June 28, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Nothing Is (ESP-Disk’ 4024 CD)

In May of 1966, the fledgling ESP-Disk’ managed to book a package tour for some of its artists under the auspices of Bernard Stollman’s Esperanto Foundation, who had somehow finagled financial support from the New York Council for the Arts to spread the ESP musico-philosophy to the denizens of various New York State public colleges and universities. The musicians included Sun Ra and the Arkestra, Ran Blake, Patty Waters, Giusseppi Logan and Burton Greene and much of the music was recorded and later released on ESP-Disk’. Nothing Is, released in 1969, captures the large-format Arkestra at the top of its game during this tour, bravely navigating conducted improvisations while also swinging hard on the jazzier numbers and otherwise bursting into space-chanting and polyrhythmic percussion freakouts ¬ it is the perfect soundtrack for the inspirational but imminently doomed counter-cultural revolution then at its peak in the wake of the Summer of Love, Woodstock, and widespread demonstrations of dissent. On the surface, Sun Ra’s music seems to fit right in with the outrageous sounds of the psychedelic era, but as has been noted, Ra’s politics were more complicated and quasi-authoritarian than might be expected. Ra’s ideal was not freedom, but discipline. Even John Sinclair had to admit: “We knew he was a dictator, but at least he was a benign dictator” (quoted in Szwed, p. 245).

Perhaps that is why, unlike much of the music of this period, Nothing Is still sounds fresh and not like a hopelessly nostalgic curio from a distant past. In fact, it still sounds like music from the future. One can only imagine what those college students thought about it at the time; surely many minds were blown. Nothing Is became a defining album for Sun Ra and, as with the Heliocentric Worlds albums, Nothing Is was widely bootlegged after ESP-Disk’s dissolution. I’ve owned various versions of this record: an Italian boot CD in the late eighties; the heavily No-Noised German ZYX CD circa. 1990; the better-sounding Dutch Calibre CD released in 2000; and now, the expanded 2005 edition on the resurrected ESP-Disk’. While the 2005 reissue includes almost thirty minutes of bonus material (and improved sonics), the tracks are disconcertingly rearranged. This album is indelibly etched into my brain through decades of repeated listening, so it was something of a shock the first time I heard the new CD. Upon reflection, it does seem likely that this rearrangement better reflects the running order of Ra’s sets of the time, but somehow the intensely visceral impact of the original is slightly diffused. Ra took great care in the construction of his albums and while additional, previously unreleased music is always welcome, I will probably keep my older CD containing the record as it was originally released, just for reference.

Be that as it may, Nothing Is is definitely one of the all-time great Sun Ra records and an essential document of the period. Highlights include a jaw-droppingly stunning Gilmore solo on the twisty post-bop composition, “Dancing Shadows,” the definitive performance of the insanely complicated “Shadow World,” and an evocative rendition of “Exotic Forest” featuring Marshall Allen’s serpentine oboe over that menacing 5/4 ostinato. Interspersed are brief space chants and songs (“Theme of the Stargazers,” “Outer Spaceways Incorporated,” “Next Stop Mars” and “Second Stop is Jupiter”), enormous, universe-engulfing space chords, and terse, densely compacted group improvisations. As for the bonus tracks, “Velvet” is an old-timey swing vehicle for Pat Patrick’s honking, squealing, and growling baritone saxophone, with pithy trombone and piano solos snuck in before the closing reprise. “Outer Nothingness” is fifteen-minutes of delirious, “New Thing” styled free jazz, marred only by an overlong drum solo by the irrepressible (and overindulged) Clifford Jarvis. (N.B. In a lazy bit of titling, this track bears little to no relationship to “Outer Nothingness” as found on Heliocentric Worlds, Vol.1.) A truncated “We Travel the Spaceways” ends the disc with a premature fadeout that feels somewhat anticlimactic. With or without the bonus material, Nothing Is is a must-have album for any Sun Ra fan and, truthfully, it belongs in any serious collection of post-war jazz.

June 27, 2009

Playlist 6-27-09

I’m surprised to find myself shocked and saddened by Michael Jackson’s death. I was never a big fan, but one of the first records I ever bought for myself was the Jackson 5 single pictured above in 1972 at the age of nine years old. Oh, what I want to know: where does the time go?

