May 31, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Heliocentric Worlds Vol.3: The Lost Tapes (ESP-Disk’ 4002)

In 2005, ESP-Disk’ released Heliocentric Worlds Vol.3: The Lost Tapes, purported to be unreleased material recorded at the November 16, 1965 session that produced Heliocentric Worlds Vol.2. After some close listening, I am pretty certain this date is incorrect, although some of this material might have been recorded at the April 20th session for Heliocentric Worlds, Vol.1 (but then again, maybe not). Confusing? Yes! But these are the eternal mysteries of Mr. Ra! Nevertheless, the discovery of previously unheard music from the nineteen-sixties makes this CD essential listening for the Ra-fanatic.

“Intercosmosis” is another expansive, 18-minute conducted improvisation wherein Gilmore establishes a terse melodic cell that is subsequently passed around the Arkestra in small concertino groupings punctuated with acappella horn solos and cued “space chords.” Meanwhile, the rhythm section lays down a propulsive free-tempo groove that enters and exits on cue – but the percussion is mostly held in reserve so that the relentless motion is internalized and carried forward by the chamber-music-like instrumentation. Ra plays densely arpeggiated piano throughout and the piece climaxes with an extended alto saxophone duel between Marshall Allen and Danny Davis which gives way to an almost-pretty piano interlude, with Pat Patrick blowing beautiful, breathy baritone saxophone. The rest of the ensemble enters with an improvised coda before a conducted ending. Was this recorded on November 16th? Admittedly, the piece shares a conceptual similarity to “The Sun Myth,” but the unmistakable presence of Danny Davis is troubling since he is not audible on the other Heliocentric Worlds Vol.2 material. Also conspicuously absent is the Selmer Clavioline, whose electronic whine defined the sound of that album. Finally, the presence of subtle reverb effects suggests the presence of Tommy Hunter, which would require an earlier recording date. Some have speculated this track was recorded at one of the When Angels Speak of Love sessions and, further, that When Angels Speak of Love was recorded later than 1963 as posited by Prof. Campbell. Who knows? Regardless, it is classic long-form Ra material.

It is plausible that the remainder of the CD was recorded at the April 20th session, with Ra on bass marimba, piano, and electric celeste and the prominence of trombones and tympani. The fragmentary “Mythology Metamorphosis” opens with tumultuous trap drums and hand percussion to which Boykins adds some thrumming bass. Ra enters on the bass marimba while Marshall Allen plays sinuous oboe. The instruments drop out leaving Ra to rumble around on the bass marimba until Boykins enters with an insistent bass figure to which Allen replies with a brief oboe phrase. At the four-minute mark, clattering percussion re-enters just before the track cuts off. “Heliocentric Worlds” is a showcase for Ra’s orchestral piano and electric celeste playing with only bass, trap drums and booming tympani to provide intermittently dramatic accompaniment. “World Worlds” is an interesting ballad form, obviously rigorously composed (if somewhat raggedly performed). After a piano/celeste introduction with bowed bass pedal, thick blocks of dissonant chords blare forth from the full ensemble, rich with trombones, saxophones, flute, and trumpet. Over a gently swinging pulse, brief solo statements hew closely to the weirdly shifting chord changes until the big, held ensemble chords return with a brassy trumpet lead to end. After repeated listenings, this piece sounds vaguely familiar – was it ever recorded again under a different title?

The final track, “Interplanetary Travelers” is actually an alternate take of “Other Worlds” from Heliocentric Worlds Vol.1 which first appeared on the 1989 Blast First compilation, Out There a Minute. However, Prof. Campbell dates this to the April-May 1965 session that yielded side-2 of The Magic City, creating yet more discographical confusion. In any event, this track is a stunner, a full-throttled New Thing-style blowout with lots of two-fisted piano/celeste action, intensely wailing horns, and hard-driving drums. Is it possible that Heliocentric Worlds Vol.1, side-2 of The Magic City and tracks 2-5 of Heliocentric Worlds Vol.3 were all recorded at the same session on April 20, 1965? For that matter, is it possible that When Angels Speak of Love was also recorded during this time period? The stylistic resemblances are striking and, taken together, all of this music demonstrates how intently Ra was developing his composed improvisational approach in the mid-nineteen-sixties. Heliocentric Worlds Vol.3 adds another fascinating piece to the puzzle, yet ultimately raises more questions than it answers.

