June 30, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

This is just too good not to share on this beautiful summer Sun Ra Sunday. Via Include Me Out (h/t to Sam Byrd for hipping me to this!)

Playlist Week of 2013-06-29

Deafheaven - Sunbather

* Cage: Music of Changes (Tudor) (Hat[now]ART CD)
* Cage, Cardew, et al.: Piano Avant Garde (Tudor) (HatART CD)
* Takemitsu: Quotation Of A Dream, etc. (London Sinfonietta/Knussen, et al.) (DG CD)
* Takemitsu: I Hear The Water Dreaming, etc. (BBC Symphony/Davis, et al.) (DG CD)
* Takemitsu: A Flock Descends Into The Pentagonal Garden, etc. (TASHI, et al.) (DG CD)
* Takemitsu: In An Autumn Garden, etc. (Tsuruta/Yokoyama et al.) (DG CD)
* Charlie Christian: The Genius of Electric Guitar (Columbia/Legacy 4CD)
* Charles Mingus: The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65 (d.5-6) (Mosaic 7CD)
* Slobber Pup (Joe Morris/Jamie Saft/Trevor Dunn/Balázs Pándi): Black Aces (Rare Noise 2LP)
* Tom Rainey Trio: Camino Cielo Echo (Intakt CD)
* Secret Keeper (Stephan Crump & Mary Halvorson): Zeitgeist Gallery 2013-05-10 (CDR)
* Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: Indeterminate (Improvisations for Piano and Drums) (NuVoid Jazz CD)
* Olu Dara: In The World: From Natchez To New York (Atlantic HDCD)
* Olu Dara: Neighborhoods (Atlantic HDCD)
* D’Angelo: Brown Sugar (EMI CD)
* Frank Ocean: Channel Orange (Island/Def Jam CD)
* Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream (RCA CD)
* Grateful Dead: Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, Long Island 1979-11-01 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips Vol.3 No.4: Penn State/Cornell ’80 (selections) (GDP/Rhino 3HDCD)
* Jerry Garcia Band: Garcia Live Vol.2: Greek Theatre 8/5/90 (Round/ATO 2HDCD)
* Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)(†/‡)
* Black Sabbath: Paranoid (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Black Sabbath: Master Of Reality (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)(†)
* Black Sabbath: Vol.4 (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)(†)
* Black Sabbath: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)(†)
* Yes: Going For The One (Atlantic/Audio Fidelity SACD)
* Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (Original Soundtrack) (Ardent/Omnivore 2LP)
* Queens Of The Stone Age: …Like Clockwork (Matador 2-45RPM LP)
* Opeth: Newbury Comics, Leominster, MA 2013-04-20 (AUD CDR)
* ASG: Blood Drive (Relapse 2-45RPM LP)†
* Beach House: Bloom (Sub Pop CD)
* Deafheaven: Sunbather (Deathwish, Inc. 2-45RPM LP)


