August 18, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: The Complete Disco 3000 Concert (Art Yard 2CD)

The quartet of Sun Ra, John Gilmore, Michael Ray and Luqman Ali performed at Teatro Cilak in Milan on January 23, 1978, apparently at the very end of their extended stay in Italy. While their exact movements are poorly documented during this period, they were certainly back in the states on or before January 29, where the Arkestra appeared at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore (see Campbell & Trent pp.247-250). The Teatro Cilak concert was recorded and portions were released later in the year as Disco 3000 (Saturn LP CMIJ78) and reissued by Art Yard in 2009. Prior to this, though, Art Yard released the entire Milan performance on two compact discs as The Complete Disco 3000 Concert (CD 001) in 2007. As with Media Dreams, these welcome reissues not only make available some of the rarest of all Saturn LPs, but also provide additional material that puts these weird and wonderful recordings into a wider context.

The concert opens with “Disco 3000” and, right away, you can tell the small band has really started to gel after several weeks working together. While Media Dreams is dominated by Ra’s electronica (wonderful as it is), Disco 3000 is much more of a cohesive group effort. There’s still plenty of mad-scientist keyboard extravaganzas, with the Crumar Mainman organ and cheesy rhythm box establishing an uneasy, mutant disco vamp—but here, Ali locks in comfortably with the beat and the horns are given plenty of space across its epic twenty-six minutes. About five minutes in, they suddenly launch into “Space is the Place,” but, curiously, not in the re-arrangement found on Media Dreams. After a couple of minutes of chanting, things take off again, with some absolutely killer tenor saxophone from Gilmore and hypnotic, quasi-ambient keyboard effects from Ra. It’s tempting to just say “Disco 3000” is the crowning achievement of the quartet’s brief existence and leave it at that. A classic Sun Ra track.

Not that there isn’t more great music on these discs! After a short drum solo, “Sun of the Cosmos” continues in the guided improvisation vein, including more crazed keyboard work from Sonny and another outrageous tenor solo from Gilmore, where he explores the entire range of extended techniques from altissimo screams to impossible split-tone multiphonics. Whew! Ra then moves to the piano for “Echos [sic] of the World,” a pretty ballad with Gilmore in the lead. “Geminiology” picks up the tempo with some jaunty swing and a riff-based head arrangement but Ra takes it way out: thunderous low-register tone clusters and furious parallel runs, just a total assault on the piano. Then it’s suddenly back to the cheery jazz feel for Ray’s extended solo on warm-toned trumpet. “Sky Blues” is exactly as the title suggests, a swinging blues riff, with Gilmore delivering the sermon. Lord have mercy! This is another incredible Gilmore solo, a blues history lesson: from honking, hokey gutbucket to dizzying post-bop harmonic labyrinths to the most out-there avant garde wailing—all without losing the thread of tradition and ending with an emphatic flourish. Dammmnnn.

Disc one concludes with six minutes of “Friendly Galaxy,” given an angular and dissonant rearrangement, fading out on Ray’s muted trumpet solo. Disc two then fades up some time later (the reel flip evidenced by the increased wow-and-flutter at the beginning of the track) and, after about a minute of noodling on “Friendly Galaxy,” Ra signals “Third Planet.” The two horns sound super-tight and Gilmore once again plays a mind-bendingly great tenor solo, this time accompanied only by the drums. Ali is uncharacteristically aggressive here, swinging like a mo-fo while Gilmore blows the doors down. No wonder Sonny picked this track for release on the original Disco 3000 LP! “Dance of the Cosmo Aliens” was also included on the original LP and it’s another spaced-out electronica-fest, with Gilmore and Ray putting down the horns and picking up percussion instruments. Even so, the expanded rhythm section struggles a bit trying to follow along with the crude electric drum box. Even so, Ra’s keyboard playing is otherworldly and the crowd eats it up, bursting into rapturous applause at the end.

“Spontaneous Simplicity” is given an electrified rearrangement with lots of wild keyboard effects and some blasting trumpet work from Ray, but is perhaps overlong at fourteen-some minutes. This segues into “Images,” which is given a tighter reading than on Media Dreams. While Gilmore’s solo is probably not the equal of “Twigs at Twlight,” it’s still pretty freaking awesome. Although the packaging says this includes “Over the Rainbow,” it actually appears on the following track, “When There Is No Sun,” which is given a gentle, gospelized feel, with Gilmore and Ray sweetly singing and Ra accompanying the on churchy organ. Then Sonny erupts into another electronic frenzy before slipping over to the piano for a brief sketch of “Over the Rainbow.” Finally, the concert ends with a reprise of “Space is the Place,” with Ra vamping on piano for a while before joining in on the chant. Interestingly, this rendition shares the quickened phrasing of the unique rearrangement heard on Media Dreams, but lacks the horn parts and countermelodies.

Sonny obviously thought highly of this concert, releasing not only the Disco 3000 LP but editing the title track and “Sky Blues” down for release on a seven-inch 45RPM single (Saturn 2100) which can be found on the two-CD set, The Singles (Evidence ECD 22164-2). Retitled "Disco 2100," the sprawling original is reduced to two minutes and and 43 seconds of Ra's swirling, primitive electronica while the flip side focuses on the first two-and-a-half minutes of boogie-woogie. I don't expect it got a lot of airplay.

While all of the Art Yard releases are essential in my opinion, The Complete Disco 3000 Concert is really something special, presenting Sun Ra in this unusual quartet situation where everything just comes together. You not only get Sonny at his most adventurous, demonstrating his inimitable mastery of electronic keyboards (as well as some virtuosic piano playing) but the young newcomer, Michael Ray, plays with admirable taste and restraint while Luqman Ali more than holds his own as the lone member of the rhythm section. And Gilmore—well, what more can be said? Incredible! Get it before it goes out of print forever.


Jean K said...

Spot on Rodger! One of my favourite post-Boykins (my watershed for some reason..) Sun Ra records.

Sam said...

Yes, this is an amazing release. Great write-up as always, Rodger. Sorry I haven't commented so much on the past few Horos, etc....really haven't had anything to add. If I had to say anything about your Horo reviews, it'd be that you were perhaps too harsh on Luqman Ali's drumming...I think his sparse, understated style really underpins the Horos and strengthens the group interplay. But we've already had that conversation! :) Anyway, great write-ups on what I know were hard subjects. This Italian sojourn yielded some amazing music, especially since Gilmore is just so on-fire throughout!

Rodger Coleman said...

@ Jean K - thank you! And so good to see you on the VC!

@ Sam - yeah, maybe I was a little harsh on Ali regarding the Horos - but he certainly makes up for it on the live stuff. In fact, what's most interesting to me is how this unusual quartet came together during this lengthy stay in Italy.

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