* Venice Baroque Orchestra (Marcon/Carmignola) Victoria Hall, Geneva 2-28-08 (FM 2CDR)
* J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations (Hewitt) Royal Albert Hall, London 4-29-09 (FM CDR)
* John Cage Festival Milan (Arditti Quartet) 10-6-07 (FM CDR)
* Holloway/ter Linden/Mortenson: Garrison Church, Copenhagen 4-08-08 (FM 2CDR)
* Grant Green: Street of Dreams (Blue Note CD)
* Grant Green: Idle Moments (Blue Note CD)
* Bobby Hutcherson: “Mellow Vibes” (homemade mix of Blue Note material CDR)
* Jackson 5: “Corner of the Sky” b/w “To Know” (Motown 7”)
* Lee “Scratch” Perry: Arkology (Island 3CD)
* Jerry Lee Lewis: Original Sun Singles ’56-’60 (Sundazed 2LP)
* George Harrison: George Harrison (Dark Horse CD)
* Rolling Stones: Tattoo You (Rolling Stones/Atlantic LP)
* Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home (mono) (Sundazed LP)
* Grateful Dead: Manor Downs, Austin, TX 7/4/81 (excerpts) (SBD MP3 CDR)
* Fleetwood Mac: Then Play On (Reprise/Pioneer – Japan LP)
* The Mekons: So Good It Hurts (Sin – UK LP)
* Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador CD)
* Beck: Guero (Interscope DVD-A)
* Robert Pollard: Fiction Man (Fading Captain LP)
* Circus Devils: The Harold Pig Memorial (Fading Captain LP)
* Circus Devils: Pinball Mars (Fading Captain LP)
* Boredoms: Vision Creation Newsun (Birdman CD)
* Boredoms: Super AR (Birdman CD)
* Tortoise: Tortoise (Thrill Jockey CD)
* Tortoise: Millions Now Living Will Never Die (Thrill Jockey CD)
* Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey LP/CD)

June 21, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

No time for me to write today; so I’m going to let Sun Ra speak for himself. This fascinating five-minute interview aired on VH1’s “New Visions” program circa. 1990:

June 20, 2009

Playlist 6-20-09

* Marais: Sonnerie de Sainte-Genevieve du Mont (Harnoncourt, et al.) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* A. Scarlatti: Il Giardino di Rose (Accademia Bizantina/Dantone) (Decca SACD)
* Accademia Bizantina (Dantone): Orangerie, Potsdam, Germany 6/9/06 (FM CDR)
* Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, etc. (BSO/Reiner) (RCA Victor LP)
* John Cage Festival Milan (Orch. Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, et al.) 9-28-07 (FM CDR)
* John Cage Festival Milan (Divertimento Ensemble/Valade) 10-1-07 (FM CDR)
* Andrew Hill: Dance of Death (Blue Note CD)
* Andrew Hill: Mosaic Select (disc 1) (January 1970 sessions) (Mosaic CD)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Toward the Margins (ECM CD)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Drawn Inward (ECM CD)
* Irène Schweizer/Roger Turner: Dampfzentrale, Bern, Switzerland 5/7/09 (FM CDR)
* Halvorson/Pavone/Hoff/Smith: Calling All Portraits (Skycap CD)
* Tortoise: Standards (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Rolling Stones: Beat Beat Beat at the Beeb (Invasion Unlimited (boot) 2CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips Vol.2, No.3: “Wall of Sound” (GD 2CD + “bonus disc”)
* Grateful Dead: Milwaukee Auditorium, WI 5/30/80 (set 2) (SBD CDR)
* Van Morrison: Back on Top (Virgin CD)
* Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: She’s the One (soundtrack) (Warner Bros. LP)
* Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire DVD-A)
* My Bloody Valentine: Loveless (Warner Bros. / Plain Recordings LP)
* Beck: Mutations (Bongload Custom LP)* Beck: Midnight Vultures (DGC CD)
* Sonic Youth: Washing Machine (DGC 2LP)
* Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador 2LP/CD)
* Nels Cline & Thurston Moore: Pillow Wand (Little Brother CD)
* Circus Devils: Ringworm Interiors (Fading Captain LP)
* Fushitsusha: Gold Blood (Charnel Music CD)

June 14, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

The Sensational Guitars of Dan & Dale: Batman and Robin (Universe UV016 CD)