I’m currently reading Mingus Speaks, John F. Goodman’s new collection of interviews with Charles Mingus (and others associated with him) recorded back in the early 1970s as part of a never-realized collaboration (Mingus passed away in 1979). In his preface, Goodman says:
I quit writing about music in the 1980s in part because I could never resolve the critic’s dilemma: you either limit yourself to readers versed in various kinds of technical talk and bore them with musicological maunderings, or you write your impressions. Neither approach alone is sufficient to render the sense of what’s going in music…Unlike most other arts, music dances away when you reach out to it (p.xii).
Goodman is, of course, fundamentally, frustratingly correct. But he leaves out another option for the music writer: sociology. The eccentric personalities, colorful scenes and myriad subcultures are easier to pin down in words than that elusive, ephemeral thing, music. But this is similarly a dead end. It might make for interesting stories but they rarely get to the essence of “what’s going on in music.”
I’ve been confronted with this conundrum ever since I began contemplating the new Deafheaven album, Sunbather.
It would be easy to smirkily comment how vocalist George Clarke and songwriter/guitarist Kerry McCoy look more like fashion models than metalheads, or explicate the provocatively sexy title1 and the incongruously cheery salmon/pink gradient of the album cover2. Or, on a more substantive note, I could examine the lyrics, which wrestle with wealth, poverty, family, love, loss, envy, desperation, death and spiritual confusion—though Clarke’s shrieking, buried in the mix, renders them unintelligible. I could describe the music as a mixture of black metal, shoegaze and post-rock (whatever that is), a cross between Barzum, My Bloody Valentine and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, blithely proclaim Sunbather an important, “breakthrough” record and call it a day.
But that would not get at “what’s going on” in this music.
I could describe how it felt the first time I played this album a couple weeks ago, being swept away by its ferocious intensity and dramatic dynamic swings, drawn into the hour-long ebb and flow that somehow suspended time and how I was overwhelmed by the powerful yet inexpressibly emotions the music evoked. But then that would just be my impressions, personal and subjective—and useless as criticism. Having listened to it repeatedly since, I could then bore you with some “musicological maundering,” dissecting the dense layers of guitars, fetishizing McCoy’s variegated tone and subtly sophisticated technique and his creative use of electronic effects, meanwhile parsing the polymath drumming of Daniel Tracy. I could focus on the epic lengths of the songs—nine, twelve, fifteen minutes—and the atmospheric interludes that link them together (only one of which doesn’t quite work)3 I could emphasize the moments of breathtaking beauty amidst the harsh distortion and manic screaming: pretty chiming guitars, like a whiff of fresh sea breeze in a bad neighborhood. I could assert this is a black metal album that would appeal to many people well outside of the narrow subculture that now shuns them for stepping outside its boundaries.
But this still does not get at why this record seems to matter, why it packs such an emotional wallop, why I think you all need to hear it—even if you think you don’t like this sort of thing. Sunbather feels like a moment-defining record—a true breakthrough for a young, hungry and ambitious band—leaving me at a loss for words. Some will dismiss it as pretentious, “hipster metal,” others as senseless noise. I call it art.

1. “The [title] song came to me as I was driving around…I moved in with my mom to go to school for a bit and just chill out because life was really hectic. She lives in such a beautiful town—she moved there a few years after I moved out—but I got really depressed in this bourgeois, all-white seaside community. So one day I skipped class, drove around and I just saw this girl in the nicest house, and she was just laying there [sunbathing], and I was totally overcome with immense depression. It looked so nice, and I was in that ‘what the fuck am I doing with my life?’ mood at the time. I had a notepad with me, and the first half of the song was jotted down right then” (Clarke interview with Pitchfork 2013-05-29).
2. “[T]he color that you see when you’re laying down in the sun and your eyes are closed[.] The pinks and yellows behind your eyelids” (Clarke interview with LA Weekly 2013-05-22).
3. That would be “Windows.”