May 30, 2009

Playlist 5-30-09

* J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol.1 (Richard Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: Corn Exchange, Brighton, UK 3/4/09 (FM/CD-R)
* Ensemble Baroque de Limoges: Brussels Conservatory, Belgium 11/2/08 (FM/CD-R)
* Mendelssohn: Songs without Words (Lívia Rév) (Hyperion 2CD)
* Grant Green: Idle Moments (Blue Note CD)
* Grant Green: Street of Dreams (Blue Note CD)
* Bill Frisell: Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch CD)
* David S. Ware Quartet: Shakti (AUM Fidelity CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Four Compositions (GTM) 2006 (Important 4CD)
* The Red Crayola: The Parable of Arable Land (Charly CD)
* Bob Dylan: Street Legal (Columbia SACD)
* Bob Dylan: Together Through Life (Columbia 2LP/CD)
* Emmylou Harris: All I Intended to Be (Nonesuch CD)
* Big Star: Radio City (Fantasy SACD)
* Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (Warner Bros. – Japan 2 LP)
* Robert Pollard: From a Compound Eye (Merge 2LP)
* Sonic Youth: Sonic Nurse (Geffen 2LP)
* Spiritualized: Songs in A&E (Sanctuary CD)
* Tool: Ænima (Zoo CD)

May 29, 2009

Joe Morris / Lowell Davidson

While we were in New York City last month, I went with a friend to see the Joe Morris Trio at The Stone on April 3rd. I had been aware of Morris since way back when I lived in Boston, but was always kind of lukewarm about him if only because he plays (mostly) electric guitar yet eschews all attendant electrical aspects: no distortion; no effects; no feedback, no reverb. And he seldom bends a string or plays more than one (cleanly articulated) note at a time. Now, I always especially liked his Singularity record on AUM Fidelity, since the solo acoustic guitar set did not raise any unrealistic expectations of how I think the instrument should sound. But I also understand that my own biases and expectations can often be an unnecessary impediment to my enjoyment of music that tweaks those biases and expectations. So, I really was excited to see him perform live. We sat in the front row, not three feet from Morris, where I could closely observe what he was doing. The trio, consisting of Morris on electric guitar (a Washburn semi-hollowbody through a small Fender amp), Steve Lantner on piano, and Luther Gray on drums, played three long improvisations in the generous, seventy-five minute set. I was immediately blown away by Morris’s ability to spin endlessly intricate lines across such vast expanses of time, and, watching him play, I came to appreciate the subtlety of his technique: the widely variable range between dampened and ringing strings is always expertly controlled and deeply expressive, even at the fastest tempos. And when he did choose to play more than one note at a time, the effect was thrilling, at times intensely cathartic – there was a long moment during the second piece where the room seemed to levitate. It was an enormously satisfying concert and I have since been listening to his records with new, welcoming ears.

