February 24, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Some Blues But Not The Kind That's Blue (Saturn/Atavistic CD)

On October 14, 1977 the Arkestra entered Variety Recording Studio for their first studio recordings in over two years. With their increasingly busy touring schedule and tenuous finances, most Saturn records from here on out would be made live rather than in a studio—not even one as low-budget as Variety. These sessions yielded the obscure LP, Some Blues But Not The Kind That’s Blue, released on the Chicago Saturn label as LP 101477 in 1978. Alternative titles include My Favorite Things and Nature Boy and may display alternate serial numbers, LP 1014077 and 747 (see Campbell & Trent pp.241-242 for the gory details). In any event, this is one of rarest of rare Saturn LPs, with very few copies known to exist. Thankfully, Atavistic reissued Some Blues But Not The Kind That’s Blue on CD as part of their “Unheard Music Series” in 2008, remastered from the original tapes and filled out with a bunch of bonus tracks. As with the rest of the Sun Ra albums in this series, this one is a classic.

All that said, Christopher Trent suggests the title track was not recorded at Variety at all and is possibly a live recording (Id.). I agree. It has a totally different ambience than the rest of the album with a crude, microphone on the bandstand sound quality. It’s a decent recording – and Variety was no high-tech studio—so it’s actually hardly noticeable (in fact, the whole record appears to be mono). The structure of “Some Blues But Not The Kind That’s Blue” also suggests a live recording, starting out with a skronky group improvisation, with John Gilmore seeming to state some sort of theme—but then Sonny suddenly moves from space organ to the piano and now it’s a slow blues. After a quick chorus from Gilmore, Ra does his thing on piano, taking it just to the edge of the stratosphere before bringing it back to the slow, grinding blues progression. A series of horn solos follows (some of them way off-mic) as Luqman Ali attempts to get funky on the drums, Sonny shuts it down, calling for a big, squalling space chord (and pretty piano notes) to end. Yeah, this is a live recording.

On “I’ll Get By,” you can tell it’s a studio recording; the sound is more immediate—and also hissier. This torch song from Billie Holiday (written by Roy Turk and Fred E. Ahlert) was only played a few times in the Arkestra’s history (but see the 1973 bonus tracks below) and the sparse, bass-less rhythm section lurches rather than swings. Even so, Gilmore is great as usual, even if he seems a little hemmed in by the unsettled groove. A ruminative take on “My Favorite Things” is better, with Sonny providing the rhythmic drive on piano—check out that left hand! This is another Gilmore tour de force, offering his highly personal take on this tune which was so closely associated with John Coltrane. Exquisite! The Atavistic CD inserts an untitled bonus track at this point: Ra’s agitated piano ostinatos and the frenetic, out-there horns lend this a “Shadow World” feel. Interesting; but given the more subdued tone of the rest of the album, it is understandable why Sonny left it off.

“Nature Boy” is another hoary old chestnut given the inimitable Sun Ra treatment, starting out with exotic percussion and Marshall Allen’s snaky, split-tone oboe, Sonny providing pretty piano chords in the background. After a more traditional piano intro, Gilmore comes in with the melody, surrounded by an ornate arrangement for saxophones and flutes. Ra’s solo is slyly romantic, changing keys on a whim while Gilmore gets to do his thing a cappella. A dissonant, pulsating space chord lets loose some mellifluous flute solos before Sonny brings it to a close. “Tenderly” seems to pick up where “Nature Boy” left off, with a similar high-register riff and another rhapsodic piano outing. It’s nice and all, but feels sort of ad hoc. The solo activity of the summer had clearly given Sonny the confidence to go on and on like this on whatever  tune struck his fancy. According to Campbell and Trent, this is only known performance of “Tenderly” and is worth hearing for that reason alone. The album ends with another one-off deconstruction of an old standard, this time the Mercer/Arlen classic, “Black Magic.” Sonny pushes and pulls at the rhythm, sometimes swinging, sometimes moving to a space rumba feel, sometimes hinting at ragtime. After a very loosely stated melody, Akh Tal Ebah gets a rare turn on trumpet and although he is a little sloppy (and maybe even a little unsure of himself harmonically), I love his warm, loose-lipped tone. Sadly, this would be one of his last appearances with the Arkestra. Danny Davis follows on alto before a big, loud off-color ending, Ra providing the final punctuation with a low, rumbling chord. Very strange, very beautiful.

The Atavistic CD adds two additional bonus tracks, two more takes of “I’ll Get By” recorded at the House of Ra in Philadelphia on May 3, 1973. Ra is on organ with Ebah on flugelhorn and Ronnie Boykins on bass—no drums. The rock-solid Boykins holds this together like superglue and Ebah’s playing is mellow and elegantly understated. Unfortunately, there are some weird sonic anomalies. As John Corbett puts it in his liner notes,  “In the distance, the muffled remnant of a previous track appears, taped over on this home recording, the almost in-sync backwards drums providing a low-key element of surreality.” Yeah, like that. On the second take, Gilmore takes the lead before giving way to a tasty bass solo from Boykins. These tracks demonstrate that the appearance of  “I’ll Get By” on Some Blues...was not just a spur-of-the-moment thing; the song had some previously unknown history.

Some Blues But Not The Kind That’s Blue is a typically quirky Saturn release from the ‘70s, somewhat unusual for its (mostly) studio setting. Its extreme rarity as an original artifact makes the Atavistic CD a godsend to Sun Ra fans, with the bonus tracks being icing on the cake. But these relaxed, easy-going takes on the standard repertoire should be approachable to any open-eared jazz fan, making it one of those extraordinary “gateway” albums to Sun Ra’s outer space music. In a discography numbering hundreds of albums, it can be difficult to know where to start; Some Blues… is as good a place as any.  


Sam said...

Excellent write-up, Rodger. This is easily one of my all-time favorite Ra albums. Gilmore is exquisite. Low-key but glowing hot!

Jean K said...

Second that. Great record and luminous writing as ever.

Brad M. said...

Great review,Rodger.I really like the bonus tracks,which were recorded at the Sun Ra house,most likely.