June 22, 2013

Playlist Week of 2013-06-22

Toad 2013-06-20b

* Miles Davis Quintet: Complete Studio Recordings 1965-68 (d.1-2) (Columbia/Legacy 6CD)
* Sun Ra: The Bottom Line, New York, NY 1977-12-13 (fragment) (AUD/FM CDR)
* Sun Ra Quartet: The Mystery Of Being (Horo/Klimt 3LP)
* Wayne Shorter: Footprints Live! (Verve CD)
* Wayne Shorter Quartet: Beyond The Sound Barrier (Verve CD)
* Herbie Hancock: Headhunters (Columbia/Legacy CD)
* Herbie Hancock: Thrust (Columbia/Legacy CD)
* Herbie Hancock: Man-Child (Columbia/Mobile Fidelity CD)
* Pat Metheny Group: We Live Here (Geffen CD)
* Secret Keeper (Stephan Crump/Mary Halvorson): Zeitgeist Gallery 2013-05-10 (CDR)
* Bill Laswell, et al.: Valis: The Destruction Of Syntax (SubHarmonic CD)
* Bill Laswell, et al.: Valis II: Everything Must Go (ION 2CD)
* LTJ Bukem: Journey Inwards (Good Looking 2CD)
* Grateful Dead: Winterland Arena, San Francisco, CA 11/11/73 (selections) (GDP/Rhino 3HDCD)
* Grateful Dead: Civic Center, Augusta, ME 1984-10-12 (selections) (SBD/Ultramatrix 2CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Cal Expo Amphitheatre, Sacramento, CA 1993-05-25 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Cal Expo Amphitheatre, Sacramento, CA 1993-05-26 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Cal Expo Amphitheatre, Sacramento, CA 1993-05-27 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)
* Love: Da Capo (Elektra/Sundazed LP)
* Love: Forever Changes (Elektra/Rhino LP)
* Love: Four Sail (Elektra/Sundazed LP)
* Love: Black Beauty (High Moon LP)
* Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here (Capitol/Analogue Productions SACD)
* Pink Floyd: Animals (Pinkfloyd/EMI CD)
* Black Sabbath: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Queens Of The Stone Age: …Like Clockwork (Matador 2-45RPM LP/FLAC)(†)
* Opeth: Heritage (Roadrunner 2LP)
* Alcest: Ecailles de Lune (Prophecy Productions CD)†
* Alcest: Les Voyages de L’Ame (Prophecy Productions CD)†
* Agalloch: Marrow Of The Spirit (Profound Lore 2LP)
* Baroness: First & Second (Relapse LP)
* Baroness: Yellow & Green (Relapse 2CD)†
* Baroness: Live At Maida Vale BBC (Relapse EP)
* Kylesa: Ultraviolet (Season Of Mist CD)
* Torche: Harmonicraft (Volcom LP)
* Intronaut: Habitual Levitations (Instilling Words With Tones) (Century Media 2LP)
* Pelican: Australasia (Hydra Head CD)
* ASG: Blood Drive (Relapse 2-45RPM LP)(†/‡)
* Kadavar: Kadavar (This Charming Man/Tee Pee LP)
* Deafheaven: Sunbather (Deathwish, Inc. 2-45RPM LP/MP3)(†/‡)



Nothing says summer like a toad.



Looking for something cool to listen to? Click on the link below to purchase my CD, Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: "Indeterminate (Improvisations for Piano and Drums)." You can also download MP3 files at iTunes and elsewhere if that's your thing. Thank you for your interest and support!

Rodger Coleman: Indeterminate (Improvisations for Piano and Drums)

June 16, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: The Bottom Line, New York, NY 1977-12-13 (CDR)

It’s unclear whether Sun Ra remained in Europe after the November 24 Piano Recital in Venice or returned to the United States before heading back to Italy in January 1978. There are no entries in The Earthly Recordings regarding the entire month of December and, in an interview with Keyboard Magazine, Sonny spoke of the solo performance and the January ‘78 quartet concerts as if they were part of the same tour (see Campbell & Trent, p.245). In addition, trumpeter Michael Ray states in his liner notes to the 2007 reissue of Disco 3000 that, following the week-long run at The Jazz Showcase (which produced the albums, The Soul Vibrations of Man and Taking a Chance on Chances), “[t]he very next phone call from Sun Ra was from Rome Italy. He asked if I was able to come to Rome to record an album.” This seems to indicate that Sonny had stayed behind to negotiate the Horo Records deal and set up last-minute concert dates for the New Year—and without even knowing who else might be joining him.

But, then, in the summer of 2008, two previously unheard Arkestra tracks were broadcast by Sun Ra archivist Michael D. Anderson on the ESP Internet Radio Tribute, both of which were purportedly recorded at The Bottom Line in New York on December 13, 1977. While I have no real reason to doubt “The Good Doctor” (and it would make sense, in a way, that Sonny would be back in the states during the holidays), upon close listening (and considering the information above), I’m not totally convinced that date is correct.

In any event, the contiguous 16-minute concert sequence is certainly unusual, beginning with (apparently) the only known performance of “I Cover the Waterfront,” the 1933 hit song by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman, which was popularized by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. As with other old-timey numbers in this vein, it is mostly a vehicle for one of John Gilmore’s extended flights on tenor saxophone, punctuated by harmonized riffing from the rest of the band and a short organ solo from Ra. Of course, it is always delightful to hear Gilmore playing in this sort of straight-ahead, post-bop fashion but, honestly, it’s not one of those jaw-droppingly amazing displays he was routinely capable of. Instead, it’s merely great: tasteful, inventive and swinging. “Song of the Stargazers” appears here in a radically re-arranged version, with an odd major/minor tonality, angular herky-jerky rhythms and lyrics that are antiphonally chanted by the band rather than sung. Even weirder, Sonny adds some cryptic declamations towards the end. Interestingly, I don’t hear June Tyson or any trumpets whatsoever but Vincent Chauncey sounds especially strong on the French horn and is later joined by someone (possibly Craig Harris) on a warm and brassy trombone. Frankly, the abject strangeness of this rendition makes me suspect a different date—but then again, who knows?