They were selling CDs at the door so, before the concert, I picked up Anthony Braxton/Joe Morris: Four Improvisations (Duo) 2007 (Clean Feed CF 100) at a very reasonable price. I was already a committed Braxton fan and, besides, I thought maybe I could get Morris to sign it. After the set, and nearly awestruck, I nervously approached him with my request and he was actually most gracious about it. We chatted a bit and I told him I thought he had a unique way of playing the electric guitar. He replied that he was trying to play the guitar like a horn, “like Jimmy Lyons.” I thought that was a revealing comment and it resonated with my own sudden revelations. As for the Braxton/Morris box set, well, it’s over four hours of music and I have only listened to it all the way through twice. I can only say it is beautiful, very compelling music, downright lyrical at times. Having never played together prior to this recording, it is remarkable how attuned they are to each other and how fearless their epic improvisations. I usually prefer to hear Braxton playing his own compositions rather than just freely improvising, but, as Braxton himself points out in the liner notes: “even though [the music is] improvised, it has a very strong compositional dimension to it in the sense of movement through time and space and interaction dynamics between the two of us.” Indeed, the music never feels ad hoc or static, but consciously develops a deep-form structure over each of the hour-long improvisations. Morris is a perfect foil for Braxton’s excursions on the full range of saxophones, contrabass to sopranino, unfurling a variety of approaches from single-note counterpoint to almost-jazzy chordal accompaniment. OK, I’m sold. If Joe Morris can successfully go toe-to-toe with Mr. Braxton, then he truly is a master musician!


The following day, my friend and I went to the world’s greatest record store (for us fans of weirdo avant-garde music anyway), Downtown Music Gallery. While spending a good long while combing the racks and chatting with Bruce and Mike, they put on a CD consisting of some squiggly acoustic guitar, achingly strained bowed bass, and…trombone?! It was totally gripping.

RGC: What is this?!
BLG: MVP – LSD – it just came out.
RGC: Wow! Joe Morris?! We just saw him last night and I wouldn’t have even recognized him! I gotta get this!
So, onto the growing pile of CDs it went. But it wasn’t until I returned home that I could really examine what I had: MVP – LSD: The Graphic Scores of Lowell Skinner Davidson (Riti CD10). MVP is Joe Morris on guitar, John Voigt on bass, and Tom Plsek on trombone. LSD is, of course, pianist/multi-instrumentalist/composer Lowell Skinner Davidson. The disc consists of ten compositions by Davidson (and one group improvisation) and it is every bit as wonderful as I remembered it. I am kind of ashamed to admit I had never heard of Lowell Davidson before now. Born in 1941, he was a Harvard-educated biochemist who jeopardized his post-graduate scholarship by traveling to New York to play piano with Ornette Coleman in the 1960s. He recorded one LP for ESP-Disk’ in 1965 (see below) but, shortly thereafter, was badly injured in a lab accident that radically curtailed his burgeoning music career. Davidson managed to remain semi-active on the fringes of the Boston music scene in the nineteen-seventies and eighties where Morris, Voigt, and Plsek worked with him until Davidson’s death in 1990.

According to Morris’s liner notes, Davidson drew on his background as a biochemist in his music: “He often declared that new sounds had the capacity to reformulate the biochemistry of the brain. He was sure that had to happen with music and that there was no point in playing music that didn’t reach for that result.” To facilitate this goal, Davidson relied (in part) on a self-conceived system of graphic notation. The compositions featured here were written on 3x5 notecards, with arbitrary staves “that veer off somewhere or fade off the card completely,” amorphous blobs of proportional noteheads, and swathes of richly evocative color. The seeming dichotomy between composition and improvisation is squarely addressed through the use of these graphic scores. Morris says: “They offer the player a specific guide toward randomness and imagination, a requirement that they be read as regular notation, but that the results find a balance between melodic line and pure sound.” The music is something more than mere free improvisation with each piece cohering into a cogent, unified whole that is no doubt the result of the musician’s focused concentration on an external stimulus – even if that stimulus is utterly abstract and deliberately non-specific. Each player explores a range of extended techniques from Morris’s plinking and scraping, Voigt’s sul ponticello bowing, and Plesk’s gurgling and buzzing mutes; but such extremes are balanced with more conventional instrumental approaches and a delicate, selfless approach to chamber-like ensemble dynamics. Listening to this hour-plus-long CD is a contemplative, prayerful, experience. Or, rather, this is music that may indeed alter the biochemistry of the brain as Davidson intended. Morris decribes Davidson’s too-short life as “a psychedelic-like search, pondering light and darkness, the constructs of the Universe, and a way of expressing them with music.” With this exquisite CD, MVP has realized Davidson’s most profound, evolutionary ambitions.


