December 28, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

Reader Mr. G commented on my post from a few weeks back regarding Sun Ra's music and morality and he suggested that I check out professor David W. Stowe's paper, From Ephrata (F-Ra-Ta) to Arkestra which draws a parallel between Sun Ra and early-eighteenth century mystic Conrad Beissel. Fascinating stuff, but I'm still skeptical that any ethical component inheres to music itself, rather than merely asserted by proclamation. Still, Dr. Stowe's paper is well worth reading and thinking about (if you think about such things).

December 14, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Music From Tomorrow’s World (Atavistic UMS/ALP237)

The companion to last week’s disc, Music from Tomorrow’s World is another collection of never-before heard music from Sun Ra’s tenure in Chicago. The first thirty minutes of the disc consists of an amateur recording of a live set at the Wonder Inn, where the Arkestra, stripped down to a sextet, was in residency for much of 1960. The sound quality is remarkably good considering the era and the less-than-ideal circumstances. Certainly it is full of delightful ambience: the cash register clinks, folks are laughing and talking. But one woman is way into it, shouting encouragements like, “Play it, Sun Ra, play it like you want!” And he does. The repertoire is pretty adventurous for nightclub work, opening with three Ra originals: “Angels and Demons at Play,” a slinky 5/4 ostinato groove with some pretty flute playing by Marshall Allen; “Spontaneous Simplicity” featuring more beautiful flute work over gently rolling rhythms (but who is the second flutist?); “Space Aura” swings hard and fast with a typically brilliant tenor saxophone solo by John Gilmore. Next up are some earnestly goofy vocal numbers, including a truly bent version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” It’s interesting to note that Sun Ra plays both acoustic and electric piano in a live setting, using the Wurlitzer for color, not convenience on the cramped stage. “How High The Moon” begins with a Sun Ra poem which leaves the audience puzzled, but things heat up with a cooking Gilmore solo and by that time the crowd is into it, calling out to the musicians, clapping hands, hooting and hollering. A spooky rendition of “China Gate” concludes the set with metallic percussion clattering ominously behind warbling, over-the-top vocals. Fascinating!

The remainder of the disc is given over to a forty-minute Majestic Hall studio session also recorded in 1960. Transcribed from a lowly cassette tape several generations away from the now-lost master recording, it’s pretty rough going sonically compared to the Wonder Inn stuff. Nevertheless, it’s a sparkling performance by an eight-piece Arkestra and includes three previously unheard original compositions by Ra. It’s well worth fighting through the murky sound quality to hear these intriguing bits of music. What’s striking about this session is how polished and well-rehearsed the Arkestra sounds, executing the variety of material with confidence and finesse, especially in the ensemble sections where the rich orchestrations require precision and balance. Too bad it’s so hard to discern amidst the noise and distortion. Still, it’s listenable if you can acclimate yourself to the rather gnarly sound.

Shortly after these recordings were made, Sun Ra and his most dedicated musicians would make their way to New York City (via Canada) and Philadelphia, never to return to Chicago for any extended period of time. With Music From Tomorrow’s World, Atavistic has provided us with another glimpse into Sonny’s working life prior to fulfilling his alter-destiny and is therefore a crucial historical document for Sun Ra fans.

December 13, 2008

Anthony Braxton Quartet (Moscow) 2008

Anthony Braxton Quartet: (Moscow) 2008 (Leo CD LR 518)

Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet:
Anthony Braxton: sopranino, soprano, and alto saxophones, contrabass clarinet, electronics
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn, piccolo and bass trumpets, valve trombone
Mary Halvorson: electric guitar
Katherine Young: bassoon

Recorded live June 29, 2008 at the DOM, Moscow, Russia

Why is this man smiling? Is it because, at age 62, he finally finds himself feted in Russia, land of mystics and revolutionaries? Or is it because, with the Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet, he is creating some of the most viscerally exciting – downright fun music of his career? Or is it because his friends at Leo Records were to rush release this document a mere months after its historic performance? Or is it because, despite the seriousness of his intent, Braxton is just a guy who wants to “kick it about and have some fun”? I suspect all of the above and more.

As you may know, I do love the Victoriaville 2007 CD (Victo 108). Here, the addition of Katherine Young’s throaty bassoon gives the drummer-less ensemble a distinctive flavor. Mary Halvorson continues to impress me as the most complete electric guitarist around – she can do it all, but still always retains her own, delightfully unique voice. Taylor Ho Bynum has taken up a range of brass instruments, in the spirit of AACM multi-instrumentalism, to splash vast washes of tonal colors from valve trombone to piccolo trumpet. As for Braxton himself, he is seemingly at the peak of instrumental prowess, his tone quality on the various reed instruments a burnished, glowing gem. Meanwhile, the Supercollider electronics emit intermittent swirls of noise like some interference in a broadcast signal from outer space. This is wild stuff!