Ultimately, this snippet of tape poses more questions than it answers, particularly when it comes to nailing down the chronology. Perhaps there is more from this concert in the El Saturn archive, which might provide some more clues as to its origin. Regardless, the unusual repertoire and excellent sound quality make it a highly enjoyable listen. There is a lot of other rare material to be found on the ESP Internet Radio Tribute and is well worth tracking down—even if the discographical info is a little sketchy. So it goes with Sun Ra!

June 15, 2013

Playlist Week of 2013-06-15

Grateful Dead - May 1977

* Charles Mingus: The Jazz Workshop Recordings 1964-65 (d.1-2) (Mosaic 7CD)
* Charles Mingus: The Great Concert of Charles Mingus (Verve 2CD)
* Herbie Hancock: Directstep (CBS/Sony CD)
* The Spanish Donkey (Joe Morris/Jamie Saft/Mike Pride): XYX (Northern Spy CD)
* Slobber Pup (Joe Morris/Jamie Saft/Trevor Dunn/Balazs Pandi): Black Aces (Rare Noise 2LP)
* Paul McCartney & Wings: Wings Over America (Best Buy Exclusive) (MPL/Concord 3CD)
* Grateful Dead: May 1977 (GDP/Rhino 14HDCD)
* U2: Zooropa (Island CD)
* Queens Of The Stone Age: …Like Clockwork (Matador 2-45RPM LP)
* Opeth: Ghost Reveries (Roadrunner HDCD/DVD)
* Opeth: Watershed (Roadrunner CD/DVD)†/‡
* Kylesa: To Walk A Middle Course (Prosthetic/Alternative Tentacles LP)
* Kylesa: Time Will Fuse Its Worth (Prosthetic/Alternative Tentacles LP)
* Kylesa: Static Tensions (Prosthetic/20 Buck Spin LP)
* Kylesa: Spiral Shadow (Season of Mist LP)
* Kylesa: Ultraviolet (Season of Mist LP)
* Torche: Meanderthal (Hydra Head LP)
* Torche: Harmonicraft (Volcom LP)
* Intronaut: Habitual Levitations (Instilling Words With Tones) (Century Media 2LP)
* Akron Family: S/T II: The Cosmic Birth And Journey of Shinju TNT (Dead Oceans 2LP)
* Akron Family: Sub Verses (Dead Oceans 2-45RPM LP)
* Riverside: Shrine Of New Generation Slaves (Mystic/InsideOut 2CD)†
* The Sword: Warp Riders (Kemado CD) †/‡
* Pelican: Pelican (Hydra Head CDEP)†
* Russian Circles: Empros (Sargent House CD)†
* Wild Nothing: Nocturne (Captured Tracks CD)
* Wild Nothing: Empty Estate EP (Captured Tracks CDEP)
* ASG: Blood Drive (Relapse 2-45RPM LP)
* Deafheaven: Sunbather (Deathwish 2-45RPM LP)



When asked, many longtime Deadheads would point to Spring 1977 as one of—if not the very best—tour ever. In fact, the May 8 concert at Barton Hall at Cornell University is so highly regarded that the Library of Congress selected it for inclusion in the National Recording Registry in 2012.

There are good reasons for this almost universal acclaim.

For one thing, the band had just concluded recording sessions for their Arista debut, Terrapin Station, whose high-powered producer, Keith Olsen, demanded the sort of discipline and precision the Dead were not at all accustomed to. When they hit the road at the end of April, they not only had a bunch of new songs to premiere, they were as tight, polished and professional as they’d ever been (or ever would be). The performances during this period are almost universally strong, if not always downright inspired.

