February 10, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Fort Dupont, Washington, D.C. 1977-08-14 (AUD CDR)

On July 22, 1977, the Arkestra played at the Michigan Union Ballroom in Ann Arbor and, supposedly, an audience recording exists. However, I’ve never heard it and Prof. Campbell offers no details (see Campbell & Trent p.240). A few weeks later, they appeared at Fort Dupont Park in Washington, D.C. on August 14 (Id. p.241) and a sixty-minute tape of the complete set circulates widely—but be forewarned: recorded from the audience on primitive, monophonic gear, the sound quality is simply atrocious. It’s the usual set of problems we find with bootlegs of the era: poor instrumental balance, with volume levels bobbing up down seemingly at random. Moreover, the sound is muffled and distorted yet oddly distant, with a Dolby mismatch or two somewhere in the genealogy, making a bad-sounding tape even worse. The original master tape might have sounded okay but the available copy is a miserable facsimile. Yuck.

Nevertheless, this is an interesting set, opening with an extended improvisation featuring Marshall Allen on oboe, which is always a treat. After a couple of sing-alongs led by June Tyson (“Astro Black” and the Sun Ra processional, “(The World Is Waiting) For the Sunrise,” the band slips into the old favorite, “Discipline 27,” before quickly launching into some bashing free jazz skronk. “Lightnin’” and “Yeah Man!” are taken at almost cartoonishly fast tempos, with John Gilmore wailing away like a madman on the latter. And while the band sounds  remarkably tight, it is impossible to make out any details since the recording quality is so horrific. Oh well. A compact but typically intense version of “The Shadow World” follows, featuring plenty of crazy keyboard work from Sonny but, again, the murky sound obscures what appears to be an inspired rendition. “How Am I to Know” swings romantically, with Tyson and Ra singing sweetly to each other and fine solos from Danny Davis and Gilmore (I think – it’s impossible to really hear what’s going on). Next there’s a relatively rare performance of “Planet Earth” (complete with lyrics) before the usual percussion jam on “Watusi” and a long medley of space chants and free blowing to end the set (“Outer Spaceways Incorporated,” “Second Stop is Jupiter,” “Space is the Place” (in its new rearrangement), “Neptune,” “Journey to Saturn,” “We Travel the Spaceways,” “Greetings from the 21st Century,” and “Sun Ra and His Band from Outer Space”). In the midst of all this carrying on, abstracted versions of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Stranger in Paradise” make fleeting appearances. Blink and you'll miss them.

Frankly, this one is for hardcore fanatics only. If you can tolerate the abysmal sound quality, then you might enjoy this short but action-packed set; everyone else should stay far, far away.


Sam said...

You're right, this is really a rough one! It's probable that I will never listen to this one again.June's vocals on "How Am I to Know" are really nice, like you say, and I don;t recall any other version where she sings it like that (or at all? I don't think she's on "Unity," is she?). Also, it sounds like a slightly different arrangement for the head to "Watusi." But the sound is rough, even for me!

Rodger Coleman said...

@ Sam - yeah, the arrangement of "Watusi" does sound different - but it's really hard to tell since the sound quality is so ridiculously bad! It's a testimony to the power of Sun Ra's music that anyone would even bother to listen to this!