Originally released as Tifton S-78002 LP (1966)

In a discography defined by indefinable strangeness, this has to be, on the surface anyway, the weirdest record of them all. In January, 1966, producer Tom Wilson cooked up yet another quickie cash-in attempt, this time based on the campy hit television show and aimed squarely at the children’s market. Wilson again enlisted Edward O. Bland to churn out some slapdash arrangements to be played here by the Greenwich Village-based acid-rock band, The Blues Project (billed as “The Sensational Guitars of Dan & Dale”), plus Sun Ra on occasional Hammond organ, John Gilmore on tenor sax, and Pat Patrick on baritone sax. The band is filled out with studio session stalwarts, Jimmy Owens on trumpet, Tom McIntosh on trombone along with some anonymous female vocalists. Sounds like a sure thing, right? What do you mean, “No?”

The Blues Project consisted of Danny Kalb on lead guitar and harmonica, Steve Katz on rhythm guitar, Andy Kuhlberg on bass, and Roy Blumenfeld on drums. They were hailed as New York’s answer to The Grateful Dead, after picking up organist Al Kooper during their short-lived stint on Columbia Records. Kooper, of course, was originally a guitarist, but became better known as an organist after his impromptu appearance on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” – a session, not coincidentally, produced by Tom Wilson in 1965. The Blues Project made a couple records for Verve before disbanding in 1967. But in 1966, they were at the height of their powers and hungry enough to take a gig making a pseudonymous, one-off kiddie record.

It is puzzling why Wilson felt the need to add Sun Ra and his core musicians to the mix – on first listen you would never know it’s them. On the other hand, they do provide a certain big-band, jazzy élan that The Blues Project could never have pulled off on their own. Ra can be heard playing some bumptious organ on four of the twelve tracks, his “space-age barbeque” style contrasting with Al Kooper’s more conventionally rock-ish approach. Gilmore and Patrick are clearly audible in the ensemble passages and Gilmore even takes an appropriately glib solo on “The Riddler’s Retreat.” (It is unclear who is playing the loopy slide-whistle on “Flight of the Batman” or the boing-boing-ing jaw harp on “Joker is Wild.”) Kalb peals off a number of stinging electric guitar solos that might have seemed pretty groovy in a different context but, despite the musical firepower at Wilson’s disposal, Bland’s “compositions” are nothing but laughable arrangements of material lifted wholesale from the public domain (and elsewhere). As Prof. Campbell explains:

Except for the Batman theme [composed by Neil Hefti], nearly all of the music on this album was plundered from various sources. “Batman’s Batmorang” uses the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, “Penguin’s Umbrella” takes over Chopin’s A-flat Polonaise; “Batman and Robin Swing” is based on the love theme
from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet; and “Batmobile Wheels” makes do with Bach’s Minuet in G, already recycled as “I Hear a Symphony” by the Toys. “The Riddler’s Retreat” lifts its guitar licks from “She Loves You” by the Beatles.
(Campbell & Trent, p. 125)
One can only imagine a child’s disappointment when, after begging his parents for the Batman and Robin record, he discovers only a raggedy, ersatz rendition of his favorite TV theme and a bunch of hokey tunes punctuated with incongruously psychedelic guitar solos. Needless to say, the record sold poorly and only became a pricy collector’s item due to Sun Ra’s (un-credited) involvement and the connection to The Blues Project and Al Kooper. In 2001, the Italian label, Comet/Universe, issued the album on CD, complete with deluxe, gatefold mini-LP packaging, along with several other gray-market Ra reissues. While Batman and Robin is a fun bit of commercial ephemera of interest to hard-core Sun Ra fanatics, Blues Project aficionados (and, I suppose, comic book geeks), it is pretty much worthless musically beyond its value as pure sixties kitsch, a strange and curious artifact from a far-gone era.

