February 3, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Saturn LP>CDR)

Later that month, it was back to business as usual for the Arkestra as a contingent of musicians, singers and dancers traveled to the Midwest for an appearance at The Bluebird in Bloomington, Indiana on or about July 18, 1977. According to Prof. Campbell (who cites Michael Weiss), Sun Ra performed two nights at The Bluebird, each consisting of two three-hour sets (!) (see Campbell & Trent pp. 230-240). At least one of these concerts was recorded by Tommy Hunter and selections were released shortly thereafter as Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Saturn 7877).  Some copies, however, are confusingly titled We Live To Be (Id.). Currently out of print in any format under either title, a copy of the vinyl LP circulates amongst Sun Ra obsessives as a “needledrop” CDR made from a rather crackly original. Oh well, we take what we can get and are thankful for it.

Side one opens with “We Live To Be,” a gorgeous original Ra ballad which was apparently performed just this once (see Id. p.845). How is that possible? John Gilmore is up first with a brief but astonishingly fluent solo on tenor saxophone, followed by Ra on an extended, romantic organ solo. Gilmore is in top form here, blowing his ass off in that intense, late-Coltrane fashion he inconspicuously inspired, melding avant-garde shrieks and squawks with the deepest jazz historical traditions. Rather than providing a conventional ending, Sonny cues a throbbing space chord to close, eliciting some stunned applause from the audience. The old standard, “Gone With The Wind,” is rendered in a soapy, melodramatic organ mode, veering towards holy-rolling gospel at times. The rhythm section (ShooBee Doo [Reginald J. Fields] on bass, Tommy Hunter and Luqman Ali on drums and Atakatune on percussion) sounds like they’re chomping at the bit, ready to explode as the music starts to climax. But who knows what happened next since the track abruptly cuts off. 

Ra then leads a chant: “You made a mistake/You did something wrong/Make another mistake/And do something right!” It’s all good fun at first but gets kind of boring as it goes on. The crowd liked it, anyway, with someone crying out, “bravissimo!” at the end. Moving to piano, Ra plays a pretty, rhapsodic intro to “Take the “A” Train” before the band comes in with the arrangement. Ensemble passages are a little ragged but the solos make up for it. First, Akh Tal Ebah gets a rare turn at the mic. I love his mellow, loose-lipped sound compared to the blaring pyrotechnics of most trumpet players. Too bad his time with the Arkestra was about to come to an end. Next up is Gilmore and—what can I say?—it’s another incredible John Gilmore solo! A prime example of his ingenious harmonic logic, flawless technique and singular passion.

Side two begins with a curious title, “Amen, Amen (Amen, Meni, Many Amens),” an original composition which was also performed just this one time (see Id. p.811). Starting out with a funky organ thang, it soon settles into an easy swing, Ahmed Abdullah’s trumpet on top. Confident and self-assured on the high-note runs, he follows Ra’s meandering chord progression every step of the way until the organ drops out, leaving him to blow freely over bass and drums. When the organ returns, the guys in the band start chanting “Amen” over and over while ShooBee Doo locks into the groove. Sonny appears to be leading a church choir in elaborately hocketed repetitions of “Amen” while Danny Davis solos outrageously on alto saxophone. This goes on for quite a while until a loud, dissonant space chord brings things to a close. “Amen,” Gilmore intones solemnly one last time. Very interesting.

The next track fades up on June Tyson singing, “The Next Stop Mars,” with Ra interjecting odd chords before finally taking over with a (mostly) unaccompanied piano rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” This is another tour de force performance, with aggressive dissonances interspersed with joyfully melodic fragments, bits of ragtime mixed with flurries of dense passagework, gleefully abstracting and dissecting this hoary old chestnut and serving it up anew. Clearly, Sun Ra was inspired by the solo piano work earlier in the month and solo segments like this one would turn up with increasing frequency in Arkestra concerts, at least when a piano was provided to him.

The album ends with “I’ll Wait for You,” quickly fading up on the chanting and percussion jam. The burbling bass and disco hi-hats sets up an enervated pulse reminiscent of Miles Davis’s On The Corner, with Marshall Allen and Danny Davis flittering around on flutes while Eloe Omoe hints at a melody on bass clarinet. A dark, dense texture is established, with the hectoring vocals thankfully mixed way back but fades out after only a few minutes.

Obviously, this album was quickly assembled to be sold off the bandstand while on the road, so it’s not surprising to find it kind of a mixed bag. But despite some ham-fisted editing, the sound quality is very nice (as was usually the case when Tommy Hunter was involved) and there is plenty of interesting and unique music to be found here. It may be a minor Sun Ra album in the grand scheme of things but Somewhere Over the Rainbow is imminently enjoyable. If the original tapes of this concert still exist, an expanded reissue could be something special indeed. Well, obsessives like me can dream, can't we?


Jean K said...

I love this record (or should I say second generation cassette > CDR in my case...) Gilmore is absolutely on fire here. My favourite version of Over The Rainbow along with Of Mythic Worlds I think

Mark R said...

Great to have you back, Roger. I've been reading the blog for a couple of years but for some reason have never commented. BTW I just picked up a vinyl reissue of Soul Vibrations at Honest Jon's in London and there is a version of Amen (a great track). Is this another version, or the same one as on OTR? Another perplexing discographical detail in the Sun Ra story...

Sam said...

You're much more generous than I would have been to this album, Rodger, but yes there are some nice moments. I get tired of the "churchey" aspect of "Amen" and "Make another mistake" but yes you're right to highlight the wonderful sax solo in "Amen," which saves it. I also like the horn arrangement in "A Train," which is decidedly different from the one on the Montreux LP.

Rodger Coleman said...

@ Jean K - It took a while for this record to grow on me. It is kind of thrown together. But, yes, Gilmore is on fire!

@ Mark R - Thank you for your comment! I think the track on "The Soul Vibrations of Man" you are thinking of is "Third Heaven," a different sort of gospel thing. I was not aware of the 180-gram reissue of this - it's now on its way to me!

@ Sam - Well, like I said above, I didn't like this so much at first. But the more I listened to it, the more I came to appreciate its charms. I'd love to hear more from this concert if the tapes still exist! I think the overtly churchey stuff is interesting given his antipathy/avidity towards Christianity.

Nepenthean58 said...

I've uploaded a 3-4 minute super 8mm film clip from the gig onto youtube. Sorry, no sound.