Naturally intrigued by the MVP disc, I soon thereafter picked up Lowell Davidson’s sole commercially available recording at Nashville’s finest record store, Grimey’s. Lowell Davidson Trio (ESP-Disk’ 1012) was recorded on July 27, 1965 thanks to the efforts of Ornette Coleman, who somehow convinced Bernard Stollman to sign Davidson to the fledgling label without so much as an audition. Accompanying him on this date are ESP label-mates, Gary Peacock (bass) and Milford Graves (drums) to comprise a typical piano trio that is anything but typical. Unfortunately, the sound quality is dry, boxy, closed in and, at times, downright distorted, with Graves’s extended kit swamped by bloated, ill-defined bass frequencies. Even so, Davidson’s uniquely brilliant musical conception is plainly apparent. At times, his piano playing reminds me of Andrew Hill, with his smeared notes, short-breathed phrasing and a harmonic sensibility that balances "in" and "out," tonal and atonal, "free" and composed. But, unlike Hill, Davidson is already wholly emancipated from any kind of “jazz tradition” and his compositions explore color, timbre, and gesture in a way that is sui generis. Much of the music is loosely modal and balletic in its rhythmic conception: flitting, leaping, and pirouetting here, stomping and stamping there; single-note runs alternating with blocky, chordal tuttis; grand, tremulous statements alternating with scumbled, scampering figuration. In this way, his approach resembles Cecil Taylor’s, but, again, the music sounds nothing like Taylor and points to a “third way” that is unprecedented. Peacock and Graves provide supple, sensitive, but at times overly-aggressive accompaniment, although the rough sound quality drastically distorts the instrumental balance. Davidson apparently led a working trio with David Izenson on bass and Paul Motian on drums around this time and it would be interesting to hear their (undoubtedly more intimately familiar) interpretations of this material. Quibbles aside, one should be grateful that this lone document of Lowell Davidson’s genius survives and, as such, it is unreservedly recommended. According to the liner notes, ESP-Disk’ is negotiating the release of Davidson’s self-produced cassettes from the nineteen-seventies and eighties and one hopes that this will come to fruition. It would go a long way towards rectifying the sad neglect of this visionary artist.


So, thank you, Mr. Morris – not only for your own superb musicianship – but also for exposing me to the music of Mr. Lowell Skinner Davidson!

May 24, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

I'm taking a little break for the holiday. In the meantime, check out this WILD performance of “The Shadow World” from West Berlin circa. 1986. The Arkestra literally tears up the stage. Any ideas of the exact date of this performance?

May 22, 2009

Playlist 5-22-09

Here’s an idea I’ve been toying with. A friend of mine will sometimes ask me, “So what are you listening to?” And I often have to stop and think. I listen to a lot of music. I have an iPod for the car and a thirty-minute minimum commute each way every day. At home, I have thousands of records. I can’t see keeping up a complete list, but here are some things that stood out this past week:

* J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2SACD)
* J.S. Bach: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/Linden) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Mary Halvorson: Crackleknob (hatOLOGY CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Seven Compositions (Trio) 1989 (hatOLOGY CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (GTM) 2006 (Important 4CD)
* Bob Dylan: Together Through Life (Columbia LP/CD)
* Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisted (mono) (Sundazed LP)
* Grateful Dead: To Terrapin: Hartford ’77 (GD/Rhino 3CD)

May 20, 2009

More Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren should be Secretary of the Treasury.

