November 8, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: The Red Garter, New York City circa. July, 1970 (AUD CDR)

According to photographer Lee Santa, Sun Ra’s Arkestra played a three-night engagement at The Red Garter (now known as The Bottom Line) in Greenwich Village in early July, 1970. The nightclub’s “obtrusive Gay ‘90s décor” can be seen in Santa’s photograph (above) which appeared on the original cover of The Solar Myth Approach, Vol.1. Santa recalled that “the first night featured six hours of continuous music; the second and third nights slacked off to a mere five hours, without a break” (see Campbell & Trent, p.161-162). It must have been something to behold.

Fortunately, an intrepid fan surreptitiously recorded a seventy-five minute segment one night utilizing a very primitive recording device and, while the sound quality is typically horrid, the music itself is terrific. How bad does it sound? Well, the volume levels fluctuate wildly while consistently retaining a significant amount of distortion; there’s some serious wow and flutter issues; and the monophonic, single-microphone recording is boomy, muddy, and generally indistinct. It doesn’t sound quite as bad as the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival recording, but it also doesn’t sound nearly as good as the 1968 Electric Circus tape. Let’s face it: your cell phone could make a far better-sounding recording. Nevertheless, the large-ish ensemble sounds particularly well-rehearsed (perhaps in preparation for their upcoming trip to France) and the free-wheeling performance goes to some very interesting places. For the hardcore Ra fanatic, this is well worth hearing as a rare historical document but most people will be understandably repulsed.

Caveats aside, the performance captured on this amateur recording is really quite stunning, beginning with a long unidentified title that alternates between a spacey, mellow groove and full-blast assaults of New Thing-styled energy music. Solos by John Gilmore on tenor sax and Ra on mad-scientist organ keep things interesting, ending with Danny Davis’s woody alto clarinet interweaving with the Arkestra’s antiphonal calls and responses. “Love in Outer Space” follows: a loping bassline holds down the jaunty groove while the entire Akestra gleefully bangs on myriad percussion instruments, with Ra stating the simple, joyful melody and soloing on electric organ. After a brief pause, Ra segues into a quiet, spooky organ improvisation accompanied by Alan Silva’s distinctive cello. After about five minutes, the horns enter with a curiously old fashioned, rubato ballad composition (title unknown) that eventually settles into a gentle swing. Kwame Hadi takes an adventurous turn on trumpet, with Ra rumbling away on organ. Pat Patrick follows with a typically ferocious bari-sax solo while the rhythm heats up and shifting horn sections provide riffing punctuation. After settling back down, the horns return with the old-timey ballad to end. Interesting.

What follows is one of the strangest bits of musical-theater in all of Ra’s discography. John Gilmore recalled the title as “Ladies and Gentlemules” (Id. p.162) and, while the recording is incomplete, the piece appears to be structured like a sanctified church service, with Ra fervently imploring the “gentlemules” to heed his message. The Arkestra plays some bluesy swing and ecstatically chants, but much of the preaching and carrying on is difficult to hear. However, the loud, unison refrain of “another jackass is going to take your place” is clear enough to get the point across. After about six minutes of holy-rolling chaos, the tape abruptly cuts off. Up next is “Somewhere Else,” a then-recent composition which would appear on the studio recording, My Brother the Wind Vol. II, in 1971. Not much happens beyond several repetitions of the lurching, block-chord melody over a gospel-ish vamp, but the effect is hypnotizing. After a brief organ and synthesizer solo (with some barely audible spoken incantations), Ra launches into the nineteen-twenties-era chestnut, “Sometimes I’m Happy.” The Arkestra sounds a little tentative in the ensembles, but Gilmore’s sure-footed tenor solo demonstrates his unique synthesis of pre-war swing, hard bop grit, and avant-garde extended techniques.

The tape concludes with a spectacular, thirteen-minute rendition of another My Brother the Wind Vol. II composition, “Pleasant Twilight,” According to Campbell and Trent, there are no other known live performances of this piece, which is unsurprising given its subtle complexity. Ra begins with a rhapsodic, rubato introduction on organ before the Arkestra enters with the brightly swinging composition. The tempo then slows down by half and, while the ensemble gently rocks back and forth between two lushly sustained chords, Gilmore peals off a starkly contrasting, barn-burner of a solo on tenor sax. Holy smokes! The Arkestra plays their parts with incredible restraint while Gilmore wails away with a terrifying fury. After a honking, emphatic conclusion, Gilmore leads the Arkestra through a half-time run through of the head before returning the original tempo for a high-spirited trumpet solo from Akh Tal Ebah. The Arkestra adds complementary horn riffs and, as the intensity builds, the tempo speeds up again for an enervated reprise and a big finish. Whew! The much abbreviated studio recording, while sparklingly polished, ultimately sounds downright staid compared to this expansive and inspired live performance. It’s a shame this tune fell out of the repertoire.

Given the atrocious sound quality, I cannot recommend that anyone but the most fanatical seek this recording out. But given the exceptionally high quality of the performance and the sheer rarity of tracks like “Pleasant Twilight,” it is nevertheless worth hearing. As the seventies wore on, live recordings would become more and more plentiful and one might pick and choose without missing too much. But given the paucity of material from this particular time period, this one is worth having for that reason alone.


Sam said...

Wow--I didn't think the sound was that bad! I think I have a high tolerance for bootiness. At any rate, I love this set--I certainly wish more had been recorded. Who knows what will turn up from this era? I'm sure there's more out there. "Pleasant Twilight" is easily the highlight. You think that's Ebah at the end? I would have guessed Kwame Hadi. I'll go back and listen again with that in mind.

Rodger Coleman said...

I only assumed it was Ebah at the end since Hadi solos on the opening piece and this second solo sounds like a different person to me. Keeping up with the trumpet players is difficult!