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 As such, the Leo CD is an important (if flawed) historical document of Ra’s brilliantly idiosyncratic pianism.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.