With Bill Maher:

With Charlie Rose:

May 17, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Solar Arkestra: Heliocentric Worlds, Vol.2 (ESP-Disk’ 1017)

Recorded at RLA Sound Studios, New York, NY November 16, 1965
Originally released in 1966

Less than seven months after recording Heliocentric Worlds Vol.1, a smaller, eight-piece Arkestra returned to RLA Sound Studios to record Volume 2. “The Sun Myth” is another epic-length directed improvisation based upon a two-note figure that is freely extrapolated by the ensemble across eighteen highly variegated minutes. Anchored throughout by Boykins’s sliding, microtonal bass, Ra starts out by banging on tuned bongos and a cymbal before moving to the piano/Clavioline combo. Energy and intensity levels rise and fall with brief horn solos, duets, and trios that come and go, always yielding to the buzzing Clavioline and singing arco bass. According to Campbell, this track has been mastered three different ways:

(1) The original release (mono and stereo) had African singing throughout the piece, mixed as loud as the instrumental parts […] (2) The original release was quickly withdrawn and replaced with a more common variant in which the African voices are mixed way down and can be faintly heard at the beginning and end […] (3) The final remastering removed the African voices entirely (2nd ed. p. 122).
Interesting! Were these vocals added in some kind of primitive overdub? After all, this album was recorded in a low-budget studio in 1965! I have only ever heard the final, instrumental version and I can’t even imagine what this track would sound like with “African vocals.”

“A House of Beauty” is a strangely beautiful piece. It opens with Marshall Allen on silvery piccolo and Ra on the monophonic Clavioline. Boykins enters with the bow while Ra adds a fourth voice on piano. Eventually, piano and pizzicato bass improvise a lushly tonal ballad form supported by some soft percussion. Clavioline and piccolo return with some busy free-tempo counterpoint until a held Clavioline tone and arco bass figures bring things to a gentle close. The album ends with the aptly-titled “Cosmic Chaos,” a fifteen-minute New Thing-styled group improv punctuated with virtuosic acappella turns by Pat Patrick on baritone saxophone, Gilmore on tenor saxophone and Robert Cummings on bass clarinet. Ra is back on tuned bongos and cymbal, generating complex polyrhythms against Roger Blank’s roiling trap drums while Walter Miller blows some exciting post-bop trumpet. Curiously, what sounds to me like electronically processed bells peal in the background throughout. What is making that sound?! Is it Tommy Hunter’s echo-machine? The piece decisively ends with a grouping of obviously conducted “space chords.”

Ultimately, Heliocentric Worlds Vol.2 is a bit less focused and not quite as compelling as either Vol.1 or The Magic City, but it still retains an air of mysterious discovery. The album cover, on the other hand, is a classic of the period with an antique illustration of the solar system perched above pictures of archaic scientists: Leonardo, Copernicus, Galileo, and Tycho Brahe. In the middle are portraits of Pythagoras and Sun Ra himself, “calling attention to Sun Ra’s links to the Greek astronomer-mathematician-musician who studied in Egypt, and who formed a brotherhood which attempted to purify their souls to allow the initiates to escape the ‘wheel of birth’ and to aid them in the transmigration of the soul after the death of the body” (Szwed p.217). Perfect!

May 16, 2009

Keeping Up With Robert Pollard (Spring 2009 edition)

Boston Spaceships: The Planets Are Blasted (GBV, Inc. 5) (LP/CD) The ever-prolific Robert Pollard started 2009 off with a sprint with January’s very fine The Crawling Distance and, in March, this quickly-assembled sophomore LP from his new band, Boston Spaceships. I have to admit, The Planets Are Blasted took a little while to grow on me. I excitedly cleaned and played the LP when it arrived in the mail and I enjoyed it well enough but from then on I only listened to the CD or on the iPod in the car. And it just wasn’t registering – until recently, that is, when I pulled out the LP again and gave it a close listen. This is a common phenomenon with Pollard because his records always have a carefully sequenced Side One and Side Two, with their own essential cohesiveness. That enforced pause when you have to get up and flip the record over allows one to contemplate and come to grasp the intra-song coherence of Pollard’s vision. Here, Side 1 flows with creamy pop (“Dorothy’s a Planet,” “Catherine From Mid-October”) and anthemic rock (“Canned Food Demon,” “Headache Revolution”) while Side 2 bristles with proggy, post-punk edginess (“UFO Love Letters,” “Sight On Sight,” “Heavy Crown”). Listened to all at once, the effect is diffused and disorienting; but as discrete sides, the songs gain tangible context that is inevitably lost in the relentless flow of the CD. The production is notably less polished overall than last fall’s Brown Submarine, but somehow that adds to the charm. While maybe not top-tier stuff, The Planets Are Blasted is yet another example of Pollard’s limitless capacity for tossed-off brilliance. Check out a free mp3 of the mini-epic, “Big O Gets an Earful” here.


