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!

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