March 28, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Solar Research Arkestra:
Théâtre du Chatelet, Paris, France 11-29-71 (FM CDR)

Of all the European cities the Arkestra toured, Paris was apparently Sun Ra’s favorite:

Paris reminded Sonny of Montreal [where the Arkestra briefly lived before their arrival in New York City in 1961], and he loved to walk the streets and visit museums, especially the Egyptian section of the Louvre. [Dancer] Verta Mae Grosvenor said, “Walking with Sun Ra in France was something else! Everyone stared at us. We were a sensation…like Josephine Baker’s arrival in Paris” (Szwed, p.287).
The Arkestra performed at the Théâtre du Chatelet on November 29, 1971 and the concert was broadcast over the radio. A very degraded sixty minute recording of the radio broadcast circulates amongst the more fanatical collectors -- and you really have to be a fanatic to get into this one. The first forty-five minutes borders on the unlistenable: hissy yet muffled, under-recorded yet boomy, woefully unbalanced, and just plain bad. The remaining fifteen-minute segment is from a different source, but only marginally better-sounding than the rest. Even so, buried within the murk is some remarkable music that is worth the effort -- maybe.

The recording starts from the beginning of a set, with tribal drums setting up Ra’s grand entrance on weird electric space keyboards. Without going on too long, Sonny cues up “Discipline 27” in its early, “pre-mitotic” arrangement (see Campbell & Trent, p.177). Gilmore takes a rip-snorting tenor solo while the Arkestra heaves and sighs around him, but it’s difficult to hear exactly what is going on within the music. After a brief keyboard interlude, the band launches to “Enlightenment,” only to have the sound quality deteriorate even further. Ugh. “Love In Outer Space” predictably follows, but this time Sun Ra keeps up an enervating, electro-metallic din over the polyrhythmic percussion jamming to unsettling effect. Despite the poor sound quality, you can tell this is a particularly intense version of this sometimes throw-away piece. There’s a churning darkness to Sonny’s organ playing that reminds me of textural effects found on Miles Davis’s On the Corner album (which did not come out until 1972). Interesting.

Next up is the first known performance of “Third Planet,” a twisted bit of big-band fun, with a jaunty, slightly old-timey rhythm and a riff-happy horn arrangement. Ra takes a nicely buzzing Rocksichord solo before the reprise. After a brief interruption from the radio announcer (in French), and piano introduction from Ra, Tyson sings “Somebody Else’s Idea” accompanied by hypnotic percussion, an ooh-ing and ah-ing male chorus, and, sometimes, Marshall Allen’s ethereal flute. The announcer rudely interrupts again before an unknown number in the “Discipline” series composition fades up. It’s amazing how many of these things there are! This one is really just handful densely through-composed ensemble chords, which quickly gives way to an a cappella Gilmore solo. Sadly, the tape cuts off just as things start to get cooking. Too bad, as I suspect there was much more music that followed. Finally, “Watusi” is from a different, slightly better source, more balanced and clear, but the fifteen-minute long percussion jam is still a distorted mess. The track fades just the horns start to take things out. Oh well.

Despite the interestingness of much of the music contained on this recording, it is inordinately difficult to listen to without squinting your ears. However, rumor has it that the Art Yard label is planning a two-CD release of this complete concert mastered from the original reels – now that would be a most welcome addition to the official discography! I’ll keep you posted.

March 27, 2010

Playlist Week of 3-27-10

* J.S. Bach: Suites for Violoncello (ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Debussy: Piano Music, Vol.2 (Thibaudet) (Decca 2CD)
* Debussy: Chamber Music (Athena Ensemble) (Chandos CD)
* Wynonie Harris (w/Sun Ra): Studio recordings, Nashville, March 1946 (78RPM>CDR)
* Sun Ra: Super-Sonic Jazz (Saturn/Evidence CD)
* Sun Ra: Delft, The Netherlands 11-11-71 (FM 3CDR)
* Sun Ra: Paris, France 11-29-71 (AUD? CDR)
* Stan Getz/Charlie Byrd: Jazz Samba (Verve CD)
* Cecil Taylor: The World of Cecil Taylor (Candid CD)
* Cecil Taylor: Jumpin’ Punkins (Candid CD)
* Cecil Taylor: New York City R&B (Candid CD)
* Cecil Taylor: Cell Walk for Celeste (Candid CD)
* David Torn’s Prezens: Mercat de les flors, Sala MAC, Barcelona, Spain 1-09-08 (AUD CDR)
* Praxis: Transmutation Live (Douglas CD)
* The Mothers of Invention: We’re Only In It for the Money (Verve LP)
* Led Zeppelin: Mothership (d.2) (Atlantic 2CD)
* Can: Delay 1968 (Spoon SACD)
* Can: Monster Movie (Spoon SACD)
* John Fahey: America (Takoma/4 Men With Beards 2LP)
* Grateful Dead: Memorial Coliseum, Portland, OR 5-19-74 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Civic Center, Providence, RI 9-08-87 (SBD 2CDR)
* Cocteau Twins: Echoes in a Shallow Bay (4AD/Capitol CDEP)
* Cocteau Twins: Tiny Dynamine (4AD/Capitol CDEP)
* Cocteau Twins: Aikea Guinea (4AD/Capitol CDEP)
* Cocteau Twins: The Spangle Maker (4AD/Capitol CDEP)
* Beck: Midnight Vultures (Geffen CD)
* Mission of Burma: Signals, Calls, and Marches (Matador LP/EP/DVD)
* Mission of Burma: Vs. (Matador LP/EP/DVD)
* Ranaldo/Giffoni/Moore/Cline: Four Guitars Live (Important CD)
* Thurston Moore: Flipped Out Bride (Blossoming Noise CDEP)
* Thurston Moore: Sensitive/Lethal (No Fun CD)
* Yo La Tengo: Popular Songs (Matador CD)
* Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Deluxe Edition) (Matador 2CD)
* Guided By Voices: Universal Truths and Cycles (Matador LP)
* Guided By Voices: The Pipe Dreams of Instant Prince Whippet (FSC 12”EP)
* Guided By Voices: Earthquake Glue (Matador CD)
* Guided By Voices: “My Kind of Soldier” (side B) (Matador 7”)
* Guided By Voices: “The Best of Jill Hives” (Matador CDEP)
* Boston Spaceships: Camera Found the Ray Gun (Jackpot 7”EP)
* Circus Devils: Ataxia (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Circus Devils: Gringo (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Circus Devils: Mother Skinny (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)