The continuous seventy-minute performance contains such a wide variety of creative, endlessly evocative music that time feels suspended; it’s over before you know it. The music unfolds organically, each succeeding event flowing from what precedes it. The absence of percussion allows things to proceed from the players’ unforced inner rhythms and, over the entire expanse of time, a vast multitude of instrumental approaches are explored. Yet, the musicians’ vocabularies appear limitless and the ending, when it arrives, seems almost arbitrary, as if the music will continue even if we can no longer hear it. The brief encore picks up the intergalactic broadcast in midstream only to lose contact again at the three-minute mark. It is impossible for me to differentiate what is notated music and what is wholly improvised and from what I’ve seen from the scores, they consist of graphical symbols, colors and shapes that leave much to the performer’s interpretation. But the loyalty and dedication of these gifted musicians allows for a perfect union of freedom and responsibility; I mean, it still sounds like Anthony Braxton’s music, even when his voice is silent.

This CD gives us all reason to smile. Thank you Mr. Braxton!

December 7, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Spaceship Lullaby (Atavistic UMS/ALP243 CD)

The Vocal Groups Featuring Nu Sounds, The Lintels, & The Cosmic Rays
Recorded in Chicago, IL 1954-1960

When Evidence released The Singles (ECD 22164) in 1996, it came as something of shock (to me, anyway) to learn that Sun Ra had been actively involved with doo wop vocal groups prior to the establishment of the Arkestra. In fact, the very first release on the fledgling El Saturn label in 1955 was a 45RPM single featuring the Nu Sounds covering Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day” on the A-side and The Cosmic Rays contributing to a Sun Ra ditty entitled, “Daddy’s Gonna Tell You No Lie” on the flip. Amazingly, Ra continued to record scattered singles with vocal groups up until about 1960. Of course, vocal performance would go on to assume a significant part in the Arkestra’s Cosmo Drama, especially in group space chants and the incantations of June Tyson and Sun Ra himself. But this stuff is something different: an obvious attempt at commercial pop that some Ra aficionados will find downright hokey. But, Sonny would likely reply, “This hokey shit is somebody’s hopes and dreams…don’t be so hip!” (Szwed p.352). In any case, this being Sun Ra, any pop sensibility is decidedly skewed towards the weird and utterly lacking in the kind of vapid slickness that might have aided any entry into the marketplace.

Released in 2003 on Atavistic, Spaceship Lullaby shed more light on this mysterious period in Ra’s discography, gathering together several never-before heard rehearsal tapes of some of the various vocal groups Ra worked with in the mid-to-late 1950s. The Nu Sounds and The Cosmic Rays were both (semi)professional groups and their repertoires are remarkably diverse: jazz standards, show tunes, pop numbers, and Ra compositions that range from the proto-space-chant,“ Spaceship Lullaby” to the virtuosic “Chicago USA.” Apparently written for a contest to determine Chicago’s new theme song, it’s a tour de force of rich imagery and onomatopoeia. The Lintels, on the other hand, were clearly amateurs, probably just young kids taken in off the South Side streets and introduced to disciplined arrangements and enforced self-respect by intergalactic community organizer Sun Ra. You can hear Ra working with them, getting them to try some odd harmonies before calling it a day. Nothing else is known about the Lintels beyond this snippet of tape – not even their names. What remains is a tantalizing glimpse of the kind of street-corner doo wop culture that has been long lost.

Most of the tapes are home recordings with only Ra’s prodding accompaniment on the piano. Occasionally, some spare percussion joins in on the first Nu Sounds session (and Pat Patrick contributes some bari-sax train sounds on the second take of “Chicago USA”). However, a few tracks with The Cosmic Rays feature the entire Arkestra. “Africa” would appear in wordless form on Nubians of Plutonia (El Saturn 406/Evidence 22066 CD) and here is a mere fragment, suggesting an interesting alternate approach to this seminal Ra composition. The sound quality is rough overall, but somehow that only contributes to this record’s considerable charm. Perfect for a Sunday evening.

December 6, 2008

Keeping Up With Robert Pollard (End of Year Edition)

Boston Spaceships: Brown Submarine (GBV, Inc. 3) (LP/CD) After disbanding Guided by Voices in 2004 and pretty much retiring from the road, Robert Pollard has convened another working band, dubbed Boston Spaceships, consisting of former GBV bassist (and Takeovers co-conspirator) Chris Slusarenko and Decembrist drummer John Moen. With the addition of Tommy Keene and Jason Narducy, Boston Spaceships hit the road this fall performing sets larded with super-obscure titles from Pollard’s immense catalog. I would have loved to have seen them here in Nashville, but I was of town on at the time. Fortunately for me, a crispy soundboard circulates of the Champaign, IL show from 10/9. Just prior to this tour, Brown Submarine was released on GBV, Inc. and it showcases a bunch of new Pollard songs (and an update of an old, super-obscure one) that indicate that Uncle Bob is on a roll, composing his best songs and delivering his most committed vocal performances since the demise of GBV. As opposed to the sometimes monolithic productions of current collaborator Todd Tobias, Boston Spaceships sounds like a band rocking out in a room and Pollard sings with a high-kicking exuberance that is maybe otherwise lacking. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tobias’s production and consider him a genius equal to Pollard’s own profligacy (see below); but there is just something electrifying by an actual band (or at least rhythm section) playing in real time that animates this record in a way that has to be acknowledged. Good stuff.

