March 29, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Myth Science Arkestra: When Sun Comes Out (Evidence ECD 22068)

Recorded at the Choreographer’s Workshop, NYC, 1962-1963
Originally released as El Saturn 2066 (1963)

When Sun Comes Out is truly a landmark record in Ra’s discography: it was the first New York recording to be released on Ra’s own El Saturn label and it contains some of Tommy Hunter’s first stereo recordings made at the Choreographer’s Workshop – quite technologically advanced accomplishments for a shoestring operation in 1963. Some years later, Sun Ra deposited a manuscript with the Library of Congress entitled, “When Sun Comes Out,” which contains a fairly detailed score for most the tracks on the album assembled into a kind of suite. Clearly, Ra considered this an important work – although it is impossible to tell from the score whether it was produced before or after the recording. As with many aspects of Sun Ra’s work, this document poses at least as many questions as it answers.

“Circe” opens the album with ominous, irregular strikes of a gong – loud and soft, ringing and choked, fast and slow. Bells and hand drums enter with a stuttering rhythm while a mysterious singer named Theda Barbara vocalizes wordlessly (and somewhat melodramatically) with a big, warbling vibrato. The mostly pentatonic melody is fully notated in the score with alternating measures of 5/4 and 9/4 over the gong’s droning G. Subsequently, the bells, gong, and hand drums coalesce into a steady rhythm before suddenly fading out. “The Nile” sets out with gently rolling percussion with Ra and Boykins engaging contrasting three-note ostinato patterns to support a beautiful, Arabic-sounding flute melody scored for Marshall Allen. Allen takes considerable liberties with the melody as it goes along, but always hits specified targets, indicating that the score might predate the recording. “Brazilian Sun” features suitably Latin-sounding hand drums and claves with Boykins holding down a circular riff on bass. Ra stabs out parallel chords to spell out a tense, unresolved melody. The sunny percussion contrasts with the tonally shiftless piano to create a definite atmospheric tension – a bit of spiritual unease despoiling the fantasy of tropical paradise perhaps?

The version of “We Travel the Spaceways” heard here is a bit more aggressive than on the eponymous LP (found on Evidence ECD 22038) – and it is also recorded in stereo. Teddy Nance and Bernard Pettaway sit in on trombones, giving the tune a darker, more menacing tone. After the opening space chant, the increasingly dissonant interplay between Gilmore’s energetic tenor solo and Ra’s percussive piano gives this rendition a decidedly avant garde feel. Ra slides in some dreamy celeste during the vocal sections, demonstrating his uniquely orchestral approach to keyboard accompaniment. “Calling Planet Earth” benefits as well from the more spacious stereo recording. A fully notated vocal ensemble urgently intones the title until Pat Patrick enters with some coruscating baritone saxophone which is reinforced by Ra’s furious two-handed piano attack. Adding to the tumultuous assault, both Lex Humphries and John Gilmore are pounding away on drums. Yes, John Gilmore on trap drums! And Ra sounds more like Cecil Taylor than Cecil himself did in 1963! This is some wild stuff!

The other stereo recording is “Dancing Shadows,” cut at the same session that yielded several tracks on The Invisible Shield. It is a classic Ra-styled atonal bebop number full of strident tritones and breathtakingly wide interval leaps, all driven hard by Clifford Jarvis’s frenetic drumming. Ra spins a mesmerizing piano solo before giving way to yet another incredible Gilmore solo on tenor sax. Walter Miller again demonstrates his prodigious technique with a bristling, angular trumpet solo before the reprise. (Incidentally, the melody for “Dancing Shadows” is contained within the otherwise ultra-enigmatic “Twenty-First Century” suite in the Library of Congress manuscripts.) “The Rainmaker” is more dizzying, harmonically restless swing but with more polyphonic riffing throughout. Ra peals off another excellent piano solo and Jarvis is at his Jarviest, bass drum pumping away maniacally. Gilmore enters with yet another patented genius tenor sax solo culminating in hair-raising, multiphonic blasts at the end. Holy crap!