Another month, another Robert Pollard record -- actually, two! Former GBV bassist Chris Slusarenko continues to push Boston Spaceships to be an actual band, this time with a four-song EP on Jackpot Records, which sounds pretty boss, although Pollard’s vocals sound kinda flown-in at the last minute. A new LP is due any minute. The big news is the new Circus Devils album, which was supposed to come out this past Halloween, but was pushed back to now – it was worth the wait! After last year’s quasi-acoustic Gringo, Mother Skinny is a return to the electrified skronky art-noise-rock the Circus Devils are known for, giving Pollard the opportunity to really get his weird on. Pollard’s willfully anti-pop, pro-prog-rock posturing and Todd & Tim Tobias’s wonky, monolithic productions make for a rich stew, but the utter lack of self-deprecatory irony makes the Circus Devils’s gleeful self-indulgences sound fresh and exciting. To me, anyway. I am willing to acknowledge that this stuff is not for everyone – not even every Pollard fan – it is essentially the antithesis of the kind of anthemic cock-rock which classic-era GBV epitomized. If your tastes wander away into the seriously bent thickets of Pollard’s musical persona – the kind of dementia that dates back to Nightwalker or the Howling Wolf Orchestra, then this will be, more likely than not, an immensely enjoyable listen. Otherwise, forget it. Personally, it inspired an inebriated Friday-night survey of the last couple of Circus Devils albums, each of which have their own inimitable sound and mood. Mother’s milk to me, bitter poison to others – use only as directed and caveat emptor! You can test the waters by checking out two free mp3 tracks, “Sub Rat” and “Bam Bam Bam,” here.

March 21, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Solar Research Arkestra:
Technische Hogeschool, Nieuwe Aula, Delft, The Netherlands 11-11-71 (FM 3CDR)

Several weeks later, the Arkestra appeared at the Technische Hogeschool, Nieuwe Aula in Delft, on November 11, 1971. Once again, the state-run radio station recorded the concert and broadcast it on November 14. According to Campbell and Trent, portions of this concert were also televised on Dutch TV on November 17, but the tape no longer exists in the VPRO archive (p.176). The audio recordings do exist, however, and, fortunately for us fans, the entire three-hour concert was re-broadcast in 2001. The sound quality is exceptionally good and it’s a wonderful performance to boot.

The first set starts off with glistening vibraphone arpeggios over roiling drums, each of the various percussion instruments nicely captured in a wide stereo image. After a brief pause, the Arkestra blasts into an explosive space chord that sets up a long electronic keyboard extravaganza, punctuated by intermittent ensemble freakouts. This is certainly an intense way to begin a concert! After about nine minutes, Ra launches into the bouncy vamping of “Enlightenment.” This is a note-perfect rendition with everyone crystal clear in the mix, including the descending counter-melodies on flutes and trumpet and the multi-voiced chorus that accompanies June Tyson’s melodic crooning. “Love in Outer Space” predictably follows, but this time it’s taken at a more relaxed tempo than usual, settling into a sultry, slinky groove for almost twelve sensuous minutes, relentlessly driven forward by William Morrow’s doubling of Pat Patrick’s electric bass line on vibes. Not much happens musically until Ra enters to state the theme a few times on a wheezy electric organ at the end -- but that’s OK.

Sonny then signals the space-chant, “Space is the Place,” which is full of soulful group vocalizations over the mellow groove. Until, that is, the saxophones enter with some dissonant squealing and the rhythm starts to disintegrate, with the vocalists going crazy with ecstatic wailing about “outer space” etc. Rather than wearing out its welcome, all this nonsense quickly subsides to give way to a series of solos and various ensemble sections including Ra’s “mad-scientist” organ, some saxophone duels, raging horn battles, and pounding kettle drums. Another unknown number in the “Discipline” series emerges from the ashes, where richly orchestrated horn parts wander through a thicket of chords while rubato drums rumble around underneath. A beautiful trumpet solo follows (probably Kwami Hadi) accompanied by some spacey vibraphone, which gets a nice response from the audience. Morrow then takes over with Ra joining in on marimba, while drums beat randomly and ominously. Out of the ether, June Tyson enters with a brief declamation: “Out of every nation they shall rise, with an invitation of the Sun to journey to the outer darkness, to the outer heavens of the intergalactic dawn!” Then the ensemble enters with a reprise or coda to the “Discipline” piece. As the work concludes, Eloe Omoe adds his wild bass clarinet scribbling which prods the ensemble into some full-blown skronky free-jazz, led by John Gilmore’s indomitable tenor saxophone.