June 13, 2009

Playlist 6-13-09

* Musica Florea: Schloss Eggenberg, Graz, Austria 9-1-08 (FM CDR)
* Handel: Organ Concertos, Op.4 (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* J.S. Bach: Suites for Violoncello (Jaap ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Cecil Taylor: Love for Sale (United Artists/Blue Note CD)
* Cecil Taylor: Conquistador! (Blue Note CD)
* Andrew Hill: Passing Ships (Blue Note CD)
* Andrew Hill: Lift Every Voice (Blue Note CD)
* Herbie Hancock: The Prisoner (Blue Note CD)
* Stevie Wonder: Talking Book (Tamla LP)
* Steely Dan: Aja (ABC/Cisco LP)
* ABC: The Look of Love (Mercury LP)
* Emmylou Harris: All I Intended to Be (Nonesuch CD)
* Bob Dylan: Blonde On Blonde (mono) (Sundazed LP)
* Grateful Dead: Springfield Coliseum, Springfield, MA 3/25/85 (first set) (SBD CDR)
* The Who: Sell Out (Deluxe Edition) (Polydor 2CD)
* Robert Pollard: Coast to Coast Carpet of Love (Merge LP)
* Cosmos: Jar of Jam, Ton of Bricks (HJRR LP)
* The Mekons: Fear and Whiskey (Sin ¬ UK LP)
* The Mekons: Crime & Punishment (Sin – UK 12”EP)
* The Mekons: The Edge of the World (Sin – UK LP)
* The Mekons: Slightly South of the Border (Sin – UK 10”EP)
* The Ex: “Stonestampers Song” (Ex Records – UK 7”)
* The Ex: 6 (Ex Records – Holland 6-7” + 1-12”)
* Hüsker Dü: Metal Circus (SST 12”EP)
* The Minutemen: Paranoid Time (SST 7”EP)
* The Minutemen: Joy (SST 7”EP)
* The Minutemen: The Punch Line (SST 12”EP)
* Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation (Goofin’ 4LP)
* Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador 2LP/CD)
* Sonic Youth: Battery Park, NYC July 4th, 2008 (Matador promo-LP + FLAC)
* Died Pretty: “Winterland” / “Wig Out” (acoustic) (Citadel – Australia 7”)
* Died Pretty: “Towers of Strength” / “From a Buick 6” (Blue Mosque – Australia 7”)
* Beck: Odelay (Bongload Custom LP)
* Beck: “Diamond Bollocks” b/w “Runners Dial Zero” (Bongload Custom 7”)

June 7, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Walt Dickerson Quartet: Impressions of “A Patch of Blue” (MGM/Verve CD)

While the record deal with ESP-Disk’ (and a concomitant flurry of releases on the El Saturn label) would eventually establish Sun Ra’s reputation within the burgeoning subculture, the nineteen-sixties would remain penurious times for the Arkestra. Even Sun Ra himself would find it necessary to take paying gigs here and there as a sideman – especially if his old friend, Tom Wilson, made the call. In late-1965, Wilson came up with the idea for quickie movie-tie-in LP to be led by vibraphonist Walt Dickerson and he summoned Ra and sometime Arkestra drummer Roger Blank to participate in the recording sessions. Impressions of “A Patch of Blue” was billed as an “interpretation” of Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack to “A Patch of Blue,” the Sidney Poitier film that boldly addressed miscegenation at a volatile moment in the Civil Rights period. Wilson had previously recorded Dickerson in a moderately successful jazz interpretation of the “Lawrence of Arabia” soundtrack for Audio Fidelity in 1963, so it probably made sense to try to repeat that formula – with the added benefit of timeliness and topicality. Unfortunately, Goldsmith’s score is unremarkable and the film itself overwrought. Although the movie enjoyed tremendous box office success, Impressions of “A Patch of Blue” sold poorly and was promptly deleted. It was finally reissued on CD by Verve in 1999, but only in an extremely limited edition that quickly disappeared.

Walt Dickerson was a phenomenal vibraphonist, but he never got his due as an important and innovative musician. He was a graduate of Morgan State College (and, according to the original liner notes, the Peabody Conservatory), made several records for Prestige and Audio Fidelity in the early nineteen-sixties, winning Down Beat’s “New Star” award in 1962 and “Innovator of the Year” award in 1963. Dickerson radically broke away from the Lionel Hampton/Milt Jackson tradition by playing the vibraphone with small, rubber-tipped mallets, gripping them near the head and using the motor and damper with the utmost restraint, resulting in a dry, clear, almost staccato articulation even at swift tempos. Sadly, and perhaps due to its commercial failure, Impressions of “A Patch of Blue” was the last record Dickerson made before withdrawing into a decade-long exile from music, thereby ceding the mantle of Great Modern Vibraphonist to Bobby Hutcherson virtually by default. Dickerson resurfaced in 1975 and made a number of records for the Danish Steeplechase label, including a lovely duet recording with Sun Ra (Visions) in 1978. Sadly, Dickerson once again dropped from sight in the early nineteen-eighties and died, unjustly un-famous, in 2008.