“When Sun Comes Out” replaces Jarvis with the comparatively more laconic Lex Humphries, who is bolstered with some busy hand percussion by the rest of the Arkestra. Ra plays slippery, chromatically descending fourths atop an oscillating, two-note bass which is doubled by Boykins. Marshall Allen and Danny Davis proceed to dance and duel on wailing alto saxophones with some pinched, emphatic Walter Miller trumpet interjected here and there. Meanwhile, the rhythm section explores a subtly shifting harmonic landscape. Interestingly, the manuscript barely outlines the opening piano figures which appear to be jumping off points for improvisation. Again, this makes me think that the score is something more than a transcription and possibly predates the recording. Who knows?


When working with the master tape to prepare this CD in 1993, Evidence discovered an unreleased track running backwards in an unused stereo channel. On hearing the track for the first time in thirty years, John Gilmore gave it the title “Dimensions in Time” and it appears here as a bonus track. Echoing drums and tapping glass bottles underpin Gilmore’s seductively meandering bass clarinet. His tone is dark, rich and gorgeous as he weaves delightful melodies around the pitter-pattering percussion. Unfortunately, just as he reaches a climax, the track suddenly ends. As it turns out, the second part of this piece can be found on the 1974 Saturn LP entitled Space Probe (Saturn 14200A/142000B) (confusingly, some copies were titled A Tonal View of Times Tomorrow Vol.1). Here entitled, “Primitive,” the track cuts in exactly where “Dimensions in Time” ends, with the last few notes of Gilmore’s bass clarinet statement after which the percussion vamp continues for another couple minutes before fading out. As discrete fragments, these two pieces are a bit frustrating to listen to (despite Gilmore brilliant playing); someday I’d like to digitally rejoin these tracks to hear the complete piece in all its original glory.

Space Probe also includes another Choreographer’s Workshop recording from this period curiously titled, “The Conversion of J.P.” Plopping drums create a feel similar to “The Nile” with Marshall Allen’s expansive flute melody rising and falling amidst long spells of trance-inducing percussion. Then, at about the eight-minute mark, Ra enters with some incongruously gospel-ish piano chords. I guess this is the conversion happening! Ra then moves through a whole hymnal’s worth of plain, protestant harmonies before a final, insistently repeating cadence. Hallelujah! Now, who exactly is J.P? And how are we to take all this apparent proselytizing given Ra’s complicated, if not downright contentious relationship with the Christian church? Indeed, the tension between the pagan percussion/Pan-flute and the holy-rolling piano never quite comfortably resolves. Another curious thing about this track is that, at almost fourteen minutes, it is by far the longest stretch of continuous recorded music from this era. It makes me wonder if “When Sun Comes Out” was truly conceived and recorded as an extended suite (as in the manuscript), with only selected excerpts edited out for release on LP. Just another mystery of Mr. Ra to be infinitely pondered. Incidentally, the B-Side of Space Probe contains an eighteen-minute Moog freakout from 1970 a la My Brother the Wind Vol.2 -- an odd pairing, to say the least!


The Evidence CD of When Sun Comes Out also contains Fate in a Pleasant Mood (El Saturn 202) recorded in Chicago late-1960 to early-1961. I will examine it separately on another Sun Ra Sunday.


Thanks once again to the indefatigable Sam Byrd for his help with this post!

March 28, 2009

Record Store Day 2009

Record Store Day is Saturday, April 18, 2009. Like last year, I plan to head over to Nashville’s finest independent record store, Grimey’s New & Pre-Loved Music, and celebrate the occasion. This year, a huge number of records are being released especially for this event and will be available only at select participating indie record shops. Some of the limited edition goodies include a previously unreleased live Pavement LP recorded in 1988, a Sonic Youth/Beck split single, a Bob Dylan seven-inch featuring two live tracks recorded at Bonnaroo, a reissue of GBV’s Hold On Hope EP with three bonus tracks, and a live Tom Waits seven-inch. That’s just a taste of what’s in store. Grimey’s will also be hosting live music all day along with the Yazoo beer truck. Can’t wait!