Circus Devils: Ataxia (HJRR 19) (LP/CD)
Of all the various releases Pollard inevitably puts out in any given year (all of which I eagerly devour), I have truly come to look forward to the annual Circus Devils record. That is because the Circus Devils allows Bob to indulge his love for intense, psych-damaged prog rock and thereby giving free reign to producer/multi-instrumentalist Todd Tobias’s own fervid imagination. Tobias (and sometimes with brother and former-GBV guitarist, Tim) piles layers upon layers of shifting keyboard textures, guitar riffing and raging, and sheer random noise to create little sonic symphonies over which Pollard’s (usually) electronically processed voice intones cryptic haikus. Somehow, the result always coheres into remarkably compelling albums, each with its own distinct aroma. Last year’s Sgt. Disco was a sprawling masterpiece – perhaps one of the best records Pollard’s ever made – so, when Ataxia arrived in my mailbox on Halloween, I was expecting to be a little let-down. But, while obviously less ambitious than Sgt. Disco, Ataxia is yet another classic Circus Devils LP. Definitely a bit sludgier, and maybe a bit murkier and more diffuse than the rock-ribbed Sgt., but there are still some strong songs here amidst all the captivating weirdness. “Freedom’s Monster” pulses with an ominous industrial-techno drive and a plaintive vocal while “The Girls Will Make It Happen” pogos up and down with punky energy. Later, on side two, “He Had All Day” turns contemplative with a mournful vocal over chiming acoustic guitars. As with many of Pollard’s more, um, interesting records, this one gets better with each repeated listen. Recommended to fans of Pollard’s darker side.

The Carbon Whales: South (HJRR 17) (7”/CD-EP)
Ostensibly “an obscure band from the late 70s that actor Paddy Considine turned Bob onto,” I suspect this is really another pseudonymous side-project by Pollard & Co a la Nightwalker. It sure sounds like Bob doing his best Mark E. Smith impression on “Welcome to Miami” while the bass-playing and horn arrangement on “Work Into Me” sounds suspiciously like Chris Slusarenko. Meanwhile on side two, “False Teeth” is a lugubrious dirge that lurches immediately into “The Jeep,” another Fall-ish number with hectoring vocals from “Bob Evans.” This is a curious and novel item for the discography, but probably inessential to anyone but the most rabid completists (like me).

Robert Pollard: “The Butler Stands for All of Us” (HJRR 20) (7”) The A-Side previews a track from Pollard’s forthcoming Tobias-produced solo album, The Crawling Distance and packs four non-LP tracks on the 33 RPM B-side. “The Butler Stands for All of Us” continues with the kind of sophisticated power-pop that made this year’s Off To Business such an unqualified success. Seems to me that The Crawling Distance (due January 20) will be a welcome bit of sunshine in the middle of what’s looking to be a cold and dreary winter. As for the B-sides, “First Wave” and “I Would Be a Fish Tank” are classic Bob with guitar, drunkenly wailing at the boombox while “Elevator to Far Worse” sounds like an old basement-derived GBV fragment that wouldn’t have felt out of place on the Plantations of Pale Pink EP. “The Throat Is Young” returns to Bob and guitar, this time accompanied by windchimes banging around in the background. A quirky seven-inch gem.

Robert Pollard: Town of Mirrors (Fantagraphics Books) Published in conjunction with Pollard’s first New York gallery show, Town of Mirrors gathers 175 of Pollard’s favorite collages, hand-picked by the artist, as well as over a dozen new collages created exclusively for the book. Any long-time fan of GBV is well aware of the affective power of Pollard’s visual art, his carefully constructed images gracing albums, posters, inner sleeves and other ephemera over the past decades. Pollard’s collages evoke the mastery and mystery of Joseph Cornell while establishing a vocabulary and style that is as unique and compelling as his own songwriting. This lavishly produced hardcover catalog contains gorgeous reproductions, a selection of lyrics, and an introductory essay by Rick Moody. My only quibble would be that dates and dimensions are lacking, making this something less than a properly scholarly monograph. Even so, this is a welcome document of Pollard’s cross-disciplinary output and a must for every fan.

All this stuff can be obtained via Rockathon.


2009 is looking to be another great year for Pollard fanatics with The Crawling Distance due on January 20, 2009 (Inauguration Day!) and a new Boston Spaceships LP entitled The Planets Are Blasted expected February 17, 2009. In addition, not one but two Circus Devils are already in the can: Gringo, also to be released in February and as yet untitled disc due, as usual, around Halloween. Also on the horizon is the long-delayed release of the Some Drinking Implied DVD and no doubt there will be singles, EPs, and other stuff on the way as well. Personally, I’m still waiting for the promised box to house this past year’s HJRR singles series and a CD of those tasty B-sides, but we’ll see… Perhaps another tour is in the works? God bless Uncle Bob!

