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!