March 23, 2009

Fox in the Yard

When I got home from work today, I saw a red fox run across our yard. Somehow that seems auspicious! Beautiful animal!

March 22, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: What’s New (side A) (Saturn 539)

The discographical murkiness continues with this 1975 LP containing four swinging Choreographer’s Workshop recordings from 1962 on the A-side and a contemporaneous concert fragment on side B. Confusingly, later pressings substitute side A of The Invisible Shield for the B-side (see below). In any case, the kind of hot jazz found here probably represents a taste of the Arkestra’s working-gig repertoire during the lean early years in New York. Of course, Ra came out of the big-band tradition of the 1930s and 40s and had vast experience arranging standards and show tunes for various ensembles and his flair for instrumental color (check out Marshall Allen’s flute!) and ornamental counterpoint are much in evidence on the title track -- even if the end result comes across as a mere blowing session. “What’s New” was, after all, a staple of the Arkestra’s live sets throughout their career.

Curiously, two original compositions by Arkestra newcomers Al Evans and Calvin Newborn were also recorded at this Choreographer’s Workshop rehearsal. Newborn’s “Wanderlust” is a rather nondescript jazz waltz but it elicits strong solos by John Gilmore on tenor saxophone, Al Evans on flugelhorn, Danny Davis on alto sax. The composer himself steps out with an aggressively electric guitar solo – a rarely heard timbre in the Arkestra’s recorded history. Ra then builds a solo around distant chordal substitutions before the head returns for the close. Evans brings out the funky side of the Arkestra with his honky-tonk strut aptly entitled “Jukin’.” Evans’s tone is warm and bluesy, while Newborn offers at times some near-psychedelic, noise-infused comping beneath the ever-riffing horns. These two tracks are perhaps a bit lightweight, but still a lot of fun. Evans continued his association with the Arkestra off and on throughout the 70s and 80s while Newborn moved on to moderate success in the blues world.

The Arkestra drops down to a quartet on the hoary old chestnut, “Autumn in New York.” But don’t be fooled! After a lushly romantic opening piano statement, Gilmore plays one of the most breathtakingly heart-rending solos of his long, brilliant career! He starts out by teasing the melancholy melody with spacious, wide-open phrasing, slowly building to register-spanning exclamations, delicate filigrees, and pathos-filled one and two-note worryings. Every note is just exactly the right note at the right place and at the right time. As if awestruck by the sheer beauty of Gilmore’s playing, the band drops out during the second chorus, leaving him to blow an acappella cadenza that miraculously holds the thread of the tune while overflowing with prodigious, risky invention. Suddenly, Ra enters with an (almost) incongruous double-tempo section that slows down just in time for Gilmore to re-state the theme with the kind of stately grace and tender emotion that marked his opening choruses. This track demonstrates that, despite his (well-deserved) reputation as an altissimo-fueled avant-garde noisemaker, John Gilmore was truly one of the great post-bop saxophonists of all time. This version of an over-familiar standard has to be heard to be believed. Incredible!


Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Research Arkestra: The Invisible Shield (side A) (Saturn 529)

Now things get even more confusing. This LP was originally released in 1974 with six 1962-63 Choreographer’s Workshop recordings on the A-side backed with some stray cuts from the late sixties and early seventies on the B-side. It has also been variously titled A Tonal View of Times Tomorrow, Vol. 2, Janus, and Satellites are Outerspace. As mentioned above, these tracks also appeared as the B-Side on most copies of What’s New (which is really where they belong given their similarly straight-ahead feel). Some (but not all) of these tracks were sold to Black Lion in 1971, but never issued. Finally, in 2000, some (but, bafflingly, not all) of those tracks were officially released on Standards (1201 Music 90192). Like I said: very confusing! It certainly would have been nice if all of these 1962-63 tracks were gathered in one place, but so it goes in Sun Ra’s Omniverse. That said, the Standards CD does boast superior sound quality and includes a rare 1955 home recording of Ra duetting with bassist Wilbur Ware on “Can This Be Love” and is therefore (grudgingly) recommended.