June Tyson interrupts the mayhem with the declamatory “We’ll Wait for You” which is ticklingly echoed by the ensemble voices. Another wave of high-energy group improv follows, featuring Art Jenkins's ghostly “space voice” and another long segment of vibes and marimba noodling. Sonny then takes a rare turn on solo acoustic piano, interspersing luscious ballad chords with furious avant-garde attacks, later rhapsodically hinting around the “Theme of the Stargazers,” which is taken up by Tyson and Gilmore in perfect unison. This gives rise to a long, quiet, very spacey improvisation with vocalized horns and gently tapping marimba and percussion. At times, an eerie, “Strange Strings” --like atmosphere arises only to move in other, equally compelling musical territory. Finally, Gilmore steps up with an anguished saxophone cry and takes over with a typically mind-blowing solo, which is greeted with wild applause. Wow.

An early version of “Discipline 27” follows right behind. Campbell and Trent point out that these early performances are “pre-mitotic; [they] combine[] a riff from the later ‘27’ and one from the later ’27-II’ along with a counter-theme for the saxes that was not used in later versions at all” (p.177). Not surprisingly, the ensemble sounds a bit tentative on the interlocking horn parts, and the rhythm section never quite attains the stately grace the work requires. Hadi ventures first with an uncharacteristically modest but tasteful solo while Morrow provides some rather aimless filling on vibes, mostly making for a not quite satisfying performance of this otherwise languid and dreamy composition. As the piece tapers off, the chorus enters with an a cappella rendition of “Outer Spaceways, Incorporated,” ending the set with delirious chanting and clapping while the Arkestra parades off the stage.

The second set begins with another out improv led by Gilmore titanic tenor, together with peals of squalling horns and energetic free drumming. The mix is a little weird until Tyson enters with a lovely solo rendition of “They’ll Come Back,” which elicits an enthusiastic response from the crowd. Another unknown number in the “Discipline” series follows, featuring slowly ascending, densely harmonized horn swells and a honking bass clarinet solo from Omoe. A free improvisation opens up for more vibes/marimba spaciness before the ensemble returns with the heaving chords of “Discipline,” this time with hysterical vocalizations from (perhaps) Malik Ramadin. Interesting. The piece formally concludes, giving way to Danny Davis on wailing alto saxophone, later joined by Marshall Allen and some jittery percussion and vibraphone. The music rises and falls a number of times before Gilmore takes over with another spectacular tenor solo, bringing down the house to stunned applause. Ra then moves to acoustic piano for a rare performance of “Intergalactic Research,” a loping vamp in 5/4 featuring subtly inventive solo turns from Gilmore and Hadi. As the rhythm section starts to deconstruct, Ra embarks on a spaceship synthesizer solo punctuated by dissonant organ stabs, with an onomatopoeiac white-noise blast-off at the conclusion.

A held organ chord cues “The Satellites Are Spinning,” its mellow groove supporting the soulful singing of Tyson and band. After a big ending and a brief percussion interlude, yet another number in the “Discipline” series is performed, this one orchestrated for thick stacks of low saxophones with a breathy flute on top. As Pat Patrick begins to play a counter-melody on baritone sax, more flutes and French horn enter, making for an impossibly lush texture. A sweetly improvised flute choir follows, with additional commentary from various percussion instruments and a reedy synthesizer -- until Ra suddenly charges into “Watusi,” taken at a brisk yet controlled tempo. After a tight rendition of the theme, the usual percussion fest follows, which benefits from the excellent stereo sound; this sometimes dull segment is actually quite mesmerizing! But by the time Morrow’s clanking vibraphone induces Ra to return to the vamp, the tempo has increased noticeably. Even so, the Arkestra returns with a jubilant restatement of the theme and a huge pulsating space chord to end. Sonny then taps out the tune, “To Nature’s God,” on Rocksichord, but drops out for Tyson and the guys to sing the song over a hypnotic two-chord vamp supplied by vibraphone and electric bass. “Sometimes you should appreciate the work of Nature’s God! -- Give credit where credit is due!” they implore. While it’s sort of understandable why this tune was dropped from the repertoire, it’s still nice to have this rarely performed vocal arrangement in such good sound quality.

Next up is an extended performance of the mysterious “Shadow World.” Ra outlines the weird chords at a breakneck tempo, but when the horns come in with their wickedly complicated, interlocking lines, they are almost completely overwhelmed by howling feedback. Yikes! The mix continues to suffer as the technicians attempt to cope with the barrage of instrumental attacks. Eventually, the rhythm section amiably falls apart, allowing for a series of solos, first a densely contrapuntal Rocksichord etude, then Gilmore with his screaming multiphonics and fleet-fingered runs of notes, which again elicits a round of applause from the audience. Pat Patrick honks out the “Shadow World’s” enervating riff, while Gilmore continues to wail, building up to an almost unbearable level of intensity until he’s all alone again on the stage, blowing his ever-living brains out. With a flourish, he stops and the stunned audience responds with another big hand. Geez, what can I say? It’s another incredible John Gilmore solo! Kwami Hadi gamely follows with a high-wire trumpet solo, full of rubber-lipped special effects which is greeted with respectful applause. Ra furiously assaults the organ with remarkable, ten-fingered dexterity, producing a richly textured, purely electronic sound. Then the Arkestra suddenly enters with a wobbly space chord, serving to introduce a brief untitled composition, perhaps from the “Discipline” series, scored for long-breathed flutes and alternately moaning and riffing horns. Very interesting! After a spacey vibraphone interlude, Ra returns with an extended synthesizer excursion, again demonstrating his mastery of electronic keyboards in the early nineteen-seventies. After a solemn conclusion, Ra deftly segues into the closing space chants. First, there's a short romp through “The Second Stop Is Jupiter,” with Tyson and Gilmore gleefully chanting the line in weirdly antiphonal harmony. Tyson then moves into “Prepare for the Journey to Other Worlds,” which includes quotations from "Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and a disconcertingly catchy refrain: “This world ain’t gonna be here long – we got to go!” Meanwhile, the Arkestra embarks on its slow procession off the stage, banging and clanging, chanting and singing. Several minutes of clapping, cheering and hollering from the audience is also included on the rebroadcast.

