, the left-of-the-dial FM station at Columbia University in New York City (which seemed to have an open-door policy whenever Ra was in town) and a 36-minute tape of the broadcast circulates widely amongst collectors. Actually, I discovered there are at least two different versions of this broadcast to be found, which caused me considerable confusion when I started to write this up a couple weeks ago. My first version appears to contain two additional tracks, but, as it turns out, the DJ proceeded to play side one of Monorails & Satellites after Ra’s set. Moreover, that first tape was plagued by loads of FM interference and other extraneous noises, sounding like it was recorded with a microphone held up to a speaker. It was rough, but listenable. The second (and more common) version of this broadcast sounds much, much better (more like a proper line recording) and does not contain the confusing album tracks (although the sequence is slightly different). It’s one of the better “bootlegs” out there and, despite this flurry of activity in 1977, solo piano performances were exceedingly rare, making this an indispensable addition to the collection.

Starting off with bluesy improvisation, it’s sadly apparent that the radio station’s piano had seen better days: it’s out of tune, some of the keys are sticky, and the voicing is wildly inconsistent, dull and indistinct at one moment, shrill and piercing at another. But Ra makes the best of it, actively exploiting the weird resonances and at times making it sound like a funky clavinet or electronic Rocksichord. Although apparently improvised, there is an elegant structure, with a contrasting, “classical”-sounding middle section, complete with delicate trills and impressionistic arpeggios. Is this an unknown composition? Or is it just another example of Ra’s off-the-cuff genius? Who knows? The old stand-by, “St. Louis Blues,” is up next and it’s another barn-burning performance: three, four, five independent voices ringing out simultaneously in wildly swinging counterpoint. If there were ever any doubts about Sonny’s piano playing abilities, just listen to this! Another standard, “Sophisticated Lady,” follows and it’s given an oblique, fractured reading, with radical, pantonal re-harmonizations and some astonishingly intricate passage work—check out Sonny’s ultra-dexterous left hand! Another blues improv once again brings out Ra’s brilliantly orchestral pianism with nimble bass riffs and thrilling horn lines, his two hands amiably wandering through distant keys.

After that virtuosic display, things get really interesting. It seems Sonny is just getting warmed up! An untitled original starts pits an agitated ostinato in seven against skittering right-hand flourishes and beautiful block-chord harmonies. The stuttering bass-line almost sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place it—another one for the “unknown” file, I guess. “Take the “A” Train” is given the same treatment as “Sophisticated Lady,” a ruminative extrapolation on an old favorite, blithely dispensing with all the clichéd familiarity and nostalgic sentimentality associated with this well-worn warhorse. His enervated explorations of low-register tone clusters and fiery single-note runs easily rival the intensity of Cecil Taylor at his most bombastic—but no matter how “out-there” it might sound at times, Ra deftly brings it all back around to the ragtime and swing which forms the basis of jazz. The vast expanse of African American musical history, from emancipation through the avant-garde is seemingly encapsulated in this four-and-half minute version of “Take the “A” Train.” Incredible.

Another unknown title follows: a two-chord vamp with pretty right-hand melodies, a space-rhumba feel that gradually morphs into straight-ahead swing before going out. Although dreamy and imminently enjoyable, it feels more like a sketch for a potential Arkestra arrangement than a fully-fleshed out composition. The next track, however, was deemed good enough to appear on a Saturn single titled "Quest," in 1982 (Gemini 1982Z). However, the Evidence two-CD compilation misattributes this track to a later date (see Campbell & Trent, p.239). Even more confusing, my first version of this tape has “Quest” occurring at the very end of the set, making my correlation even more difficult. In any event,"Quest" is a short but intriguing tone poem, with jagged, irregular melodies, Morse code rhythms and brittle, uneasy silences. Incidentally, the sound quality of the 45-RPM single is considerably better than the off-air recordings we have here, indicating the possibility that a pre-broadcast master exists in the Sun Ra archives. Well, we can hope so, anyway.

The final track (at least on my second iteration of this tape) is “Trying to Put the Blame on Me,” a doleful, two-chord vamp over which Sonny starts to sing. Of course, there is no microphone near his mouth, so you can barely make out what he’s saying at first. But there are other voices in the background, faintly echoing Ra’s declamations: June Tyson and John Gilmore, who have been quietly sitting in the studio, apparently waiting for this very moment. The station engineers frantically move mic stands around and the song eventually starts to coalesce, a darkly paranoid indictment of those who would blame Sonny for…what? I’m not sure. “What’s the name of this game?” he asks. “Cuz if I’m the cause of it all, then that makes me the boss.” Whatever it is, he sounds eager to assume the role. According to Campbell & Trent, “Trying to Put the Blame on Me” would only reappear almost ten years later, at a concert in Cambridge, Massachusetts on June 10, 1986 (p.491-492). Surely, this song was performed at some point in the intervening years – or perhaps not? Maybe the subject of this diatribe was so specific, it only needed performing once in a while. Again, who knows? These are the sorts of tantalizing tidbits that keep me interested in this project: the mysteries of Mr. Ra.

As you all know, I have complained vociferously about the dismal sound quality of most of the “bootlegs” we’ve surveyed so far – but this one (especially the more common, correct version) sounds very nice indeed, despite the hiss and crackle inevitably associated with low-watt radio broadcasts of the era. More importantly, Sonny’s performance is extraordinary, combining the contemplative meditations of a studio session with the dazzling technical displays of a live concert. It is, in many ways, my favorite of the solo piano recordings from 1977. Definitely worth seeking out, even for the most casual Sun Ra fan—or any devotee of jazz piano. Sun Ra was not just a great composer and bandleader, he was a fluent pianist and the living embodiment of a deep-rooted tradition dating back generations, a fact that sometimes gets lost in all the big-band hoopla and space-age gobbledygook. Here's proof. 


yotte said...

Hey Rodger,
I'm so glad you've decided to continue your Sun Ra reviews. This is a perfect example of why Sun Ra Sundays is so wonderful - I'm not a musician so 90% or more of what you've mentioned in this review is news to me. Your critique helped explain why I've enjoyed these performances and has given me new things to listen for in the future.

Rodger Coleman said...

Thank you, Yotte! I really appreciate your kind words. This is a process of discovery (and re-discovery) for me as well as I sort through all this stuff!