Anyway, “State Street” is a sprightly Ra original that is omitted from Standards on the grounds that it is, well, not a “standard.” Too bad since it’s a barn-burning big band outing with a full-blown brass section consisting of the aforementioned Al Evans on flugelhorn, Ra’s childhood friend Walter Miller on trumpet, and Ali Hassan on trombone. Michael White adds a gypsy element with some keening violin while the virtuoso drumming of Clifford Jarvis drives the Arkestra with an infectious, toe-tapping groove. The saxophones and brass exchange complex, interlocking lines at the head and riff away happily during the string of brief solos, all of which culminates in a brilliant flourish by baritone saxophonist Pat Patrick before the final coda.

“Sometimes I’m Happy,” finds the Arkestra reduced to a quartet of Ra, Gilmore, Boykins, and the more subdued Lex Humphries on drums. This lightly swinging number is the perfect vehicle for another eloquent statement by Gilmore, punctuated by Ra’s roiling piano and Boykins’s rock-solid bass. Jarvis and Miller then return for the remaining tracks. Two takes of “Time After Time” exist, but take one is inexplicably omitted on Standards. This familiar tune is taken at a briskly bebop-ish pace and showcases Miller’s immaculate technique and burnished tone atop Jarvis’s smooth yet hard-driving drums. On take two, Miller takes more chances, splitting tones into multi-phonics and allowing for more open, silent spaces between his phrases. “Easy to Love” is another hard bop vehicle for Gilmore with Jarvis’s hyperactive bass drum and overlapping polyrhythms relentlessly propelling the music forward. Boykins interjects with some sure-footed walking bass between Gilmore’s increasingly abstracted choruses until, finally, Ra enters with the trumpet to (somewhat raggedly) repeat the theme and end.

“Keep Your Sunny Side Up” is another uptempo number with Jarvis and Boykins swinging like mad and Gilmore once again demonstrating his prowess as a post-bop genius. Yes, it’s another brilliant Gilmore solo! But Miller reveals in one brief chorus what a formidable trumpet player he really was and how sympathetic he was to Sun Ra’s vision – especially as it applied to the living tradition and the so-called mainstream. While economic realities prevented Miller from committing full time to the Arkestra, he remained an always welcome visitor throughout their existence. Unfortunately, Ra’s brass sections would remain in flux during these early New York years.

Along with What’s New, this material reveals a part of the Arkestra’s history that was long concealed by the vagaries of the Saturn enterprise (not to mention a genuine desire to promote Ra’s original music over “standards”). Beyond the stellar musicianship on display, these tracks showcase Ra’s bountiful gifts as an arranger and his Herculean work ethic. While the times were penurious, Ra continued to compose, rehearse and record the Arkestra, and found paying work where he could. Arranging and playing standards was (and still is) the lingua franca of jazz and Sun Ra was a master. But he could also write a tune like “State Street” that sounded as if it had been composed during the golden age of the big bands. This music may not be as exhilaratingly modern and original as, say, Secrets of the Sun or Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, but it is ebullient and supremely well-crafted.


Special thanks once again to Sam Byrd for his help with this post!


Photograph of the Arkestra in rehearsal at the Choreographer’s Workshop by Tommy Hunter (from Szwed). Left to right: Pat Patrick, Sun Ra, Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, and Ronnie Boykins.

March 21, 2009

John Cage on "I've Got a Secret" 1960

Here is a wonderful clip of John Cage performing “Water Walk” in January 1960 on the popular CBS television show, “I’ve Got a Secret.”

Cage is utterly charming and witty:

Host: Will you tell us quite seriously whether or not you consider what we’re about to hear music? No tongue in cheek, but seriously.