Whew! What a show! How delightful to have this recording of an expansive Cosmo Drama in such vivid high-fidelity sound! This one is a keeper, for sure! Unfortunately, the haphazard booking of the European tour was taking its toll on the Arkestra’s finances, which led to an ugly scene back at the hotel after this concert. Szwed explains:

The performances were spread so far apart that the money they were receiving ran thin, and three of the musicians began demanding to be paid. After the Delft concert one of them tried to take the money by force in Sonny’s hotel room, and was stopped only when other band members came by and heard what was going on. Sonny fired the three of them, and over the next three weeks eleven more left, including all the dancers except June Tyson (p.287).

Campbell and Trent list no performances between the October 19 concert in Aarhus and this one on November 11 and the next documented performance wasn’t until November 29 in Paris (which was supposed to be the last one of the tour). It’s rumored, however, that the Arkestra also played in West Germany at some point, but no definitive information has been uncovered (p.176). In any event, such a large ensemble of out-jazzers couldn’t possibly survive in a foreign country while working only once every few weeks, so it was inevitable things would come to a head with the less-experienced Arkestrans. Fortunately, the core members of the band soldiered on, enthusiastically agreeing to a last-minute trip to Egypt, despite the impossible logistics, which included some hastily arranged gigs in Denmark in December which were intended to pay for the excursion. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. A fragment of the Paris concert and one “officially released” recording from Copenhagen still await us. See you next week.

March 20, 2010

Playlist Week of 3-20-10

* Handel: 12 Solo Sonatas, Op.1 (AMM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi)
* Debussy: Piano Music, Vol.1 (Thibaudet) (Decca 2CD)
* Debussy: Orchestral Music (disc 1) (New Philharmonia, et al./Boulez) (Sony 2CD)
* Cecil Taylor: Jazz Advance (Transition/Blue Note CD)
* Cecil Taylor: Looking Ahead! (Contemporary/Fantasy CD)
* Cecil Taylor: Love for Sale (United Artists/Blue Note CD)
* Sun Ra: Delft, The Netherlands 11-11-71 (FM 3CDR)
* Anthony Braxton 12+1tet: 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (d.2) (Firehouse 12 9CD+DVD)
* Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone: Thin Air (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Matthew Shipp: One (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Matthew Shipp Trio: Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Bob Marley & the Wailers: Catch a Fire (Island/MFSL CD)
* Johnny Cash: Unearthed (d.3) (American 4CD)
* Jimi Hendrix: Valleys of Neptune (Experience Hendrix/Sony CD)
* The Mothers of Invention: Absolutely Free (Verve LP)
* Led Zeppelin: Mothership (d.1) (Atlantic 2CD)
* Grateful Dead: Fillmore East, New York, NY 4-27-71 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Marin Co. Veterans Memorial Aud., San Rafael, CA 3-29-84 (SBD 2CDR)
* Reconstruction: The Keystone, Palo Alto, CA 7-07-79 (first set) (SBD CDR)
* Big Star: #1 Record (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Big Star: Radio City (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky (d.3) (Rhino 4CD)
* New Order: The Fulcrum, Slough, England 12-07-85 (SBD CDR)
* Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted (Deluxe Edition) (Matador 2CD)
* Beck: Odelay (Bongload Custom LP)
* Guided By Voices: Mag Earwhig! (Matador LP)
* Guided By Voices: “Bulldog Skin” (Matador CDEP)
* Guided By Voices: “I Am a Tree” (Matador CDEP)
* Guided By Voices: Do the Collapse (TVT LP)
* Guided By Voices: Daredevil Stamp Collector (FCS 12”EP)
* Guided By Voices: Isolation Drills (TVT LP)
* Guided By Voices: “Glad Girls” (TVT CDEP)