November 30, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Solar Arkestra: Other Planes of There (Evidence 22037 CD)
Recorded in New York City, 1964
Originally released as El Saturn LP 206 (1966)

My music is the music of precision…Actually, I don’t play free music, because there is no freedom in the universe. If you were to be free you could just play no matter what and it doesn’t come back to you. But you see, it always does come back to you. That’s why I warn my musicians to be careful what you play…every note, every beat, be aware that it comes back to you. And if you play something you yourself don’t understand, then that’s bad for you and for the people too.
-- Sun Ra (quoted in Szwed, John, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (Pantheon) (p. 235-236)

The title track to Other Planes of There marks the first recorded appearance of extended group improvisation by the Arkestra but, as indicated above, this is anything but “free jazz.” Sun Ra was deeply suspicious of the notion of freedom, remarking that the only free person was in the graveyard (id. p.309). In all of his work, he stressed the importance of discipline over freedom. At the height of the civil rights movement in 1968, he flatly stated: “Don’t be fooled, talking about revolutin’…what the white race got to revolute against? They got everything. That’s not for you. Not no revoluting for black people, no freedom, no peace. They need unity, precision and discipline” (id. p.100).

The twenty-two minute piece opens with a long, portentously held space chord declaimed by the entire ensemble but then immediately gives way to a series of small sub-group and solo episodes whose entrances and exits are cued by Ra at the piano; his own ruminations vary from lushly harmonic voicings that vaguely hint at some forgotten jazz standard to interlocking atonal arpeggios that foreshadow Cecil Taylor’s work a couple years later. At one point, a trombone choir improvises antiphonally amidst pealing trumpet and honking baritone sax. The next minute, Marshall Allen solos on his snake-charming oboe. Heat and energy levels increase as John Gilmore’s squalling tenor saxophone rides waves of skittering percussion and roiling piano figures but then subsides, leaving a stuttering trombone to solo before the return of massed space chords that herald the climaxing ensemble improvisations. With a flourish, the piece decisively ends. While lacking any overt themes or chord progressions beyond the thickly voiced space chords, “Other Planes of There” is organically structured, contemplative, and at times sounds more like modern chamber music than the unrelenting “energy music” that was/is propagated by many proponents of “free jazz.” For Sun Ra, meaningful freedom meant the imposition of severe limits.

“Sound Spectra/Spec Sket” is another, less ambitious attempt at group improvisation. After establishing a chugging drumset groove over which Walter Miller’s trumpet lazily sings, Sun Ra’s piano abruptly enters with a contrary and agitated rhythm that is extended with the addition of bass and yet more percussion. Before anything else is able to happen, all the instruments drop out and a reverb-drenched drum solo pitter-pats thoughtfully until the piece comes to a sudden, inconclusive end.

“Sketch” brings us back to the world of straight-ahead, bop-influenced jazz with a small-group rhythm section backing John Gilmore’s throaty saxophone. But things are not quite what they seem, having returned from an interplanetary voyage. Artificial reverb ebbs and flows across the soundfield, giving the proceedings a constantly shifting, otherworldly sheen. Sun Ra’s first piano solo quickly turns disjointed and dissonant and Gilmore’s subtly explores the shrieks and howls of multiphonics over the rapidly modulating chord progression. Then, the almost hokey ching-ching-a-ching of the cymbal signals a conventionally old fashioned solo from Ra before the reverb retreats and the Arkestra finally enters to state the theme behind Gilmore’s lead. Fascinating.

“Pleasure” seems even more old-timey with Pat Patrick’s breathy baritone saxophone sounding as buttery smooth and romantic as Harry Carney. Yet an element of strangeness pervades. As Neil Tesser puts in his liner notes: “Very odd, very peaceful, the piece seems to have wafted out of some hip but unpretentious lounge on, say, Venus.” Quite so. Also quite beautiful.

“Spiral Galaxy” concludes the album with a loping space waltz, full of pounding percussion and braying horns, all slathered with a hefty helping of artificial reverberation. Solos come and go, sometimes forcefully, sometimes merely lurking in the background. At times, the distortion threatens to overwhelm the music altogether but then the reverb knob is suddenly dialed back, revealing the naked Arkestra, choogling along comfortably. So it goes for ten or so minutes, leaving the listener quietly unsettled. Of course, this kind of electronically driven disorientation would be taken up years later in the “dub” music of Jamaican reggae but, again, Sun Ra was truly ahead of his time – a man from the future.

Other Planes of There is a landmark album in Sun Ra’s considerable discography. For the first time, Sun Ra combined pure freedom with rigorous discipline while also maintaining a genuine connection to a deep tradition and thereby producing music of startling originality. Essential.