Another big reason this tour is so highly revered is the extraordinarily nice sound quality of the tapes. Recorded by Betty Cantor-Jackson, these so-called “Betty Boards” are not "soundboard" recordings at all (that is to say, taken from the PA system), but a separate mix constructed from a direct line feed from the on-stage microphones. Without a doubt, her tapes are amongst the best-sounding two-track concert recordings ever made—and have circulated widely amongst tape-traders since the digital revolution of the 1990s.

Not surprisingly, the Spring 1977 tour has been heavily mined by Grateful Dead Productions since the inception of Dick’s Picks back in 1993, with Volume 3 and Volume 29; To Terrapin: Hartford 1977; the Download Series Volume 1; Dave’s Picks Volume 1; and the Winterland June 1977 box set all deriving from this remarkably fertile period. 

Nevertheless, the Cornell show has never been officially released.

Why? Well, the master tapes are not in The Vault—but are, instead, being held ransom by some individual who purchased the contents of Cantor-Jackson’s storage unit back in the late-80s, when she was on the outs with the Dead organization, destitute and forced into foreclosure (for the sordid details, check out the interview with Cantor-Jackson in The Taper's Compendium). This person not only has the master reels from Cornell but also the following night in Buffalo (which is, in my opinion, even better) as well as a bunch of other stuff that is not in The Vault. Supposedly, s/he wants a million bucks for this cache of priceless (and rapidly degrading) master reels. GPD refuses to pay—and I don’t blame them.

As a result, the new May 1977 box set is something of a misnomer, in that it does not represent a true picture of that magical month. However, we do get five consecutive concerts, picking up at the St. Paul Civic Arena on May 11. And it is typically solid, with a strong “Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain” sequence and a spine-chilling space-out after “Uncle John’s Band.” The following two shows from the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago on the May 12 and 13 have never previously circulated from Betty’s masters and are substantial upgrades from the lousy radio broadcasts and audience tapes that are out there. However, aside from the outrageous “Other One” on the 13th, they are unremarkable—despite the lovely acoustics. But then the St. Louis concert from the 15th is almost as legendary as Cornell, with an over-the-top, disco-fied “Dancing in the Streets” that goes on for nearly 20 minutes and the very first (and smoothly seamless) pairing of “Estimated Prophet>Eyes of the World.” But, for me, the May 17 performance at the Memorial Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama is the highlight of this box set. The Dead rarely played the Deep South and here they are quite obviously on their best behavior, delivering a generous 14-song first set that concludes with a 25-minute “Scarlet Fire” plus a solid second set featuring a magnificent jam of “Terrapin Station>Playing in the Band>Drums>Wharf Rat>Playing in the Band.”  It doesn’t get any better than this, folks.

My only quibble with this era of the band's history is the noticeable decline of Keith Godchaux. At times, he could still be mellifluously inventive on the keyboards but mostly he drifts off into a somnambulant plod, mindlessly banging on the piano, repeating simplistic rhythmic figures in dull, root positions. This regrettable tendency would only increase in the coming months, eventually leading to his forced departure from the band in January 1979. By the same token, his wife (back-up singer Donna Jean Godchaux), was not an altogether positive element of the Dead’s sound, with her wordless caterwauling during songs like “Playing in the Band” and “Scarlet Begonias” bordering on the embarrassing. Still, I have to admit she probably is at her very best on this tour, providing tasteful harmonies on the slow ballads and country-inflected numbers that peppered the repertoire. Despite their ups and downs, Spring 1977 is, without a doubt, the pinnacle of the Keith & Donna era.

So, is this latest box set the last word on Spring ’77? Unless and until the master tapes from New Haven, Cornell and Buffalo are recovered, it probably is. Then again, it’s unclear whether the entire Palladium run in New York is even in The Vault. The Download Series Volume 1 (now defunct) was taken from the April 30 show—and the commonly available second set from May 4 is definitely one of my favorite Dead sets ever. Otherwise, none of this stuff circulates in remotely decent sound quality. Now, that would make for an interesting release!

While May 1977 is also available as a (very expensive) FLAC download, the gorgeously crafted 14-HDCD box set is a numbered limited edition and will surely sell out—especially given the downright reasonable price of ten bucks per disc. Last I heard, fewer than 3500 of the 15,000 boxes are still available from Dead.net; if you want it, you better grab it fast. Trust me: you won’t regret it.