This week I finally picked up the “new” Jimi Hendrix CD, Valleys of Neptune. As much as I really wanted to purchase this from good old Grimey’s New & Pre-Loved Music, I was just too tempted by the two bonus tracks (totaling almost eleven minutes) tacked onto the limited edition version sold exclusively at Target -- of all places! It’s a good thing we made a last minute decision on the way home from work to exit the interstate and take a trip to a nearby strip mall. They only had a handful left -- and they were hard to find! If you want this, I suggest you act now. Anyway, Valleys of Neptune is a worthwhile collection of orphaned studio tracks that were either widely bootlegged or previously tacked onto posthumous LPs such as Crash Landing, Midnight Lightning, and War Heroes, all now long out of print. As such, this is a welcome addition to the catalog. But be forewarned, these are, for the most part, unfinished recordings that only hint at their ultimate potential as the elaborate studio creations Hendrix no doubt envisioned. Or, worse (perhaps), they are re-creations conjured up via digital wizardry (“Stone Free”) or the result of inexplicable 1987 overdubs by Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell on tracks recorded in 1967 (“Mr. Bad Luck”) and 1969 (“Lover Man” and “Crying Blue Rain”). That said, Hendrix’s own ineffable brilliance shines through on every track and it demonstrates his (semi)successful attempts to capture the improvisatory edge of a live performance in a studio setting. Hendrix’s meteoric career was brutally snuffed out at its peak, leaving behind only a handful of finished albums and if you don’t own these records, you really should; they are masterpieces of Twentieth-Century music. If you do, then I assume you also have the South Saturn Delta compilation and the monumental “purple velvet” box set on MCA, which are way more essential than this. In that case, I wholeheartedly recommend Valleys of Neptune as a useful appendix. Oh, and those bonus tracks are worth the trip to Target, especially the searing instrumental jam, “Trash Man,” an extended display of slash-and-burn guitar heroics over a proto-funky groove. Good stuff.

Happy Vernal Equinox!

Daffodils 02, originally uploaded by Rodger Coleman.

Spring has sprung! Yay!

March 18, 2010

R.I.P. Alex Chilton (1950-2010)

Big Star was the best band you’ve never heard of. But if you’ve heard their music, then you are probably feeling as sad as I am today after learning of Alex Chilton’s death last night of an apparent heart attack. He was only fifty-nine years old. I’d like to think he’s jamming out with Chris Bell in rocknroll heaven. Here on Earth, I’m listening to Chilton’s 1973 masterpiece, Radio City (Ardent/Classic LP). As long as there are records and the means to listen to them, Alex Chilton will live forever.

March 15, 2010

Flowers & Cream

I was pleasantly surprised to learn Thurston Moore has a blog entitled, Flowers & Cream. Thurston has long been a big hero of mine, ever since I heard Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising album back in 1985. Later, when he started making overt moves into the free-improv scene in the early nineties (eventually even performing with Cecil Taylor himself), he validated for me the connection I’d felt between punk rock and free-jazz. I’ve never met the guy, but he comes across as not just the coolest person on the planet, but as a genuinely humble (and funny) musician who is just really into a lot of different stuff: art, literature, poetry, dance, and, of course, music and noise. Sonic Youth gets accused of being “pretentious,” but to me they simply embody the DIY ideal -- it’s just that what they want to do is make Art. If that’s pretentious, then so be it. “Punk” is not so much a set of rules, or hairstyles, or fashions but simply permission to do it (whatever *it* is) yourself, outside of any stifling, readymade cultural institution. Whatever you might think of their music, the fact that Sonic Youth has, over the past twenty-five years, become a cultural institution in their own right is a remarkable achievement and a testament to the righteousness of the DIY ethic. I’m looking forward to reading Thurston’s blog. I hope he keeps it up!

March 14, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Solar Research Arkestra:
Vejlby Risskov Hallen, Aarhus, Denmark 10-19-71 (AUD 2CDR)

Eighty-five minutes of the Arkestra’s performance at the Vejlby Risskov Hallen in Aarhus, Denmark on October 19, 1971 was captured on an extremely bad-sounding audience recording which circulates amongst more fanatical Sun Ra collectors. How bad is it? It sounds to me like the recordist stuck the microphone in his shoe and shoved his foot into Sun Ra’s amplifier. It is unbelievably boomy and woefully unbalanced with every instrument aside from the jacked-up, distorted keyboards sounding distant and muffled, making it impossible to tell exactly what’s going on with the music. Of course, the intrepid fan is to be commended for making the effort; there are no other known recordings of this concert. But, really, this tape borders on the unlistenable.

Which is shame, since it would appear the Arkestra is in fine fettle, premiering the stately “Discipline 2” and tossing off a blindingly fast version of the insanely complicated “The Shadow World.” There’s also yet another unknown number in the “Discipline” series of compositions which leads to a spectacularly far-out synthesizer and organ solo from Ra. But the sound quality is so awful that I could hardly bring myself to listen to it more than once. Campbell and Trent point out that James Jacson’s Ancient Egyptian Infinity Lightning and Thunder Drum can be heard for the first time at the beginning of this tape (p.176). As the legend goes, Jacson made the enormous ceremonial Infinity drum while the band was living in Oakland out of tree that had been struck and dried out by a bolt of lightning. After its naming by Ra, it would become a fixture of the Cosmo Drama for years to come (p.171). So, there is that.

As a true obsessive, I treasure this as a historical artifact, even if I might never listen to it again. Given the fact that there are several other better-sounding recordings from this tour, more reasonable persons would go out of their way to avoid ever hearing this tape in the first place. Brutal!