November 29, 2008

Anthony Braxton: The Complete Arista Recordings

Anthony Braxton: The Complete Arista Recordings (Mosaic 242) (8 CDs)

Ah, the 1970s…imagine a time when a major record label would see fit to sign an über-avant-gardist like Anthony Braxton to a (semi)lucrative, long-term contract! Yes, thanks to producers (and music lovers) Michael Cuscuna and Steve Backer, Clive Davis’s newly-launched Arista Records released nine titles by Mr. Braxton during the years 1975 to 1980 comprising an astonishing array of wildly diverse music: from a solo saxophone recital to a massive, Stockhausen-inspired composition for four symphony orchestras; from the telepathic improvisatory interplay of the classic quartet to the ritual-ceremonial music Composition 95 for two pianos (performed by Frederic Rzewski and Ursala Oppens); from an all-star big band session that conjures up the spirits of both John Phillip Sousa and Anton Webern to duets with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and synthesist Richard Teitelbaum. Plus a saxophone quartet (Composition 37) and two takes (with differing ensembles) of the prickly and abstract Composition 76 (For Trio). Not to mention a smattering of jazz standards from “You Stepped Out of Dream” to “Giant Steps” with a rip-snorting version of “Maple Leaf Rag” thrown in to emphasize that, no matter how out-there he might seem, Braxton is part of The Tradition. Obviously, Braxton seized upon this fortuitous (and as it turned out, fleeting) opportunity to make the broadest possible cross-section of his music available to a world-wide audience, despite the commercial world’s entrenched desire to pigeon-hole him in the jazz bins.

I would have been content to sit in New York and record Anthony’s quartet with Kenny Wheeler (later George Lewis), Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul every day for those six years. I loved that band and those people…But Anthony had other ideas – lots of them. And they took us to Oberlin, Ohio, Chicago, Woodstock, Montreux, Berlin, and Milano on a variety of projects, most of which seemed impossible for various logistical or budgetary reasons. Anthony had a way about him that convinced you that the impossible was doable and needed to be done. Michael Cuscuna, “Producer’s Note” (p.20)

The Arista recordings not only reaffirmed Braxton’s status as a virtuoso instrumentalist across the entire woodwind family, they also (and more importantly) cemented his reputation as a serious composer of art music – like it or not. But whatever nascent-60s idealism that had survived in the corporate culture of the 1970s was surely obliterated by 1980 and, despite critical accolades and Mr. Cuscuna and Mr. Becker’s heartfelt advocacy, Arista summarily terminated Braxton’s contract and promptly deleted his entire catalog. For the most part, all of this music has remained tragically out of print and unavailable ever since. At one point in the 1990s, Michael Cuscuna was asked if Mosaic Records had any plans to release Braxton’s Arista output since the boutique label’s focus on lovingly produced boxed sets of obscure but important recordings was a perfect vehicle for such a project. At that time, Mr. Cuscuna responded that, unfortunately, the original tapes were “lost.” Accordingly, I spent the next several years on eBay completing my collection of the original LPs since it was looking like this material would never be properly issued on CD. Much to my amazement, it was announced this past spring that The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton would be released in October. Without hesitation, I preordered for immediate delivery and, to tell you the truth, I didn’t believe it was really true until the thing arrived in my mailbox. Lordy, it truly is a Lazarus-like miracle to have this crucially important but long-lost music available once again!

Mosaic has done its usual fastidious job with a twenty-page, 11”x11” glossy booklet containing numerous exquisite photographs, a comprehensive discography, and track-by-track annotations by Braxton scholar Mike Heffley. Apparently those lost original tapes were found as the sound quality is superb, richly detailed and revealing of even the densest sonic textures. Sure, it’s expensive and, in these uncertain economic times, might seem an extravagant luxury. On the other hand, this set is limited to a mere 5,000 individually numbered copies and I have no doubt that, when they’re gone, this brilliant music will once again disappear into the unforgiving void. So, carpé diem!

November 23, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

I’m laid up with a nasty cold, so I’m resting and re-reading John F. Szwed’s masterful Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (Pantheon, 1997). In his Introduction, Szwed makes a remarkable statement:

This is the biography of a musician who confronted the problems of creating music for an audience who expected nothing more than to be entertained, but who at the same time attempted to be a scholar and a teacher, and to take his audiences beyond the realm of the aesthetic to those of the ethical and the moral. (p. xviii)
The realm of the ethical and the moral is a realm that most music criticism tends to avoid, and for good reason I suppose. Szwed’s statement begs a host of questions: Can music be ethical or moral? Or does music rely upon the extra-musical (e.g. biography, texts, performance) to convey ethics and morality? What is an unethical or immoral music? Can ethical or moral music be produced by unethical or immoral persons? Who decides what constitutes ethical ethics and moral morality? These questions are not easy to answer, even in the case of Sun Ra, who explicitly espoused such ethical and moral concerns amidst the afro-cryptic, space-age show-biz trappings; he often stated that he was sent here from Saturn to help people.

In my re-reading, I will be looking closely to see whether Szwed merely asserts the moral and ethical components of Ra’s music or instead seeks to articulate how this realm is manifested in the music itself (beyond, of course, lyrical statements). Personally, I believe that, yes, there is an ethical and moral component that was central to what Sun Ra was attempting to accomplish through his music and that component is audible; to say exactly where and how is another matter altogether.

Or maybe it’s just the Sudafed® talking.

