April 14, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Taking a Chance on Chances (Saturn LP>CDR)

Also recorded at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago sometime in November 1977, Taking a Chance on Chances was released as Saturn 772, the companion volume to The Soul Vibrations of Man (Saturn 771). Being the final release on the Chicago-based Saturn label, it is exceedingly rare: there are only a hundred or so copies known to exist—but, unfortunately, all of them have a defective pressing on Side A (see Campbell & Trent pp.244-245). That fact (along with the somewhat mundane repertoire) makes this one a rather difficult and, ultimately, frustrating listen. The pressing defect manifests itself in a woefully unbalanced stereo presentation and a near-constant overlay of scratchy noises and horrifically ugly distortion which only begins to clear up towards the end of the side. Ugh. Pressing the mono button helps a little (if you have one) but not much. As listeners to The Soul Vibrations already know, these are not great-sounding recordings to begin with; the pressing flaw renders them almost unlistenable.

In any event, the title track opens the album; but, of course, the correct name is “Taking a Chance on Chancey,” since it is the usual improvised duet between Ra (on organ) and Vincent Chancey on French horn. Regardless, Chancey sounds remarkably self-assured on that notoriously unwieldy instrument, confidently navigating Ra’s twisty chord changes. About four minutes in, Michael Ray comes in with some blaring trumpet while the rhythm section starts to heat up and saxophones ad lib swinging background figures. Interesting. The “Lady Bird”/”Half Nelson” medley follows—but the sound quality takes an even more disastrous turn for the worse, making even John Gilmore’s wonderful tenor sax solo hard to enjoy. Fortunately, the sound cleans up a bit for Sonny’s solo piano rhapsody, “Over the Rainbow.” This tune had become a near-permanent fixture in the setlists during this period but it is beautifully played and warmly received by the audience.

Side B sounds much better (though still decidedly lo-fi), starting off with a hard-driving take of “St. Louis Blues,” led by Sun Ra’s fleet-fingered piano work and supported by Richard “Radu” Williams on bass with Tommy Hunter and Luqman Ali on trap drums. Ra moves back to the electric organ for an extended take on “What’s New?” wherein Gilmore takes one of those monumental solos that only reconfirms his stature as one the all-time great post-bop tenor saxophonists. While hewing close to the labyrinthine harmonic sequence, he takes it further and further out as first the organ and then the rhythm section drop out from under him, leaving him naked and alone on the stage. Despite considerable microphone distortion, his tone is still earth-shakingly huge, with brilliant ideas spinning out in endless permutations. It seems like Gilmore could go on like this forever but Ra eventually puts a stop to it with an emphatic organ stab, inviting Ahmed Adullah to take over on trumpet. While nice enough (and a welcome contrast to Ray's cloying extroversion), it seems a little anticlimactic after Gilmore’s astonishingly virtuosic display. The album ends with yet another rendition of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” notable for yet another incredible Gilmore solo. Sadly, my "needledrop" CDR starts to develop a horrible digital clicking sound about halfway through and becomes completely overwhelming by the end. Oh well; I take what I can get.

Obviously, the ever-amazing Gilmore solos are what make the generally bad sound quality worth suffering through on this one—particularly his tour de force outing on “What’s New?” But with several other, much better-sounding albums available featuring this sort of material, I can’t really recommend Taking a Chance on Chances to anyone but the most devoted Sun Ra freak (or slavishly devoted Gilmore fan). Perhaps a proper reissue (a la The Soul Vibrations of Man LP) would change my mind.

1 comment:

Sam said...

You're right, this is rough going, but the Gilmore solos are gold.