March 13, 2010

Playlist Week of 3-13-10

* Uccellini: Sonatas (Romanesca) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Rebel: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Vivaldi: Cello Sonatas (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: Cello Suites (ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/ter Linden) (disc 1) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Berio: Sinfonia/Ekphrasis (Göteborgs Symfoniker/Eötvös) (Deutsche Grammophon CD)
* Stockhausen: Kontakte (Tenney/Winant) (Ecstatic Peace! CD)
* Stockhausen: Aus den sieben Tagen (Ens. Musique Vivante/Masson) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* AMM: Taktlos Festival, Zürich, Switzerland 3-31-90 (AUD CDR)
* Sun Ra: Helsinki 10-14-71 (d.2) (FM 2CDR)
* Sun Ra: Aarhus, Denmark 10-19-71 (AUD 2CDR)
* Sun Ra: Paris, France 11-29-71 (AUD CDR)
* Sam Rivers’ Rivbea All-Star Orchestra: Inspiration (RCA/BMG CD)
* Anthony Braxton 12+1tet: 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (d.1) (Firehouse 12 9CD+DVD)
* Marilyn Crispell: Vignettes (ECM CD)
* Mary Halvorson: Barbès, Brooklyn, NY 12-02-09 (AUD CDR)
* David Torn’s Prezens: Congress MainStage, Saalfelden, Austria 8-24-07 (FM CDR)
* Ronnie Laws: Friends and Strangers (United Artists LP)
* Herbie Hancock: Newport Jazz Festival 8-15-08 (FM CDR)
* Jimi Hendrix: Band of Gypsies (Experience Hendrix/MCA CD)
* Jimi Hendrix: Jazz Stuff (fan/boot CDR)
* The Mothers of Invention: Freak Out! (Verve 2LP)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips: Vol.2, No.4: Cal Expo ’93 (GD/Rhino 2+1CD)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips: Vol.3, No.2: Austin 11-15-71 (GD/Rhino 2+1CD)
* Grateful Dead: Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland, CA 2-08-86 (SBD 2CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Sullivan Stadium, Foxboro, MA 7-14-90 (SBD 3CDR)
* Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Broken Arrow (Reprise 2LP)
* Yo La Tengo: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, England 3-04-04 (FM CDR)
* Guided By Voices: Under the Bushes, Under the Stars (Matador LP+12”EP)
* Guided By Voices: “The Official Ironmen Rally Song” (side B) (Matador 7”EP)
* Guided By Voices: Plantations of Pale Pink (Matador 7”EP)
* Guided By Voices: Sunfish Holy Breakfast (Matador 12”EP)
* Guided By Voices: Tonics and Twisted Chasers (expanded edition) (Rockathon CD)
* Boston Spaceships: Camera Found the Ray Gun (Jackpot CDEP)
* Beck: Mellow Gold (Bongload Custom LP)
* Beck: Sea Change (Geffen/MFSL 2LP)
* Sigor Rós: Ágætis Byrjun (PIAS America CD)
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino CD)


The first Grateful Dead: Road Trips release of the year, featuring the complete show from the Municipal Auditorium in Austin, Texas on November 15, 1971 (my eighth birthday!) is a real corker. For me, this period is when the Dead start to get really interesting. In October, Keith Godchaux had joined the band as the first really full-time keyboard player, bringing the rich, percussive tones of an acoustic piano into the ensemble sound for the first time. His timing couldn’t have been more perfect: drummer Mickey Hart had quit the band in January and, while the stripped down quartet managed to reach a peak of shoot-em-up bar-band music in the spring, by autumn, Pigpen (who was at best a functional keyboardist) was in the first throes of a slow decline -- he was too sick to make the tour and, while he enjoyed a last hurrah on Europe ’72, would be dead by March 1973 at the age of twenty-seven. Conveniently, Godchaux’s deft touch and catholic musical sensibility meshed well with the recent quasi-country-rock direction the band was moving in, while also bringing jazzy chops and edgy inventiveness to the still-spacey improvisations. Both Garcia and Weir were writing scads of great new songs which clearly benefited from Godchaux’s creative accompaniments and you can hear the band really starting to come together at this concert. While the focus is on tight renditions of relatively short songs, a rare first set “Dark Star” easily moves from dreamy psychedelia to nightmarish noise to the cornball “El Paso” and back into the depths of “Dark Star” over an intense twenty-five minutes and the second set’s “Not Fade Away>Goin’ Down the Road>Not Fade Away” segment is as elaborately jammed out as any other version I can think of. Recorded by roadie Rex Jackson, the sound quality is, unfortunately, a little murky, with Godchaux’s piano slightly buried and Billy’s drumset is weirdly balanced; but it’s still an enjoyable listen. The (annoyingly) limited-edition “bonus disc” contains a good chunk from the previous night’s show at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, featuring an absolutely incredible “Truckin’>The Other One>Me & My Uncle>The Other One” sequence that must be heard to be believed; even Phil Lesh takes a funk-fueled bass solo -- but you better hurry as these things sell out quickly. The Road Trips series can be a little hit or miss, but this one is just about exactly perfect. Only available at


You might have noticed that I have been making my way chronologically through the Guided By Voices discography over the past few weeks. I am, of course, a huge fan of Robert Pollard’s work; but if I could only own one GBV record, it would probably have to be their 1996 album, Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. That was the album where I first “got it” and it remains my very favorite for more than just sentimental reasons. Leaving behind the trusty 4-track cassette recorder which had produced the breakthrough album, Bee Thousand, and their Matador debut, Alien Lanes, the band’s new-found success allowed them to start working with outside producers, first down in Memphis with Kim Deal and later on in Chicago with Steve Albini. Apparently dissatisfied with the polished studio sheen that resulted from these sessions, Pollard & Co. added layers of noisy overdubs to the tapes, resulting in a unique sound, at once high-fidelity and low-fi, casting a magical vibe that serves the songs well. And Pollard was pouring forth great songs at an incredible pace, adding six more to the album at the last minute, long after the artwork had already been readied and necessitating an extra twelve-inch EP for the vinyl release. Two seven-inch EPs, another twelve inch EP, and Pollard’s first solo album, Not in My Airforce, would follow in the next twelve months (not to mention the ultra-quirky, fan-club-only LP, Tonics and Twisted Chasers) – much to record collectors’ delight. However, Matador was (perhaps rightly) concerned that all of this product would dilute the market for the main album and they severely restricted Pollard’s output in the following year, contributing to his (temporary) departure from the label in 1998. While I unequivocally love all of their records, Under the Bushes, Under the Stars is the one GBV album I wouldn’t want to be without.