November 9, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Astro Infinity Arkestra: My Brother the Wind Volume II (Evidence 22040)

Recorded NYC 1969-1970
Originally released as El Saturn LP 523

Tracks one through six consist of what discographer Robert L. Campbell aptly describes as “spaced out barbeque music” with Ra playing the warm and woody Hammond organ and featuring two exquisite vocal performances by June Tyson on “Somebody Else’s World” and “Walking On the Moon.” The remainder of the LP is something of a suite for solo MiniMoog synthesizer, wherein Ra conjures up apocalyptic clouds of cosmic noise. I’m reminded of this enlightening exchange with Sun Ra in Graham Lock's wonderful book, Forces in Motion (Da Capo, p.17):

GRAHAM LOCK: Were there any particular sounds that first attracted you to the synthesizer?

SUN RA: I like all the sounds that upset people, because they’s too complacent. There are some sounds that really upset ‘em and I like to shock them out of their complacency ‘cause it’s a very bad world in a lot of aspects. They need to wake up to know how bad it is, then maybe they’ll do somethin’ about it.

GRAHAM LOCK: You think music can spur people into action?

SUN RA: Of course it can. It’s just…you have a lot of commercial folks on this planet who took the music and used it to make money, but now people have heard so much of that music they’ve been sated with sound. But the spirit, it gets very little food I’d say. And the spirit needs something too. It says, ‘What about me? I need some beautiful music or beautiful poetry.’ I think the people on this planet are starving their spiritual selves. See, music is a spiritual language, ‘n’ that’s what I have to offer, so I’m gonna put it out there and maybe people will do somethin’ right. They may not want to, but they be compelled to (chuckles).

November 5, 2008

November 2, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra and his Astro Infinity Arkestra: Strange Strings (Atavistic ALP263 CD)

Recorded NYC 1966-1967
Strange Strings is one of the most obscure and downright weird recordings in all of Sun Ra’s immense (and weird) discography. By 1966, Ra had acquired a selection of odd stringed instruments – ukuleles, kotos, zithers, etc. – to be played exclusively here by members of the Arkestra. That the musicians did not how to play them was the whole point, it was, according to Ra, “a study in ignorance.” Structurally, the music builds on the kind of conducted-improvisation found on The Magic City (1965) (Evidence CD), but the unfamiliar instruments create a truly otherworldly din. Homemade metallic instruments clatter and thrum while strings are plucked, bowed, struck and scraped; sometimes drums and tympani pound ominously. Thick reverb saturates or, at other times, dries up the acoustic, creating shifting and distorted sonic perspectives. Sounding more like Iannis Xenakis than Fletcher Henderson, this stuff is definitely not for the faint of heart! The bonus track, “Door Squeak” features Sun Ra on, yes, a loudly squeaking door (which actually sounds very much like the MiniMoog, which he would take up years later) while more strange strings chatter in the background. Detailed liner notes by Hal Rammel and super deluxe packaging make this CD a must have for the connoisseur of Sun Ra’s furthest interplanetary journeys. Thank you, Atavistic, for another fine Sun Ra Sunday!

More Autumn Light

October 26, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Solar Arkestra: Secrets of the Sun (Atavistic ALP266 CD)

Atavistic continues to make the rarest of the rare Saturn records available once again and to a mass audience all thanks to John Corbett’s “Unheard Music Series.” Rejoice!

In fact, Secrets of the Sun is so rare, that the CD had to be mastered from a vintage LP, with its occasional (but inevitable) pops and clicks. But don’t let that stop you! This is primo Sun Ra, recorded in rehearsal at the Choreographer’s Workshop in New York City, where the relaxed vibe (free rent!) and pleasant acoustics inspired an amazing run of albums from 1962-1964. Many of those titles were (thankfully) re-issued by Evidence in the 1990s but this nearly-lost 1962 session is a most welcome addition indeed.

Listened to chronologically, the Saturn LPs recorded during the Choreographer’s Workshop period exhaustively document the evolution of the Arkestra from the tightly arranged big-band material found on The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (Savoy, 1962) to the adventurous and edgy avant-garde weirdness of Heliocentric Worlds, Vols.1-2 (ESP, 1965). As such, these Saturn records are some of the most intriguing (and downright pleasurable) albums in all of Sun Ra’s vast discography. Emerging from its decades-long obscurity, Secrets of the Sun presents a missing link in the history of this period.

The smallish ensembles are simply recorded (in mono) in a lushly reverberant ambient space which gives the recordings a suitably unearthly quality that epitomizes that “Saturn Sound” so unique to Sun Ra’s home-brewed record label. The opening track, “Friendly Galaxy,” is typical in how it constructs a whole other world in miniature: the unusual frontline instrumentation (bass clarinet, flute, flugelhorn, and the rarely-deployed electric guitar) creates beautifully floating melodies and ethereal textures while the agile and propulsive rhythm section of Ronnie Boykins on bass and Tommy Hunter on drums combine with Sun Ra’s off-kilter piano to provide a buoyant and supple ostinato accompaniment. Individual solos briefly take flight before returning to the theme and ends, appropriately, after a mere four minutes and fifty-three seconds. Brilliant!