Cage: No, perfectly seriously, I consider music the production of sounds and since in the piece which you will hear I produce sounds, I’d call it music.


Host: Mr. Cage, these are nice people, but some of them are going to laugh. Is that

Cage: Of course. I consider laughter preferable to tears.


March 15, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (2nd edition)
By Robert L. Campbell & Christopher Trent
Cadence Jazz Books (ISBN: 1-881993-35-3)

This is an example of “amateur” scholarship in the best sense of the word. In an attempt to get a handle on Ra’s vast (and vastly confusing) discography, Clemson psychology professor (and Sun Ra fan) Robert L. Campbell began compiling a list of all known recordings, building upon the work of Hartmut Geerken and Dr. Tilman Stahl in the 1980s. In 1992, Prof. Campbell shared his findings with the Saturn internet list-serv and the small but resourceful cyber-community of Sun Ra fans contributed a wealth of new information. Sun Ra was notoriously vague about dates and personnel and many Saturn LPs were issued in blank or hand-scrawled sleeves containing zero information – not even a title! Therefore, intensive forensic analysis was required to even attempt to ascertain essential discographical details. The end result of this communitarian effort was the publication of the first edition of The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra in 1994. Subsequently, further new discoveries were made and, with the help of co-author and fellow Ra-fanatic, Christopher Trent, this second, massively enlarged edition was published by Cadence Jazz Books in 2000.

Campbell and Trent strive to document not only all of Sun Ra’s officially released recordings, both as a sideman and a leader, but also all known live performances, unissued recordings, and rumored sessions. They also attempt to trace the Ra’s footsteps around the globe where recordings are unknown. Posthumous performances by the Marshall Allen-led Arkestra up through 1998 are also included. Did I mention the discography is massive? The first edition included 501 items across 218 pages while the second edition lists 788 items and totals 847 pages, including several handily cross-referenced indexes. The 6” x 8” paperbound book weighs in at over three pounds!

It is a shame, however, that such a thick, heavy tome is so poorly bound. The signatures have been brutally chopped off and the three-inch-thick text block is merely glued to a flimsy cardboard cover. With any prolonged use, the spine will surely fail and pages will begin to fall out. A somewhat expensive purchase, I would have preferred that this monumental reference work had been more sturdily constructed. Alas, The Earthly Recordings is a labor of love for a vanishingly small, specialized audience and no doubt a library bound edition would cost upwards of $100.00. Nevertheless, The Earthly Recordings is an essential resource for the serious Sun Ra fan. Now almost a decade out of date, perhaps a hardbound, thousand-page third edition will be forthcoming.


Another fabulous resource (that I forgot I even had) is Sun Ra Scores: The Library of Congress Endowment, another amazing bit of scholarship compiled by ethnomusicologist James Wolf. From the years 1956 to 1973, Ra deposited a couple hundred pages of sheet music to the Library of Congress for copyright purposes and Wolf managed to retrieve and photocopy the collection during the mid-1990s. Subsequently, the collection was made available to members of the Saturn internet community for a nominal copying fee. Predictably, most of the “scores” contain only the barest information: a melody, lyrics, and perhaps some chord symbols. However, as I was flipping through them today, I was surprised to find meticulously detailed scores for “And Otherness” and “Moon Dance,” two seemingly loosely structured pieces from Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy. These appear to be not mere transcriptions, but fully realized compositions with additional elements not found on the record. Fascinating!


With these tools at hand, we will continue the examination of the Choreographer’s Workshop recordings next week (I hope).

March 8, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

My work life is seriously impinging on my home life these days, so my examination of the Choreographer’s Workshop recordings will have to be put off this week. In the meantime, here’s some cool silent footage (with dubbed music) of Sun Ra and the Arkestra in Egypt and Italy circa. 1971:

March 1, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra Featuring Pat Patrick: “A Blue One” / “Orbitration in Blue” (Saturn SRA-999)

Recorded at the Choreographer’s Workshop, New York City, early-1962.
Originally released late-1964.

