August 11, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Media Dreams (Saturn/Art Yard 2CD)
Sun Ra: Sound Mirror (Side B) (Saturn LP>CDR)

Obviously pleased with the Horo Voice Studio recordings, Sun Ra lined up some live gigs for the quartet, touring Italy until at least January 23, 1978, where they performed at Teatro Cilak in Milan and recorded Disco 3000 (Saturn CMIJ 78). There were other concerts during the intervening weeks, as documented on two other Saturn LPs, Media Dream (Saturn 1978) and Side B of Sound Mirror (Saturn 19782) but the actual dates and locations for these recordings are unknown (see Campbell & Trent pp.247-249). Originally issued in miniscule numbers, these three albums are some of the rarest and most desirable El Saturn LPs in existence. Thankfully, the intrepid Art Yard label came to the rescue. In 2007, they released The Complete Disco 3000 Concert (CD 001) on two CDs (with the original LP edit reissued as CD 101). Then, in 2008, they put out another two-disc set entitled Media Dreams (CD 002), which presents the original Media Dream album on one CD and a 50-minute concert fragment on another. Taken together, these Art Yard reissues present an almost-complete picture of this highly unusual (and haphazardly documented) tour of Italy. In his liner notes for Media Dreams, Trent points out that while the discovery of some (but not all) of the original tapes from this 1978 sojourn “clarifies some questions, establishing long suspected links between various Saturn albums,” it also “raises as many questions as it answers.” Aside from the Teatro Cilak concert, actual dates and locations remain a mystery. And so it goes with Mr. Ra...

In fact, most of the tracks on original Media Dream are not to be found on the concert recording contained in the Art Yard reissue and those tracks were significantly edited for the official release. Was it all taken from the same concert? Judging from the overall ambience, it could be—or it could be from more than one—but the sound quality on the second disc is significantly degraded, making a direct comparison impossible. According to Trent: “This particular tape is no longer in audiophile condition. It does appear to be the original master, rather than a copy, but is now in a poor state. Art Yard have rescued it in the nick of time and have gone to considerable lengths to improve its quality.” They did the best with what they had and while it sounds pretty good, the tape has dearly suffered the ravages of time.

What is most notable about these live quartet recordings is how they transferred the Horo studio experiments to the stage. While he has been provided with decent pianos at these gigs, Sonny spends the bulk of his time with a variety of electronic keyboards, including a Moog synthesizer and a Crumar Mainmain organ. Media Dream opens up with “Saturn Research,” a three-minute blast of ominous, dissonant organ and synth, accompanied by dramatic drums and percussion—and Sonny is only just getting started. On “Constellation” (confusingly not the same composition found on Other Voices, Other Blues), Ra switches on the Mainman’s crude rhythm box, which plays a slowed-down cha-cha beat supplemented with a simple, synthesized bass line. Now, in anyone else’s hands, this would be unforgivably cheesy—yet Sonny somehow makes it work and the primitive Mainman organ gives these recordings a uniquely retro-futuristic feel. After a scribbly “Yera of the Sun” (whose Morse Code rhythms vaguely recall “Quest”), the Mainman gets another workout on “Media Dreams,” a thirteen minute tour de force. Starting out as a weirdly beautiful ballad form, with twittering organ, legato synth chords and all sorts of electronica effects, Michael Ray takes a long, warm-toned solo on trumpet, ably following Ra’s harmonic twists and turns. Then it devolves into Ra's wild, mad scientist display. At the ten-minute mark, John Gilmore comes in with a folk-like melody on tenor saxophone but just as Ra starts to heat things up again, the track quickly fades out. It sounds to me like this could have gone on forever.