“Solar Differentials” takes things a bit further out with “space bird sounds”, “space voice”, and primitive electronic echo and feedback (remember, this is 1962!), all of which is punctuated by Sun Ra’s percussive stabs on the piano. Ronnie Boykins once again shines with his rock solid bass anchoring the chaotic proceedings. “Space Aura” is slightly more conventional, beginning with a march-like processional before giving way to a relaxed swing, with everyone contributing pithy but exploratory solos – Pat Patrick’s honking and squealing baritone saxophone being a particular delight. The following track, “Love In Outer Space”, went on to become a standard in the Ra songbook but here is given a somewhat minimalist treatment: after a short allusion to the theme, John Gilmore moans and wails on bass clarinet over some percolating bass and percussion before the whole thing trails off inconclusively.

“Reflects Motion” points towards the future with its episodic construction: bass and drums duet and solo before Ra’s enervated piano figures enter, which presages the spiky, atonal melody that is taken up by the horns. This soon gives way to more bass/percussion grooving and the relatively succinct and swinging solo sections are interspersed with yet more percussion interludes. John Gilmore’s fleeting tenor saxophone solo demonstrates a breathtaking command of the instrument, from the growling lowest register to altissimo cries and multiphonic shrieks. John Coltrane acknowledged Gilmore’s influence on the music he would go on to make a couple years later beginning with A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964), and here you can hear that influence loud and clear. “Solar Symbols” closes out the album proper with a two-minute-forty-two-second spaceout, featuring echo-y sleigh-bells and pitter-pattering percussion with Sun Ra essaying on “sun harp” and gong. Very cool.

The bonus track, “Flight to Mars” was contemporaneously recorded for the B-side of an unreleased LP and is previously unheard. Opening with a crude tape collage which culminates in the vocal exhortation “all the way into space!” the rest of the piece is essentially a seventeen-minute blowing session punctuated with further percussion blowouts. Marshall Allen shines with a sparkling flute solo and, again, Ronnie Boykins demonstrates his extraordinary (and sadly unrecognized) genius with a bowed bass solo that inspires juicy interjections from Pat Patrick’s baritone saxophone and a little bit of bouncy Ra piano before the close. This is truly a bonus track that lives up to the name.

This lovingly produced reissue is a must for all Sun Ra fans and as good a place as any for the novice to begin the interplanetary journey. Essential.

October 24, 2008

Spelling Lesson

Incorrect: I loose money when I gamble.
Correct: I lose money when I gamble.

Incorrect: I am loosing my shirt.
Correct: I am losing shirt.

Incorrect: I am a looser.
Correct: I am a loser.

I have increasingly seen this misspelling of the verb to lose over the past few years. At first, it seemed like a harmless error but lately has become more and more common. This gross misspelling can even be found in the written discourse of people who otherwise appear to be intelligent and educated denizens of the world-wide-web. It is like a plague upon the language.

The other day, I was utterly horrified to come across the non-word loosing while reading the liner notes of a recent CD by a highly-respected musician/composer. This writer (fortunately, not the musician/composer himself) was apparently paid cash money or some other consideration to publish these liner notes for all of posterity yet cannot parse the verb to lose. How sad and embarrassing for the artist whose work was thereby demeaned by some hired flunky’s illiteracy. This has really has gone too far.

Why add the extra letter? It actually takes less effort to spell it correctly! I refuse to accept this as some kind of post-modern, variant spelling if only because the word loose has its own distinct meaning and usage:

Correct: I am a person of loose morals.
Correct: I will loosen my necktie and order another martini.

Now I can forgive a typo and I really don’t think I am being pedantic about this. But, seriously, if I come across a gross misspelling, I immediately stop reading and think to myself, “what an idiot” – regardless of the content of the writing (please, don’t get me started on the non-word irregardless.)

While not as reliable as a good dictionary, Google can answer most spelling questions with a little effort, so there really is no excuse. You have been warned.

/end of rant.

September 28, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Myth Science Solar Arkestra: On Jupiter (Art Yard CD)
Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Myth Science Solar Arkestra: Sleeping Beauty (Art Yard CD)

These two 1979 Saturn sessions present Sun Ra at his most accessible – groovy, dreamy, spacey, and suitably cosmic while reigning in the full-blown freakouts that can make Sun Ra’s music difficult for some (or maybe not quite the right thing on a Sunday evening). That is not to say that these are lesser albums. Quite the contrary! This is simply beautiful music! Essential! Note that these CDs are extremely limited editions and sparsely distributed. I got mine from Downtown Music Gallery. See also Lanquidity (Evidence).


Summer Reading 2008

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (Touchstone, 1945/2007)
I had been looking for a single-volume reference guide to philosophy and Lord Russell’s classic text nicely serves that purpose. Based upon a series of lectures at the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, Lord Russell presents an imminently readable (and sometimes dryly humorous) history from the ancient Greeks to quantum theory and he clearly elucidates even the most esoteric concepts. Please don’t test me on any of this material, but I conclude that (1) no one has figured it all out and (2) the most recent advances in philosophy and science have begun to resurrect long-dismissed elements of ancient animism. What goes around comes around.

Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Cultural Life (HarperCollins 2000)
Apparently, Jacques Barzun has read most every book ever written and has something witty and erudite to say about each one, making this somewhat unwieldy tome a remarkably enjoyable read. Beginning with Martin Luther and the Protestant Revolution which sought to overthrow centuries of Roman Catholic hegemony, Barzun organizes this sweeping history around a number of themes which, for him, define the “Modern Era”: abstraction, analysis, emancipation, primitivism, reductivism, secularism, self-consciousness, scientism, and specialism. Barzun seems to argue that the high point of western culture coincided with the court of Louis XIV, where the administration of the state and the arts were most closely allied. And that it was all downhill from there to our contemporary “demotic” times where individualism eviscerates any remnants of widespread cultural values. It is difficult to refute his thesis, yet while empires come and go, cultural production continues and these products reflect the realities in which it finds itself. A telling blind spot is Barzun’s dismissal of “jazz” and other African-American cultural contributions in a mere handful of paragraphs. Nevertheless, this is a useful overview of western history through the lens of its arts and letters.

Peter Gay, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy: From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond (Norton 2008)
Tracing a broad outline of the history of the modernist movement from its roots in late-romanticism to its eclipse by the rise of “pop art” in the 1960s, each chapter examines a facet of artistic production from painting and sculpture, prose and poetry, music and dance, architecture and design, and drama and movies. Gay posits that the Modernist impulse was fundamentally a rebellion against established societal and cultural norms: an act of heresy that imbued the work with a power that is now lost in a contemporary world that is fractured and lacking any norms against which to rebel (hence, the term “post-modernism” to describe our present situation). This neo-Freudian approach prevents the book from being merely an encyclopaedic recitation of names and works; rather, Gay uses representative examples to bolster his argument and thereby constructs a useful framework in which to view the Modernist movement across artistic disciplines. But, as with Barzun, jazz and other African-American contributions are largely absent in Gay’s account and therefore fails to address one of the greatest modernist heresies of all: “free jazz.”

George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago 2008)
The Eurocentricism of Barzun and Gay is ably countered by George Lewis’s magisterial history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. As a virtuoso musician and fellow member of the AACM, Lewis not only provides a detailed, insider’s account of the collective’s ups and downs and inner politics, but also devotes serious scholarship to effectively assert the AACM’s cultural importance. Lewis demonstrates that the modernist project was taken up by African American “avant-garde” jazz musicians where post-serialist techniques and post-Cage experimentalism were enthusiastically adopted by AACM musicians such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and the Art Ensemble of Chicago who produced a vast and hugely influential body of work that is to this day sadly neglected by the fine arts establishment despite its obvious aesthetic merits. Hopefully, A Power Stronger Than Itself will serve as some corrective to this racist blind spot.


September 21, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Research Arkestra: Black Myth / Out In Space (MPS)

Recorded live Donaueschingen 10/17/70 & Berlin 11/7/70

It's after the end of the world! Don't you know that yet?!


September 14, 2008

Election 2008

I have always tried to avoid politics on this blog, but that is just too funny.


Anthony Braxton Trio (Victoriaville) 2007

Anthony Braxton Trio (Victoriaville) 2007 (Victo 108)

Diamond Curtain Wall Trio:
Anthony Braxton: sopranino, soprano, alto, baritone, bass & contrabass saxophones, electronics
Mary Halvorson: electric guitar
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, bugle, trombone, bass & piccolo trumpets, hats, mutes

Recorded live Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville 5/20/07

Braxton goes psychedelic! Well, not exactly. Braxton’s laptop emits spacey whooshes, squeals, and keening wails of noise and Halvorson exhibits an incredible array of delightfully sensuous guitar sounds: from woody, Jim-Hall-like jazziness to excoriating metallic shredding a la Robert Fripp; from gentle acoustic fingerpicking to skittering, scumbling scrapes and glitchy electronic processing — and everything in between. Mary Halvorson is perhaps the most interesting guitar player since Derek Bailey and here she is given an opportunity to really stretch out. Meanwhile, Taylor Ho Bynum wields an arsenal of brass instruments and mutes to bring a kind of smeared, pre-bop vocalizing to post-Webern pitch material which is utterly unique and highly effective. As for Braxton himself, he plays the various saxophones like stops on a gigantic reed organ. His virtuosity is astonishing, not just in the fleetness of his facility (which is, of course, remarkable), but in his presentation of a unified voice across the diverse and increasingly massive and unwieldy instruments. Lovingly recorded, Braxton’s blasts on the contrabass saxophone will rattle your windows! Both Halvorson and Bynum are long-time veterans of Braxton’s ensembles and their telepathic interplay blurs the distinction between composition and improvisation. With repeated listening, however, the music reveals a coherent and singularly Braxtonian architecture supporting its hour-plus-long duration. While the absence of percussion lends the proceedings a quasi-chamber-music feel, any expectations of cerebral politeness are met with the most boisterously rock-ish music of Braxton’s career. Frankly, this is one of the most exciting discs I’ve heard in a long time and is, so far, my candidate for “Record of the Year.” Essential.