December 13, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Research Arkestra: Paradiso, Amsterdam 10-18-70 (FM 2CDR)

After the (semi) triumphant appearance at the Donaueschingen Musik Festival, the Arkestra traveled to Amsterdam to perform at the famed Paradiso on the following evening, October 18, 1970. The “Cosmic Relaxation Center Paradiso” was opened in a decommissioned church on March 30, 1968 as a publicly-sponsored cultural institution which, amazingly enough, continues to function in that capacity to this very day. The significance of this formerly-sacred now publicly-funded venue was no doubt meaningful to an exhausted Arkestra who managed to deliver a ragged yet truly inspired performance. Campbell lists a thirty-five minute audience recording (p.166), but ninety minutes of the original VPRO radio broadcast has recently surfaced in fairly decent sound quality and it is definitely worth seeking out.

The recording begins with the radio announcer introducing the musicians (in Dutch, of course) and a spirited rendition of the strutting “Watusi,” including a long percussion segment featuring the booming “thunder drum.” No doubt all of this accompanied dancers and parading musicians, film clips and slide projections -- perhaps even some fire-eating as well. While not much seems to be happening musically, the audience is clearly enjoying the visual spectacle. Up next is perhaps the first (or rather a prototype) of what would later be called the “Discipline” series of compositions. Both Szwed (p.285) and Campbell (p.170) state that Sun Ra did not begin work on the “Discipline” series (which numbered over one-hundred compositions) until the Arkestra’s brief move to California in early 1971; but this (and another two works performed at Paradiso) is conceptually similar enough to indicate that the idea was germinating at least as early as the fall of 1970. Szwed describes the “Discipline” series as “tightly conceived exercises using minimal material […] built on hocketed horn lines, with each horn playing within a two- to three-note range, a cyclical melody developing out of the fragments, each person playing his parts scrupulously with no deviation whatsoever” (p.285). Sun Ra told journalist Robert Palmer in 1974 that “the slightest variation would destroy the whole thing” (Id.), emphasizing that these pieces are completely through-composed, the epitome of the kind of freedom-through-discipline Sonny constantly espoused to his musicians and to anyone else who would listen. This particular example is slow and stately, building monumental edifices of strange and beautiful harmonies, reaching toward the heavens and ending with a tension-filled chord, straining at the limits of the instrumentalists’ ranges.

After that arresting prelude, Ra introduces the bouncing bassline of “Enlightenment” on an ultra-distorted keyboard and the whole group chants the lyrics with June Tyson providing her echoing response. Suddenly, there’s a short outburst of free-jazz skronk before Ra and Tyson urgently announce to the audience that “It’s After the End of the World!” This version is taken at a faster clip than at Donaueschingen, with the voices dropping down to a stagey whisper, the tempo maniacally accelerating until a final, dramatically slowed down exhortation of “don’t you know that yet?!” This signals another blast of high-energy group improv which quickly segues into the lilting “We Travel the Spaceways,” complete with clanging bells and gongs and some nice Xenakis-like portamento bowing from Alan Silva while the Arkestra moves about the audience, chanting the theme.

A wave of applause swells over the continued chanting while another Afro-percussion groove sets up a squealing, multiphonic tenor solo from John Gilmore – by now, the audience is way into it, whooping and hollering with pure delight! Trumpet and Neptunian libflecto spar over crazy polyrhythmic percussion and free drumset pummeling, until Ra enters with a dissonant organ chord, grinding over and over until moving direction into some two-handed polyphony. A wheezy synthesizer signals the band to drop out, leaving Ra to improvise a wandering, descending keyboard solo, full of white noise generators and melodramatic organ chords. Just as things start to get crazy, percussion enters along with some swooping trumpet. More horns enter the fray only to be interrupted by the radio DJ who once again introduces the band personnel. Obviously, things continued in this vein for some time; oh well! Applause fades up and Sun Ra has moved to the acoustic piano for a series of duets with Silva’s cello, (possibly) Eloe Omoe on Neptunian liblfecto and (probably) Akh Tal Ebah on trumpet. Sonny is at his most aggressively avant-garde at times, bringing to mind the ferocity of Cecil Taylor’s piano attack, but with his own “old-timey” rhythmic sensibility and romantically rhapsodic lyricism. After about six minutes, this directed improvisation coalesces into what appears to be another “Discipline” series composition, with Ra leading the way with a series of harmonically ambiguous piano chords. The ensemble sounds a bit tentative, but the haunting beauty of the composition is affecting nonetheless.

The impossibly difficult “Shadow World” gets a rather perfunctory reading here (compared to the hair-raisingly intense performance the night before), but opens up for a series of exciting a cappella saxophone solos from Gilmore, Danny Davis and Marshall Allen and some edgy, “Strange-Strings”-styled bowings from Silva. Ra interjects a crashing organ chord to introduce the infectiously swinging, “Walking On the Moon,” one of those “space-age barbeque” numbers first heard on My Brother the Wind, Vol.II. Unfortunately, this song was only performed a handful of times in 1970 and 1971, presumably because the Apollo moon landings were still fresh in the cultural memory, and thereafter permanently dropped from the repertoire. Too bad, as it was clearly a fun tune live, full of joyous riffing by the Arkestra and, of course, June Tyson’s soulful vocals. Ra brings it to an end with a rubato solo on the buzzing Rocksichord, concluding with a weirdly unresolved chord. The DJ then interjects a quick announcement over a smattering of applause.

After a tinkly Rocksichord introduction, another “Discipline”-type composition follows, a sequence of richly orchestrated, contrapuntally derived chords, sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, ending ambiguously with a dense block of widely-spaced pitches. A spacey, conducted improvisation arises within the harmonic space established by the composition, featuring a massed oboe choir, of all things. You don’t hear much jazz oboe, but its pinched, exotic-sounding wail is an integral element of Sun Ra’s Arkestra and this is great example of its surprising versatility. Later, Ra takes over with one of his lengthy, “mad scientist” organ/synthesizer solos which is overlaid here and there with full-blown ensemble freak outs. Out of the murk, the Arkestra chants, “The Second Stop is Jupiter!” in crazy antiphony, leading to further free-jazz skronk that is eventually reined in by Ra’s sing-songy organ, prompting Gilmore and Tyson to sing the “Theme of the Star Gazers.” After a quick recitation of the song, another quiet, spacey improvisation follows with some more lovely arco playing from Silva. Sadly, the tape abruptly runs out.

This recording is clearly several generations from the master, so it’s possible a better-sounding (and more complete) tape will surface in the future. It’s also possible the original pre-FM reels still exist at VPRO and would make for a welcome official release some day. In the meantime, this will have to suffice.


The Arkestra returned to Paris but promised gigs in France never materialized due to the failure of French drummer Claude Delcloo to line them up. Adding insult to injury, a planned recording session for BYG/Actuel also fell through, leaving the Arkestra stranded without work (paying or not) for almost three weeks. The situation was so dire that Gilmore wound up playing his last session date as a sideman outside the Arkestra, recording with Dizzy Reece, Siegfried Kessler, Patrice Caratini and Art Taylor on Futura LP 23 (Campbell p.166). The Arkestra barely managed to hang on until their next scheduled performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival on November 7th (see Szwed p.283). We’ll take a listen to that concert next week.

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