June 9, 2013

Playlist Week of 2013-06-08

Amanda & Brian 2013-06-08 (iPhone)

* Beethoven: Piano Concertos (d.1) (Chamb.  Orch. Europe/Harnoncourt/Aimard) (Teldec 3CD)
* Debussy: Chamber Music (Athena Ensemble) (Chandos CD)
* Takemitsu: Garden Rain, etc. (Phillip Jones Brass Ens., et al.) (DG CD)
* John Coltrane: Living Space (Impulse! CD)
* John Coltrane: Kulu Sé Mama (Impulse! CD)
* John Coltrane: First Meditations (Impulse!/GRP CD)
* Sun Ra: Fate In A Pleasant Mood (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: Piano Recital, La Teatro La Fenice, Venezia (Leo/Golden Years CD)
* Sun Ra Quartet: The Mystery of Being: The Horo Recordings 1978 (Horo/Klimt 3LP)
* Brian Harnetty: The Star-Faced One: From the Sun Ra/El Saturn Archive (Atavistic CD)
* Henry Threadgill Zooid: Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp (Pi CD)
* The Spanish Donkey (Joe Morris/Jamie Saft/Mike Pride): XYX (Northern Spy CD)
* Isaac Hayes: Black Moses (Enterprise/4MWB 2LP)
* Frank Ocean: Channel Orange (Island/Def Jam CD)†/‡
* Hawkwind: In Search Of Space (Liberty/EMI LP)
* Clearlight Symphony: Clearlight Symphony (Virgin LP)
* Michael Hoenig: Departure From The Northern Wasteland (Warner Bros. LP)
* U2: Actung, Baby (Deluxe Edition) (Island/Universal 2CD)
* Sigur Ros: Ágætis Byrjun (Fat Cat 2LP)
* Queens Of The Stone Age: …Like Clockwork (Matador 2-45RPM LP)
* Earth: Hibernaculum (Southern Lord LP)
* Opeth: Deliverance (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†/‡
* Opeth: Damnation (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†/‡
* Anathema: Weather Systems (The End 2LP)
* Agalloch: Grey EP (Agalloch/Bandcamp FLAC)†
* Agalloch: White EP (Agalloch/Bandcamp FLAC)†
* Agalloch: Ashes Against The Grain (The End CD)†
* Kylesa: Static Tensions (Prosthetic/ 20 Buck Spin LP)
* Kylesa: Spiral Shadow (Season of Mist LP)
* Kylesa: Ultraviolet (Season of Mist LP)



Just got back from my nephew’s wedding in Kansas City and we’re exhausted! It was a great time – with skeet shooting (!) in the morning and a beautiful marriage ceremony in a historic prairie chapel in the afternoon. We couldn’t be happier for them. Congratulations to Brian and Amanda!



Want to hear an example of Brian’s work? As you may know, he engineered my CD, Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: Indeterminate (Improvisations for Piano and Drums) and it sounds AMAZING. You can stream it at NuVoidJazz.com or click on the link below to order the deluxe CD. It’s also available for download at iTunes and all the usual places—but if you really want to dig the sonics, go for the CD. Thank you for your interest and support!

Rodger Coleman: Indeterminate (Improvisations for Piano and Drums)

June 2, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Piano Recital, Teatro La Fenice, Venezia (Leo/Golden Years CD)

On November 24, 1977, Sun Ra returned to Europe to perform a solo piano concert at Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Italy, a portion of which was broadcast in color over RAI (Italian Television). According to Prof. Campbell (via Francesco Martinelli), “the videos in circulation are 45 minutes long, the first and second unidentified titles are repeated, and there are only about 25 minutes of music. It is possible that ‘Cocktails for Two’ (which is heard in the background during footage of Ra walking in Venice, etc.) is from a rehearsal and not the concert itself” (Campbell & Trent p.245). Additionally, an audio tape apparently circulates which is from a different source but also repeats the first two titles while omitting “Over the Rainbow”(Id.). The audio tape, however, “includes an extra unidentified title (which develops into a blues) not on the videos in circulation” (Id.). I have neither seen nor heard either of these supposedly circulating tapes and, given the sketchy information provided in their discography (with only “Cocktails for Two” and “Over the Rainbow” being identified), it would appear Campbell and Trent hadn’t either.