This super-obscure seven-inch 45-RPM single was discovered too late to appear on Evidence’s The Singles (ECD 22164) (1996) and that’s too bad because it’s a stunner and it remains sadly out of print. Note that Arkestra stalwart, Pat Patrick receives a rare co-billing on the disc’s label; well, his spectacular baritone saxophone playing on these two Choreographer’s Workshop tracks suitably justifies the honorific.

Laurdine “Pat” Patrick was born November 23, 1929 in East Moline, Illinois and was the first of several graduates of Captain Walter Dyett’s DuSable High School who would fall in with Sun Ra in Chicago after around 1950. (For more information on Captain Dyett, see Szwed, pp.87-89, 94 and George E. Lews, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago, 2008).) Ra biographer John Szwed aptly sums up the importance Ra’s early association with the youthful Pat Patrick:

Pat Patrick [was] a baritone saxophonist of enormous resources, a prodigy; a
humorous but highly organized person, whose playing reflected both qualities: “He’d be playing and suddenly this note would come from nowhere, and sound wrong,” said bassoonist James Jacson, who played with Sonny many years later; “but as he went on you’d see how it was deceptive…it fit perfectly.” […] Patrick was something special, a musician of the right spirit, intelligent, honest, serious. He saw to it that Sonny was protected, and was quick to help any other members of the band in trouble. Patrick was the best musician Sonny ever had in any of his bands. He got the point of ideas and music immediately (“You got it down, Pat,” Sonny always said). He had great hopes for him, and felt that with Pat he had the basis for a band capable of executing the music he had been working on for over ten years
(pp. 87-88).
Patrick was a charter member of Sun Ra’s Space Trio, the Arkestra’s precursor, and a 1951 home recording entitled, “Treasure Hunt,” documents Patrick’s already full-bodied sound and smooth, thoughtful invention. Patrick would remain committed to Sun Ra until the end of his life in 1991, but he also worked with such luminaries as Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Mongo Santamaria, with whom he co-wrote the 1963 hit, “Yeh Yeh.”

The A-side of this little gem, “A Blue One,” is a rollicking mid-tempo Ra blues, with a simple pssh-tap-bang rhythm and stolid walking bass that sets up a subtly killing groove. Ra takes a brief turn on the piano before Patrick enters with a burbling bari-sax solo that ranges freely from the resonant growls of the lowest registers to high-register wails and cries, with astonishingly fleet passagework full of widely spaced intervals and intricate legato runs. Boykins takes the lead with some funky, stop-start bass before fading out. This should have been a hit! The B-side, “Orbitration in Blue,” is a bluesy, drummer-less ballad featuring another wild excursion on bari-sax. Incongruously opening with some honking low notes, Patrick’s playing is simultaneously suave and smooth and rough and edgy. At about 1:44, he blasts out one of those seemingly “wrong” notes that Jacson mentions, full of buzzing squeaks and harmonics that somehow manages to resolve itself beautifully as the piano and bass navigate the lush chord changes. Patrick concludes his solo with a flourish and the track quickly fades out. Far out!

Pat Patrick once said, “Sun Ra was another kind of being. He was educational, he helped you to grow and develop. He was a black self-help organization run on a shoe-string…If he could’ve had the resources, the planet would be a better place. That’s all he’s done: tried to make life better” (quoted in Szwed, p. 89). This single is brimming with high-spirited and uplifting swing and inspired improvisation. Listening to it does make the planet a better place -- for a few minutes anyway.


Pat Patrick is also the father of Massachusetts’ Governor, Deval Patrick. The Governor discusses the complicated relationship with his largely absent father in this Boston Globe article from March, 2007:


Big thanks again to Sam Byrd for his assistance with this post!


Photo of Pat Patrick, 1958, from The Cry of Jazz. (See From Sonny Blount to Sun Ra: The Chicago Years.)