March 7, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Solar Research Arkestra:
Helsinki, Finland 10-14-71 (FM 2CDR)

On October 14, 1971, the Arkestra performed in Helsinki, Finland and, lucky for us, the entire two-and-a-half-hour concert was broadcast by the Finnish Broadcasting Company, YLE. An off-the-air tape recording of the broadcast circulates amongst collectors and Transparency has recently released a 2CD set which purports to be derived from the radio station’s master reels, but I’m skeptical. (If anyone out there has heard this, I’d love to know your opinion!) The circulating tape is slightly hissy and probably more than a few generations away from the master, but it is recorded in stereo and sounds pretty good for the period.

The first set starts off with a bang: Sonny cues a mammoth space chord over which Kwami Hadi lays down some bravura trumpet over the throbbing mass of sound. Following a brief pause, the Arkestra launches into another unidentified number in the “Discipline” series of compositions, readily apparent by the dirgey blocks of harmonies in the reeds and brass floating over freely rubato drumming. At the conclusion, June Tyson and John Gilmore sing “Theme of the Stargazers,” which leads to a lengthy and particularly inspired multi-keyboard solo from Ra, full of synthesized blips, whirrs and spaceship sounds, twistedly polyphonic synthesizer/organ displays and astonishingly aggressive organ attacks. As the drums get heavier, saxophones are drawn into the fray with Gilmore the clear victor. After some further keyboard ruminations, William Morrow enters with some tasteful vibraphone which is countered by Ra’s wiry Clavioline-like sound, making for a hauntingly beautiful texture. “Discipline 8” follows in a much less expansive arrangement than we heard in Stockholm, although Gilmore’s tenor saxophone solo is typically brilliant. Pat Patrick picks up the electric bass to propel an extended “Love in Outer Space” into a trance-inducing groove that just goes on an on and on, no doubt accompanying a parade of dancers and other shenanigans. Meanwhile, Sonny keeps up a frenetic, electrically chiming keyboard accompaniment right through to the big molto ritardando ending. “Watusi” is taken at a furious clip and the long percussion jam that follows elicits all kinds of excited whoops and hollers from the audience, who burst into exuberant applause after the return of the theme and final, universe-shaking space chord. Ra introduces “Enlightenment” with his boing-boing-ing Rocksichord and Tyson and male chorus sing the joyful song while traipsing around the venue, inviting the audience to join them on their “space world.” The set ends with “Next Stop Mars,” another keyboard solo full of spacey synthesizer and apocalyptic organ clusters.

The second set opens with baleful organ chords before the antiphonal chanting of “Calling Planet Earth.” This prompts a spasm of crazy free-jazz skronk that eventually yields to another glistening vibes and keyboard duet. I’m really enjoying Morrow’s contributions on this tour! An unidentified title follows featuring a mellifluous flute choir in bright major key harmonies, over quietly burbling percussion (including distant timpani). This is another ingenious Ra composition that was apparently only performed once and discarded. What a shame! This piece is as pretty as a spring morning and perhaps the highlight of the concert. A protracted “Space is the Place” immediately follows, brimming with soulful crooning, sanctified wailing, and ecstatic carrying on from a multiple vocalists over waves of roiling drums and percussion. Fun -- but truthfully, it goes on a bit too long. After a brief coda, Ra launches the band into “Angels and Demons at Play,” which was last heard on the 1960 Saturn LP of the same name. Basically a groove in 5/4 anchored by Pat Patrick’s endlessly repeating bassline, it’s really just an excuse for another sprawling, chaotic percussion jam and more space-age theatrics. Oh well. Next, Tyson and a veritable Greek chorus sing the lilting “The Satellites Are Spinning” as they march around the theatre before Ra signals a raucous version of “The Second Stop is Jupiter,” full of swooping, screaming vocalizations and riotous organ vamping. The lurching, big-band number, “Somewhere Else” follows, allowing Patrick to finally strap on the baritone saxophone and let it rip with a growling, blues-inflected solo. Up next is the genially swinging composition, “To Nature’s God.” This tune first appeared as an instrumental on the 1969 Saturn LP, My Brother the Wind, but here gains a set of lyrics in praise of “birds, lightning, sunshine, wind, rain, the leaves on the trees” and their prolific creator. Curiously, this intricate re-arrangement would only be performed once more before being permanently dropped from the repertoire (Campbell & Trent, p.842). The concert ends with a series of space chants, anchored by Patrick’s remarkably fluent bass playing, beginning with “Sun Ra and His Band from Outer Space” and “Prepare for the Journey to Other Worlds,” concluding with a reverent quotation of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

While it is certainly nice to have a complete concert from this vintage in decent sound quality, the overall performance is somewhat diffuse and lacking the ultra-adventuresome music making heard a couple of nights earlier. There is more of a “good time party” atmosphere at this concert which leads to some overlong and self-indulgent episodes which were no doubt visually entertaining at the time but do not translate well to audio tape. That said, Ra’s own playing is outstanding and the lovely unidentified title for flute choir in the second set makes this tape worth seeking out for the duly obsessed fan.