Boston Spaceships: “Headache Revolution” (HJRR 21) (7”) Continuing Pollard’s recent (and welcome, in my opinion) decision to revisit his vast catalog of rough demos and give them the full-blown rock band treatment, “Headache Revolution” is the obvious choice for the (imaginary) “hit single” from The Planets Are Blasted. Pollard’s wispy original demo can be heard on Suitcase 2 and the Spaceship’s treatment is an improvement in every respect. The 33rpm B-side presents three quirky LP outtakes. “Dementia Is Rising” starts out with bouncy, up-and-down acoustic guitar and an accusatory vocal that erupts into some Chrome-like deconstructionist noise at the chorus. “Take That Off (And Put This On)” romps around with just the kind of cock-rock swagger you would expect from such a title. Pollard knows what he likes -- and what he doesn’t! Finally, “7 Is the Hot Noose” twitches with a 1980s New Wave yelp complete with cheesy Syndrum fills. It ends before it ever begins. Inessential, but fun.


Circus Devils: Gringo (HJRR 22) (LP/CD)
is billed as “an acoustic song cycle with a 1970’s Morricone-esque Southwestern flavor.” Well, OK. Despite the Circus Devils’ reputation for electrified, twisted and distorted weirdness, the acoustic guitar is not exactly unheard of. Still, there is a definite mood to this record that is unique and I guess “Morricone-esque” is as good a word as any to describe it. Rather than indulging in the usual psycho-sci-fi art-rock the Circus Devils are known for, Gringo feels almost wistfully sentimental and decidedly earth-bound. In fact, some of these songs would not sound out of place on Pollard’s recent solo records – but then something strange will occur: especially eccentric wordplay, a sudden lurching dissonance in the bridge, or a tense swell of atmospheric effects will signal that, yes, this really is the Circus Devils. The term “song cycle” is appropriate as well, with vague themes running throughout the album that culminate in the penultimate song, “Gasoline Drinkers.” That’s not to say it makes any real narrative sense – Pollard’s lyrics are as elliptical and obtuse as ever, something about prisons, ants, witches and some vile concoction called “hot water wine.” But as a whole, Gringo works perfectly and exudes a warmth and emotional directness that is frankly unusual for a Circus Devils album. Certainly, Gringo is by far the most accessible Circus Devils record yet and a fine place to stick your toe if you’re curious. And, again, the LP is where it’s at with its “euphonic distortion” and enforced entr’acte; but the CD is cool too. Check out a free mp3 of “Before It Walks” here.


All are available at better record stores or directly from Rockathon. Or purchase mp3 files at Fina, if that’s your thing.

May 10, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Solar Arkestra: The Magic City (Evidence ECD 22069)

Recorded somewhere in New York City, NY April/May/September 1965
Originally released as El Saturn LPB 711 in 1966