Only the last two tracks on Media Dream are taken from the concert recording found on disc two of Art Yard’s reissue and they both feature Ra on acoustic piano. The curiously (mis)titled “Twigs at Twilight” is actually “Images,” but brutally edited, picking up about half-way through and beginning with Gilmore’s tenor solo. Although Gilmore takes many liberties with the tune, in retrospect, it is immediately recognizable as “Images.” Anyway, this is definitely another one of the all-time great Gilmore solos, not overly extended but still sublime. After a brief piano excursion and drum break, the track fades out before the return of the head, further obscuring its origins. Finally, “An Unbeknowneth Love” begins with rhapsodic piano and boom-chick trap-drumming from Luqman Ali – but someone (Gilmore?) is playing tympani, adding slippery and dramatic percussion effects: BOING! BOING! Ra gets into an aggressively dissonant, avant-garde mode before the drum solo, which fades out to end the album. Very interesting.

The second disc contains seven pieces, picking up with “Friendly Galaxy,” which is quite different from the version found on The Complete Disco 3000 Concert, where it was combined with “Third Planet.” Ra starts out on piano but quickly moves to organ, eventually getting the Mainman’s drumbox/bassline thing happening. Unfortunately, Ali drops in and out, unable to find the groove. Ra is going crazy with his ragbag arsenal of electronic keyboards but this is not a wholly satisfying group performance. “An Unbeknowneth Love” follows, with the drum solo leading immediately into “Of Other Tomorrows Never Known.” This track appeared in slightly edited form on the Sound Mirror LP and it is another virtuoso performance from Sonny. Woozy string ensemble chords and bubbly bass synthesizer seem to outline a basic structure from which Ra builds his quirkily original electronic music, full of astonishingly variegated textures and intertwined melodic lines. Meanwhile, light-handed drums scrape and murmur in the background. About six minutes in, you can hear Ra barking out instructions—though you can’t quite make out what he says. Soon thereafter, Gilmore plays an extended cadenza as Ra hints at the chord changes to “Images.”

Despite Ra's commands and a fluid introduction, the horn players fluff their entrance—and while Ray and Ra solo admirably, it really isn’t until Gilmore comes in that things really take off. No wonder this version of "Images" was edited (and retitled) for official release! Next up is one of the earliest known performances of “The Truth About Planet Earth” (a/k/a “Bad Truth”), one of Sun Ra’s patently hectoring space chants. When he accompanies himself with a soulfully swinging piano vamp, this has an almost-commercial pop-song feel—but Ra eventually abandons the instrument and everyone takes turns at the microphone, a spacey echo effect added to the voices at the soundboard. At nearly seven minutes, it goes on a bit too long for casual listening (although I'm sure it was thoroughly entertaining live). A brief rendition of “Space is the Place” offers an intriguing rearrangement of this concert staple, with new lyrics and alternative countermelodies, which immediately segues into “The Shadow World.” Don’t get too excited, though! It cuts off after only a couple of minutes.

That leaves the humorously titled “Jazzisticology” as the remaining track from Sound Mirror that was recorded on this Italian tour but is not found on either Media Dreams or The Complete Disco 3000 Concert. It is impossible tell if it belongs with its companion, “Of Other Tomorrows Never Known,” or if it is from a different concert altogether. The sound of Gilmore’s microphone sounds more gritty and immediate than elsewhere but it doesn't help matters that my "needledrop" of Sound Mirror is a crackly mess. In any event, “Jazzisticology” is another improvised post-bop number similar to what was done in the Horo Voice Studio, with Sonny cueing the arrangement and telepathically communicating the chord changes to Gilmore with his sparse piano comping. Then Ray solos over Ali's drums before the sax and piano return rubato, only to fade out too soon. An inconsequential track, perhaps, but there are other reasons to seek out Sound Mirror (which we’ll get to anon).

Needless to say, Art Yard's Media Dreams is an essential, if still discographically mysterious, release. The Complete Disco 3000 Concert may be even better—we’ll take a listen to that one next time on Sun Ra Sunday.

1 comment:

Jean K said...

An excellent Sun Ra Sunday, Rodger. Media Dream is a very strange one. I only have the Art Yard vinyl release and never went for the 2 CD version. The only track that really stands out for me is Twigs at Twilight thanks to Mr Gilmore's solo. I also quite like the tympani on An Unbeknowneth Love that really reminds me of another non-Ra song..? Disco 3000 is a lot more fun for me all round so looking forward to the next one.