March 6, 2010

Playlist Week of 3-06-10

* Geminiani: Concerti Grossi (after Corelli, Op.5) (AAM/Manze) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Vivaldi: Cello Sonatas (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics 2CD)
* Rebel: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* J.S. Bach: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations (Hewitt): RFH, London 4-29-09 (FM CDR)
* Debussy/Ravel/Dutilleux: String Quartets (Juilliard Quartet) (Sony CD)
* Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (d.1-2) (Riverside 3CD)
* Sun Ra: Helsinki, Finland 10-14-71 (FM 2CDR)
* Sun Ra: Aarhus, Denmark 10-19-71 (d.2) (FM 2CDR)
* Sun Ra: Delft, Netherlands 11-11-71 (d.1) (FM 3CDR)
* Peter Brötzmann Sextet/Quartet: Nipples (UMS/Atavistic CD)
* Peter Brötzmann Sextet/Quartet: More Nipples (UMS/Atavistic CD)
* Matthew Shipp Duo with Mat Maneri: Gravitational Systems (hatOLOGY CD)
* Mary HalvorsonTrio: Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12 CD)
* Mary Halvorson Trio: The Vortex, London 12-14-09 (FM CDR)
* Bill Frisell: Nashville (Nonesuch CD)
* The Beatles: Rubber Soul (U.K. mono) (Apple/EMI CD)
* Jimi Hendrix: South Saturn Delta (Experience Hendrix/MCA CD)
* Grateful Dead: Performing Arts Center, Milwaukee, WI 10-24-72 IIx (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Red Rocks Amphitheater, Morrison, CO 7-8-78 (SBD 3CDR)
* Led Zeppelin: II (Atlantic – Japan LP)
* Henry Cow: Concerts (Virgin 2LP)
* Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon (Capitol SACD)
* Genesis: Paris Theatre, London 3-2-72 + BBC Studios 9-25-72 (Pre-FM CDR)
* Van Morrison: Veedon Fleece (Polydor CD)
* Neil Young: Time Fades Away (Reprise LP)
* Nick Drake: Pink Moon (Island/Universal CD)
* Chris Bell: I Am the Cosmos (Deluxe Edition) (Rhino Handmade 2CD)
* Golden Palominos: Visions of Excess (Celluloid LP)
* Golden Palominos: Blast of Silence (Celluloid LP)
* Guided By Voices: “I Am a Scientist” (Scat 7”EP)
* Guided By Voices: Alien Lanes (Matador LP)
* Guided By Voices: “Motor Away” (Matador 7”)
* Guided By Voices: Tigerbomb (Matador 7”EP)
* Robert Pollard: We All Got Out of the Army (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Robert Pollard: “Silk Rotor” (side B) (Happy Jack Rock Records 7”EP)
* Buckethead: Monsters and Robots (CyberOctave CD)
* Praxis: Bonnaroo Music Festival, Manchester, TN 6-11-04 (Axis Festival/SBD 3CDR)
* Beck: Mutations (Bongload Custom LP)
* Beck: Various B-Sides 1996-1999 (mix CDR)
* Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind (Domino CDEP)


Inspired by Sam’s recent playlists, I decided to pull out my CDRs of the Praxis set at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2004 and give them a spin. I’m embarrassed to admit that, even though Bonnaroo takes place every summer just down the road from here, I have never been. My lame excuses are as follows: for one thing, I am simply getting to be too old for that kind of thing -- and I’m getting older by the day. More importantly, I just don’t have the camping gear required to make such a trip even remotely comfortable. So, every year I daydream about how fun it would be to go to Bonnaroo but ultimately wind up realizing it’s just not feasible.

ANYWAY, way back in 2004, I thought it was pretty darn cool that Bill Laswell’s ultra-urban, ad hoc Praxis ensemble (with Bernie Worrell, Buckethead, Bryan "Brain" Mantia, and, sometimes, Lili Haydn) performed a late-night set down here in rural Tennessee. Even cooler, the complete concert was later available for download on for those of us who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make the trip. It’s a sprawling affair, almost three hours of space-funk-heavy-metal-dub mayhem that only occasionally comes together into a satisfying whole. In 2007, ROIR released a one-CD edit of this performance entitled, Tennessee 2004, but I haven’t heard it. Colloquially speaking, I expect it benefits from Laswell’s judicious editing, making for a satisfying album experience. In any event, I’m glad to have this raw document of a rare performance by this enigmatic group. Despite its flaws, this is another example of what I consider effective, if not essential, fusion music: virtuoso musicians fearlessly experimenting in genre-crossing synthesis. No, it doesn’t always work and some of it is in self-consciously bad taste -- or worse, merely boring; but the inherent friction sometimes sparks a fireworks display that justifies the risks and inevitable losses. Those moments of illumination, as fleeting and ephemeral as they might be, are what make any sincere attempt at fusion laudable, if not necessarily listenable. Think I’ll check out the rest of their discography in coming weeks.

March 1, 2010

Birds & Guitars

French sound-artist, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, has combined two of my very favorite things in this piece: birds and electric guitars. Beautiful!