May 19, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Continuation (Saturn LP/Corbett vs. Dempsey 2CD)

Announced way back in 2009, the two-CD reissue of Continuation (containing previously unissued material) is now finally available—but not from Atavistic, who have apparently shuttered the “Unheard Music Series.” Instead, the set has been lovingly packaged in a deluxe, triple-gatefold carboard sleeve and released in a limited edition by Corbett vs. Dempsey, John Corbett and Jim Dempsey’s Chicago art gallery. It’s been well worth the wait.

Continuation has always been one of the rarest and most discographically obscure items in the El Saturn catalog—and that’s saying something!  Released in a single, miniscule edition in 1970, the recording dates have always been assumed to be 1968 or ’69 (with side two taken from a live performance)—although Prof. Campbell expresses some doubts, suggesting that “”on stylistics grounds an earlier date is possible” (Campbell & Trent p.148).  It doesn’t help matters that the original album jacket contains boatloads of inaccuracies and outright misinformation: neither Wayne Harris nor Akh Tal Ebah are playing trumpet; it is, instead, Walter Miller on trumpet and Ali Hasan on trombone. Moreover, Robert Barry does not play drums (“lightning" or otherwise) and you will not hear Danny Thompson on “Neptunian libflecto.” To make matters even more confusing, the jacket places the recording place as “EL SATURN STUDIOS : Minneapolis, Minn.” but I don’t think anyone ever took that too seriously. In my own review, I wrote: “The presence of Tommy Hunter and his echo-echo-echo machine on ‘Earth Primitive Earth’ and ‘New Planet’ makes me think these tracks were recorded prior to 1968. In fact, the overall ambiance (and massively increased hiss) sounds like some of the Choreographer’s Workshop recordings (but this might just be wishful thinking).”

As it turns out, that is exactly where these recordings were made, during a single session on March 10, 1963 which (according to Corbett’s liner notes) produced parts of the classic albums, Other Planes of There (“Sound Spectra/Spec Sket”), When Sun Comes Out (“Calling Planet Earth”) and When Angels Speak of Love (“Ecstasy of Being” and “The Next Stop Mars”). Amazing! As long-time readers know, the Choreographer’s Workshop recordings hold a particular fascination for me and were the original impetus for my starting Sun Ra Sunday in the first place: I wanted to try and unlock their mysteries, particularly as they were presented un-chronologically on the Evidence CDs of the 1990s. To have another piece of the puzzle firmly in place is reason enough for celebration—but to have an additional 40 minutes of previously unreleased material from this period is truly miraculous!

The album itself is a classic (and now that we know its provenance, we know why) and side two can now be properly understood as another in a series of  innovative, long-form conducted improvisations in the same vein as “Other Planes of There” and “The Magic City.” The spontaneous appearance of “The Second Stop Is Jupiter” amidst all the strangeness most likely prompted discographers to assume this was recorded in concert circa.1968 but all the tracks are clearly from the same Choreographer’s Workshop session. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that the mellifluous Walter Miller could have ever been confused with the rough-edged Ebah—but now it all comes together and makes sense. Not ’68, ’63!

The nine “bonus” tracks offer further revelations into the obscure history of the Choreographer’s Workshop period. Several tracks (“Meteor Shower,” “Conversation of the Universe,” and “The Beginning Of”) sound like experimental soundchecks, testing Hunter’s echo/reverb device with various instruments. The vibe is typically spooky and spacey but the music never really develops into anything cohesive. Elsewhere, otherwise unknown compositions make their first (and perhaps only) appearances: “Blue York” (a pun on their newly adopted hometown) is a wistful blues featuring a breathy, romantic lead from John Gilmore on tenor sax while “Ihnfinity” is a beautiful ballad form for piano and Miller’s warm-toned trumpet. At less than three minutes each, these lovely pieces are far too short—they’re over before you know it! “Endlessness” is more involved, pitting angular, uptempo swing against a twisty, complicated head arrangement. Although the mix is woefully off-balance and Gilmore sounds unusually short-breathed and squeaky, it’s obviously an ambitious composition. Similarly, “Red Planet Mars” evokes the splintered, frenetic pace of “The Shadow World,” complete with full-bore saxophone battles and high-energy group improvisation—yet the band sounds somewhat tentative, as if this were just a one-off run-through. Was either of the compositions ever played again? Who knows? The disc ends with “Cosmic Rays,” a vaguely familiar sounding construction of dissonant block-chords which gives way to more “New Thing”-styled free jazz. Gilmore sounds possessed, but leaves plenty of space for Miller and Hasan—and we even get some tasty bass clarinet from Robert Cummings. But an overlong drum solo and a pointless coda of uninspired group improv after "The Next Stop Mars" breaks the spell. As nice as it is have additional Choreographer’s Workshop material available, these “bonus” tracks reveal Sonny’s astute editing skills more than anything else (especially during this period): he used only the best stuff for the albums.

That said, the CD mastering is superb and Sun Ra fans will definitely need to have this long-overdue reissue in their collections—but don’t hesitate! While there is nothing expressly indicating a limited edition, this article in The Chicago Reader states that “most” Corbett vs. Dempsey CDs are “strictly limited to 1000 copies—once they’re gone, they’re gone.” Vinylphiles should also note that an LP reissue (minus the bonus tracks and complete with erroneous information on the jacket) is also available on El Saturn Research (now a part of Universal Music Group). Interestingly, this one is not pressed on 180-gram vinyl—and perhaps that’s a good thing since several of the heavyweight Saturn reissues I bought suffered from severe warping and non-fill problems. My copy of Continuation, however, looks and plays fine. In either format, this one is essential!


Corbett vs. Dempsey has also just released a slender monograph, Sun Ra + AyĆ© Aton: Space, Interiors and Exteriors, 1972, a collection of color photographs of Ra taken on the set of the Space Is The Place movie along with Poloroids of Aton’s futuristic house murals painted under the influence and direction of Sun Ra during the late-‘60s and early-‘70s. Unfortunately, brief essays by Glenn Ligon and John Corbett are marred by poor copy-editing, with the latter’s essay riddled with blank spaces where additional information was clearly meant to be inserted. Oh well. Even so, the photos are nicely reproduced and Corbett should be applauded for continuing to make available such printed materials and other ephemera from the Saturn Research archives. Certainly, Space, Interiors and Exteriors 1972 should elevate Aton's position in the pantheon of radical African-American visual artists.


Liz said...

Excellent and thorough review! Are you feeling better? :) Love the '68/'63 connection!

Roddus said...

Yeah Good review, I downloaded a version from Adventure Equation that was a rip from a pretty bed LP. The music was good but the quality was not so. My CD copy is winging it's way as I type.

Sam said...

On the Saturn list, John Sudduth points out that "Endlessness" and "Red Planet Mars" have already been released, on "When Sun Comes Out." "Endlessness" = " The Rainmaker" and "Red Planet Mars" = the title track, "When Sun Comes Out." I did a spot check, and he's correct! Interesting.

brooos said...

Like John Sudduth, my ears picked up on the two tracks I'd heard somewhere before too. I spent a lot of time digging on those Ra Evidence reissues and could hear a few things on "Blue York" that I knew had been released previously.