March 10, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra Arkestra: Unity (Horo 2LP)

During the last week of October, 1977, Sun Ra and his Arkestra headlined a week-long engagement at the prestigious Storyville jazz club in New York City and portions of the concerts on the 24th and 29th were recorded (probably by Tommy Hunter) and released on a double-LP entitled Unity by the Italian Horo label in 1978 (Campbell & Trent pp.242-243). It was also briefly reissued in Japan as RCA RV1 9003/9004 in 1979 (Id.). Horo was founded in 1972 by Aldo Sinesio in order to record local musicians and others in the international avant-garde jazz scene, including Giorgio Gaslini, Enrico Rava, Giancarlo Schiaffini, Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp, Lester Bowie and, of course, Sun Ra. Unity was one of three double-albums Sonny made for the label in 1978. However, with limited distribution in the United States, Horo records were always hard to find and are, of course, long out of print. A CD reissue program was announced back in 2009, to be released through Atomic Records but nothing much came of it (and Atomic is now defunct), leaving these essential Sun Ra albums out of reach to all but the most fanatical (and well-heeled) collectors. My copy is a crackly needledrop CDR—but I’d sure love to hear a clean original pressing. It’s an excellent live document from the period.

The Arkestra is at full strength for this appearance, with the usual cast supplemented with Craig Harris and Charles Stephens on trombones, Emmett McDonald on bass horn and Richard “Radu” Williams on bass. This also marks the final appearance of Akh Tal Ebah on trumpet and, unfortunately, he gets no solo space here. Along with Ahmed Abdullah there’s a new trumpeter on board, Michael Ray, who would go on to become a key member of the Arkestra in the coming years. Ray had a background in jazz but made a name for himself on the R&B circuit, playing with Patti Labelle, The Delfonics, The Stylistics and, later, with Kool & The Gang. Ray’s hard-driving soloing was by far the most forceful trumpet voice in the Arkestra since Kwami Hadi left the band in 1975. Besides a tendency to overplay, Ray also liked to mimic an echo effect during his solos, a demonstration of superlative embouchure control but, over time, it becomes an annoying tic. He only pulls this stunt once on Unity (on the Miles Davis tune, “Half Nelson”), but soon it will become a fixture in just about every solo. Obviously, Ray brought something to the band Sonny appreciated—otherwise this behavior would not have been tolerated in the “Ra jail.” As with Clifford Jarvis’s interminable, masturbatory drum solos, Sonny could be over-indulgent with some of his pet musicians, for reasons that remain inscrutable.

The album starts out in the middle of a set, with Sun Ra essaying “Yesterdays” on organ, some wild, dissonant horns coming in only at the very end. After a formal announcement from John Gilmore, Duke Ellington’s “Lightnin’” is up next. Taken at a slightly more relaxed tempo than usual, the band sounds tight and full-bodied, with Gilmore handling the slippery clarinet part with ease. “How Am I To Know?” is presented in its full vocal arrangement, with Gilmore moving to the tenor saxophone. With a breathy, wide vibrato, he evokes both the lush pre-War swing of Ben Webster and the bluesy, hard-bop of Hank Mobley. Somewhat atypical for Gilmore, he plays in a deceptively simple, straightforward manner, staying well inside the harmonic sequence—but it is so deeply soulful and flawlessly executed that the effect is utterly mesmerizing. Yes, it’s another incredible Gilmore solo—just one of many on this album! A peaceful version of “Lights on a Satellite” surrounds Gilmore’s saxophone with fluttering flutes before another couple of classic big band numbers, “Yeah, Man!’ (with Gilmore again shining on clarinet) and Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp.”

“Images” offers Ray his first opportunity to solo at length, alone with the drums. He has impressive technique but he’s a blaster, always playing full-bore with a big, blatty sound. He also knows how to take it progressively out—but Gilmore comes in and shows him how it should be done. The music gets almost unbearably intense as the tenor solo goes on and on and on. Ra tries to rein him in, but nothing doing; he just keeps going. Damn! Gilmore is on fire! Sonny cools things down with “Penthouse Serenade,” a lazy swing number for solo organ and there’s more organ balladry on Tad Dameron’s “Lady Bird.” This then segues into “Half Nelson,” which features barn-burning solos from Gilmore and Ray (who introduces his echo-echo-echo trick at the end). Ra announces “Halloween in Harlem” and slams down on a dissonant organ cluster before the ensemble comes in with the tense, lurching march. “My Favorite Things” again features Gilmore and what can I say? It’s yet another amazing Gilmore solo! Curiously, “Rose Room” and “Satellites Are Spinning” are taken from a concert in Chรขteauvallon, France on August 24, 1976 (Id.). While a bootleg of this concert circulates, the sound here is quite a bit better. Ra is on Rocksichord rather than organ and the ambience is clearly outdoors rather than inside a small nightclub. Even so, a crossfade puts “Enlightenment,” recorded at Storyville in 1977, in between—a rather odd way to end an otherwise remarkably consistent album.

While there are no outrageous, improvised freak-outs, mad-scientist keyboard experiments (nor tediously overlong percussion jams and space chants), Unity is a classic Sun Ra record—and home to some of Gilmore’s finest playing ever committed to vinyl. Despite the rough and ready sound quality, the accessible repertoire and stellar performances makes this another ideal introduction to Sun Ra’s music for the newcomer. Too bad it’s so hard to find. 

1 comment:

Sam said...

Excellent write-up for an excellent album! This is one of my favorite organ-dominated Ra albums, and it's got definitive versions of several of the standards he dwelt on: "Lightnin'," "Rose Room," King Porter Stomp" (written by Jelly but the version here is based on Fletcher Henderson's arrangement), "Yeah Man!" I am 100% with you on the Ray tic....I cringe every time he does it, which is just about every damn solo he ever took with Ra.