Then, in 2003, Leo released Piano Recital, Teatro La Fenice, Venezia on their Golden Years imprint in a limited edition of 1500 CDs—but it is not sourced from these alleged RAI tapes. Moreover, neither “Cocktails for Two” nor “Over the Rainbow” make an appearance in the setlist, indicating they were not played at this concert and were probably recorded elsewhere. Although seemingly complete, the hour-long Golden Years CD is taken from an amateur audience recording—a “bootleg”—and the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired. The tape was clearly made in the back of the hall and while the acoustics in the 1790 opera house (which burned down in 1996) were obviously superb, the piano sounds distant and washed out on this primitive stereo recording. To make matters worse, low-frequency rumbles, bumps and thumps repeatedly intrude as the recordist manhandles the microphone. It’s not the worst-sounding bootleg we’ve heard (far from it!) but a bootleg just the same. Even so, Sun Ra’s performance is extraordinary: a summation of the year’s flurry of solo piano activity—and the last such appearance for several years. As such, the Leo CD is an important (if flawed) historical document of Ra’s brilliantly idiosyncratic pianism.

Sonny begins his recital with a rhapsodic improvisation, effortlessly moving from lush romanticism to furious atonality to bluesy noodling to impressionistic washes of harmony. In keeping with the ornate, classical music surroundings, Ra has been provided a fine piano, expertly tuned, with sensitive touch and a rich, resonant presence. At times he seems completely absorbed in its lush soundworld. An untitled blues follows. Is this an original composition? Some obscure cover? An extemporaneous improvisation? It’s hard to tell as it sounds like a tune that’s been around forever. In any event, Ra sounds like he is having fun and the large, enthusiastic crowd bursts into loud and long applause at its conclusion. Loosely orchestrated renditions of “Love in Outer Space” and “Outer Spaceways, Inc.” are little more than jams but Ra’s unerring internal rhythm and innate sense of structure holds things together, delighting the audience with his effortless aplomb. “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “St. Louis Blues” are given relaxed, carefully considered performances with astonishingly subtle dynamic shadings and fleet passagework. Ra is totally in his element here—and he’s just getting warmed up.

After a brief intro to “Penthouse Serenade,” Sonny attacks the piano in  three-handed fashion, sounding like a slightly more mild-mannered Cecil Taylor, with fragments of the tune interjecting themselves into the furious outpouring of notes. This is Ra as virtuoso pianist and when he suddenly shifts back to the theme, the enraptured audience bursts into stunned applause as Sonny moves to a loping rag-time feel. At its conclusion, the crowd can barely contain their enthusiasm, hooting, hollering, cheering, clapping; Sun Ra was finally being given his due in one of Europe’s preeminent art-music capitals. A short take on “Angel Race” returns to jamming mode with Sun Ra singing the verse. There’s not much to it, but the audience eats it up. “I want to invite you to attend a party,” Ra tells them. “1980, on Jupiter.” Then he launches into an intense improvisation built around stabbing, Morse code-like rhythmic figures and towering block chords reminiscent of “Quest” (which appeared on the WKCR radio broadcast on July 8, 1977 and later released as a single on the Saturn label).

“Honeysuckle Rose” starts off with a slightly off-kilter take on the melody before Sonny moves into a “mad-scientist” keyboard assault. The independence of the hands and fingers is quite remarkable and his voicing of the thick, dissonant tone clusters strongly accents the consonant notes—meaning the functional harmony still functions. Ra knows exactly what he’s doing! No matter how “out” it gets, the music is still deeply rooted in the old-time jazz tradition and this tour-de-force performance is rapturously received by the audience, who vociferously demand an encore. “Friendly Galaxy/Spontaneous Simplicity” is another genially tossed off jamming vehicle (and somewhat overlong at almost eight minutes) but the audience loves it just the same.

Of the four solo piano recordings in 1977, Piano Recital, Teatro La Fenice is probably my least favorite. Although Ra’s performance is riveting, the fuzzy sound quality makes it hard for me to fully enjoy. However, given the rarity of such solo outings, it remains essential for the hardcore Sun Ra fan. Personally, I’d love to get my hands on a copy of the video.