Sun Ra often claimed he was not from this planet but from Saturn, sent to Earth on a mission to help save humanity from itself. But in 1914, Herman “Sonny” Poole Blount was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Nicknamed “The Magic City” for its booming economic growth at the turn of the century, Birmingham was, of course, also the scene of harsh racial injustices which eventually erupted into violence and protest during the civil rights movement. Sonny left Birmingham for Chicago in 1946, legally changed his name to Sun Ra, and never looked back. Yet Sun Ra retained some affection for his hometown, composing such homages as “Magic City Blues,” “The Place of Five Points,” and “West End Side of Magic City” and regularly performed “Stars Fell on Alabama” and “Alabama” in concert. Sonny admitted to MTV’s Michael Shore that “The Magic City” was indeed about Birmingham and listening to it, one can sense Ra’s conflicted ambivalence towards his subject. At almost thirty minutes, it is Ra’s magnum opus and, while comparable in scope and ambition to Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz (Atlantic) (1960) and John Coltrane’s Ascension (Impulse!) (1965), “The Magic City” sounds nothing like either of them. Disavowing the churning rhythms and fire-breathing onslaughts typical of “The New Thing,” “The Magic City” maintains a chamber-music-like intimacy and reserve with horn duos and trios forming and dissolving around Boykins’s arco bass, Ra’s fleet piano work and the reedy whine of the Selmer Clavioline. Only near the end does the full ensemble briefly engage in some full-throated, high-energy group improvisation. Szwed astutely points out that “Sun Ra’s Music often attempts to completely integrate the soloists with the ensemble to make a single statement” (p. 214) and “The Magic City” is a perfect example of this attempt. Gilmore stated that the piece was never performed in concert because it was “unreproduceable, a tapestry of sound” (Id.).

Ra had been working with the material that would become “The Shadow World” at least as far back as “The Outer Heavens” (on Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow) and it appears in rough form on Sun Ra Featuring Pharoah Sanders and Black Harold (there titled, “The World Shadow”). Here, the fiendishly difficult composition gets its first complete performance. A complex unison melody for saxophones is set off against a 7/4 rhythm and Ra’s contrary, angular piano. After a brief series of solos, saxophones return with the melody while trumpet states the counter-melody originally intimated by the piano. Szwed writes: “Sun Ra took considerable pleasure from the agitated difficulty of the piece, and noted that once during a rehearsal for a French TV show the producer was so disturbed by it that he threatened to cancel the show if they insisted on playing it” (p. 215). “The Shadow World” would become a fixture of the Arkestra’s live sets going forward, often performed at impossibly fast tempos.

“Abstract Eye” and “Abstract I” appear to be different takes of the same piece and, according to the discography, there is a twelve-inch test-pressing from Variety Recording Services in existence where the pieces are entitled, “Abstract Experiment Take 1” and “Abstract Experiment Take 2” (Campbell, 2nd ed, p. 119). This reinforces my suspicion that these tracks might be rehearsals for what would become “Heliocentric” and “Outer Nothingness” on Heliocentric Worlds Vol.1. They share the same, bottom-heavy instrumentation of bass, bass marimba, tympani, and braying trombones with piccolo and trumpet providing extreme high-register contrast. The feeling here is a little more extroverted with the saxophones taking a more prominent role in the proceedings, but they are notably similar in structure with flittering solo statements set against rumbling bass marimba, pounding tympani, and singing arco bass. Very interesting.


Another track from these sessions entitled, “Other Worlds,” is available on the 1989 Blast First compilation, Out There a Minute.

May 9, 2009

Elizabeth Warren Rocks!

Elizabeth Warren is the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel which oversees TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program). She is the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard University. She is also the author of The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke (Basic 2003) and All Your Worth: The Lifetime Money Plan (Simon & Schuster 2005). Her recent media appearances have been refreshing change from the obfuscation and projection of the past couple of decades. She is smart, frankly outspoken, charming and witty yet deadly serious. Her sparring with the smarmy, self-serving hosts of Tech Ticker is, as John Stewart puts it, “financial chicken soup.” Elizabeth Warren rocks!

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Elizabeth Warren Pt. 1
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Elizabeth Warren Pt. 2
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

May 3, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Vol.1 (ESP-Disk’ 1014)

Recorded at RLA Studio, New York, NY on April 20, 1965

By March of 1965, Gilmore was back in the fold and in April the Arkestra headed into RLA Studio to record their first LP for ESP-Disk’. Buoyed by the modest successes of the October Revolution and the prospect of wider recognition offered by the fledgling but ambitious record label, Ra expanded upon the experimentation of the Choreographer’s Workshop period to make Heliocentric Worlds Vol.1 a defining statement.