Despite its apparent status as a (failed) cash-in attempt, Impressions of “A Patch of Blue” is a very fine album and well worth hearing – even beyond the novelty of Sun Ra’s presence. According to session bassist Bob Cunningham, any connection to Goldsmith’s actual score was tenuous at best: “I don’t think there was any music there to refer to. Or if there was, we didn’t necessarily follow it” (quoted in the CD liner notes). The resulting music has a loose, late-night feel, but this is not the kind of cheese-ball commercial pabulum you might expect in such a work-for-hire situation; there is some adventuresome musicianship on display within these mellow grooves. In fact, the musicians approached their work with a solemn dignity appropriate to the film’s subject. Francis Davis writes in the liner notes for the Verve CD:
Along with Dickerson’s genuine admiration for the movie, the philosophical
underpinning of Impressions of “A Patch of Blue” was provided by the lengthy
discussions about race and other matters he had with Sun Ra. “Our conversations
were not the norm,” Dickerson told me. “Sometimes it was a conversation without
periods or commas, and we would extend that into the musical realm, with no
musical composition as such. Music was part of our extended conversation.”

This conversational tone is part of the record’s relaxed, yet scintillating presence. On four of the eight tracks, Ra spins gossamer spiderwebs of notes on a tinkling harpsichord (of all things) while his piano playing is deftly virtuosic, with a particularly daring solo on “A Patch of Blue – Part 2.” Ra also lays down some tasty, bluesy funk on “Bacon and Eggs” and, sometimes, he plays piano and harpsichord simultaneously, creating a delicate, weirdly polyphonic texture. Dickerson himself displays his innovative technique at the bars, especially on the expansive “Alone in the Park – Parts 1 and 2” and his quadruple-time swinging on “Selina’s Fantasy” is truly astonishing, yet far from mere empty showboating. Cunningham and Blank make for a sensitive rhythm section, with Cunningham’s solid pizzicato and arco bass complementing Blank’s singularly impressionistic (rather than overtly propulsive) trap drums. Blank also plays some darkly Arkestral tympani on the spooky set-piece, “High Hopes.” Impressions of “A Patch of Blue” is not just an obscure historical document, of interest only to obsessive record collectors; it is a transcendently beautiful work of art in its own right, an overlooked gem.

June 6, 2009

Playlist 6-6-09

* J.S. Bach: 7 Harpsichord Concertos (AAM/Manze/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: Suites for Violoncello (Jaap ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Reger: Clarinet Quintet, op.146 (Drolc-Quartett/Karl Leister) (DG – W. German LP)
* Messiaen: Quatour pour la Fin du Temps (Barenboim et al.) (DG – W. German LP)
* Sun Ra: Strange Celestial Road (Rounder CD)
* The Thirteenth Assembly: (un)sentimental (Important CD)
* Mary Halvorson Trio: WFMU, NYC 12/17/08 (MP3)
* Tortoise: It’s All Around You (Drag City LP)
* The Velvet Underground & Nico (Verve CD)
* George Harrison: Gone Troppo (Dark Horse/Capitol CD)
* Grateful Dead: The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA 8/30/80 (SBD CDR)
* Jerry Garcia Band: Jerry Garcia Band (live 1990) (Arista/GD 2CD)
* Sly & the Family Stone: Life (Sundazed LP)
* Steely Dan: Katy Lied (ABC LP) (white-label promo!)
* Steely Dan: Countdown to Ecstasy (ABC LP)
* Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: Echo (Warner Bros. 2LP)
* Guided By Voices: Do the Collapse (TVT LP)
* Cosmos: Jar of Jam, Ton of Bricks (HJRR LP)
* The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms (Stiff LP)
* Sonic Youth: Murray Street (Geffen LP)
* Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped (Goofin’ LP)
* Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Am Going to Beat Your Ass (Matador CD)
* Tool: Lateralus (Zoo CD)