Consisting mostly of the kinds of conducted improvisations that Ra had been developing over the past year or so, Heliocentric Worlds Vol.1 retains a similarly ultra-modern chamber music feel throughout. Often the highest and lowest registers of the ensemble are emphasized with piercing trumpet and piccolo set off in stark relief against the rumblings of trombone, bass trombone, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, tympani, bass, and Ra himself on bass marimba (!). At other times, Ra plays piano and electric celeste simultaneously with stunning two-handed polyphony or the horns improvise wildly swinging anti-bop figures. But the music is more about contrasting textures than solos and accompaniment and there is a remarkable diversity of material approaches in each piece: densely orchestrated “space chords” rise and fall, percussion pounds or falls back, horn solos come and go in an instant. The music is dissonant and intense one minute, serene and contemplative the next. Even so, the music sustains a consistently mysterious mood, an air of tense expectancy that makes the diverse strains of out-and-out weirdness cohere into a enormously compelling, vibrant whole.

While the music appears to be totally improvised, Ra is clearly in control. Regarding these sessions, Marshall Allen described Ra’s approach to conducted improvisation:

Sun Ra would go to the studio and he would play something, the bass would come in, and if he didn’t like it he’d stop it, and he’d give the drummer a particular rhythm, tell the bass he wanted not a “boom boom boom” but something else, and then he’d begin to try out the horns, we’re all standing therewondering what’s next…

I just picked up the piccolo and worked with what was going on, what moods they set, or what feeling they had. A lot of things we’d be rehearsing and we did the wrong things and Sun Ra stopped the arrangement and changed it. Or he would change the person who was playing the particular solo, so that changes the arrangement. So the one that was soloing would get another part given to him personally. ‘Cos he knew people. He could understand what you could do better so he would fit that with what he would tell you
(quoted in Szwed, p. 216).

Despite Gilmore’s brief defection and return, the Arkestra executes Ra’s vision of disciplined freedom with dedication and astonishing precision. As Szwed points out, “[t]he Arkestra at this point had such confidence in what they were doing that the rest of the group could suddenly drop away in the moment to reveal a cymbal solo or a bass and tympani duo” (Id.). Horns resolutely enter and exit with succinct, emphatic statements that move the music inexorably forward (or outward) while the rhythm section ebbs and flows in natural reaction (or in deliberate opposition). Throughout it all, Ra provides deft direction, through his playing and by signaling his intentions to the musicians. No note is wasted. There are no empty gestures or tossed off cliches. The music is not merely episodic as Ra builds complex yet satisfyingly unified edifices upon the accretion of discrete, semi-autonomous events. As many times as I’ve listened to this record, it always sounds fresh, revealing deeper insights with each listen. All of my attempts at a track-by-track analysis have been woefully inadequate to elucidate the elusive magic of The Heliocentric Worlds. The music simply defies my meager descriptions and must be experienced to be even remotely (mis)understood.

Heliocentric Worlds Vol. 1 is rightfully considered a landmark recording and belongs in every serious record collection. It has remained pretty much consistently available (either legitimately or on bootleg editions) since the day it was released and its appearance transformed Sun Ra from the obscure Lower East Side eccentric into his rightful role as the globe-trotting emissary of interplanetary music. Heliocentric Worlds, Vol. 1 is, in a word, a masterpiece, but just one of a series of extraordinary recordings that Ra would make during this period.

Then another tomorrow
They never told me of
Came with the abruptness
Of a fiery dawn
And spoke of Cosmic Equations:
The equations of sight-similarity
The equations of sound-similarity

Subtle Living Equations
Clear only to those
Whose wish is to be attuned
To the vibrations
Of the Outer Cosmic Worlds.

Subtle living equations
Of the outer-realms
Dear only to those
Who wish fervently the greater life.

-- Sun Ra, 1965