June 27, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday


What I thought I am
I am not
What was and is
Is not
What dreams were mine
I am not
What was and is
Is not
The laughter, the tears
The fleeting years
Are not
Gone like a sigh
Or a bird swift
In sudden flight.

-- Sun Ra

June 26, 2010

Playlist Week of 6-26-10

* Venice Baroque Orchestra (Marcon/Carmignola): Concerto Veneziano (Archiv Prod. CD)
* Venice Baroque Orchestra (Marcon/Carmignola): Concerto Italiano (Archiv Prod. CD)
* A. Scarlatti: Il Gardino di Rose (Accademia Bizantina/Dantone) (Decca SACD)
* Vivaldi: Cello Sonatas (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics 2 CD)
* J.S. Bach: The Works for Lute (Kirchhoff) (Sony Classical 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* John Patton: Accent on the Blues (Blue Note CD)
* Bobby Hutcherson: The Kicker (Blue Note CD)
* Bobby Hutcherson: Dialogue (Blue Note CD)
* Sun Ra: Slug’s Saloon 6-07-72 (AUD 2CDR)
* Sun Ra: Slug’s Saloon 8-19-72 (AUD 3CDR)
* Sun Ra: Lanquidity (Saturn/Evidence CD)
* Herbie Hancock/Wayne Shorter Quartet: Theatre du Chatelat, Paris 7-04-04 (FM 2CDR)
* Anthony Braxton 12+1tet: 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (d.4) (Firehouse 12 9CD+DVD)
* Olu Dara: Neighborhoods (Atlantic CD)
* Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You (Atlantic/MFSL CD)
* Led Zeppelin: Mothership (Atlantic 2CD)
* Chicago: Chicago Transit Authority (Rhino 2LP)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips, Vol.3, No.3: Fillmore East 5-15-70 (GD/Rhino 3+1CD)
* Grateful Dead: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 9-08-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 9-09-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 9-10-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* New Riders of the Purple Sage: Fillmore East, New York, NY 5-15-70 (SBD 2CDR)
* The Band: Rock of Ages (Capitol/MFSL SACD)
* Van Morrison: Wavelength (Polydor CD)
* Can: Soon Over Babaluma (Spoon SACD)
* Talking Heads: 77 (Sire/Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Robert Pollard: We All Got Out of the Army (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Robert Pollard: Moses on a Snail (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Radiohead: Amnesiac (Capitol CD)
* Radiohead: “Pyramid Song” (Capitol CDEP)
* Radiohead: “Knives Out” (Capitol CDEP)
* Animal Collective: Campfire Songs (Paw-Tracks CD)
* Animal Collective: Here Comes the Indian (Paw-Tracks CD)
* Animal Collective: Sung Tongs (Fat Cat CD)


The new Road Trips is the first three-discer in the series (actually, four discs including the limited “bonus disc” -- more on that later). It contains most of the Grateful Dead’s epic performance at the Fillmore East on May 15, 1970, a classic show that has circulated widely in trading circles for forever. One has to ask: is it worth it? In my estimation: for a measly twenty-five bucks, yes. The sound quality is much improved, being sourced from the original vault masters and while purists may squawk about the editing decisions and the use of dynamic range compression, it is a smooth, coherent presentation of this music.

And what music! Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter were writing whole batches of wonderful new songs that drew on their shared interest in old-time string band styles; Grateful Dead concerts were starting to sound more overtly country than outré psychedelic. By the spring of 1970, they were opening their concerts with intimate acoustic sets wherein these new songs were introduced (“Uncle John’s Band”; “Black Peter”; “Friend of the Devil”); obscure covers were given impromptu airings (“Long Black Limousine”; “The Ballad of Casey Jones”; “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”); and ending with a white gospel standard (“Cold Jordan” or “A Voice from On High”). Their touring companions, New Riders of the Purple Sage, would then play a set featuring Garcia on tangy pedal steel (!) and the Grateful Dead would conclude the evening with two more electric sets peppered with more of these tantalizing Garcia/Hunter tunes which sound like they were already a hundred years old (“Cumberland Blues”; “Dire Wolf”).

The pair were an uncannily copasetic songwriting team and the subsequent outpouring of songs came to define Garcia’s musical persona. But here Garcia is still trying to find his singing voice, affecting at times a faux-southern accent or at other times reverting to the acidized howl of the primal period. It would take another year or so for Garcia to grow into these songs. Even so, this set is a delight from beginning to end. The casual banter between the band and audience is charming and Pigpen is in fine form throughout, but especially on the concluding thirty-minute rave-up, “Turn On Your Lovelight,” hectoring the audience to “take your hands out of your pockets and do something!” while the band rages away modally behind him. Good stuff. Despite the good-timey vibe, if you listen closely you can hear the ghosts of Kent State hovering over the proceedings in the startlingly volatile outbursts of “off the pigs” and other counter-cultural rhetoric emanating from the stage from time to time. It was the ugly end of a utopian era -- and the beginning of a modern, professionalized Grateful Dead. In later years they would say almost nothing to the audience for fear of undue influence on their rabidly devoted (and possibly chemically altered) fans.

The annoyingly ultra-limited edition “bonus disc” is, of course, essential, containing six more songs from the May 15 concert, including gorgeous renditions of then-new Garcia/Hunter songs, “Candyman” and “Attics of My Life” as well as an electrifying forty-plus minutes from the previous night’s show in St. Louis. These things go out of print quickly, so if you’re interested in having the whole enchilada, you better act now. Even if the bonus discs are all gone, Road Trips Vol.3, No.3 is definitely top shelf Grateful Dead. Only available at dead.net.

It's Summertime!

Butterfly 2010-06-26a, originally uploaded by Rodger Coleman.

It's hot as heck, crazy thunderstorms arise out of nowhere, and the bugs are in abundance. That's not all bad; among the insects are magical fireflies at twilight and these iridescent indigo butterflies. This one didn't like me waving the camera at him, but this shot came out OK. Such amazing creatures, flying flowers, as evanescent as summertime.

June 20, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Slug’s Saloon, New York, NY 6-07-72 (AUD 2CDR)

When Sun Ra & his Arkestra returned to the east coast in May of 1972, they were welcomed back to Slug’s Saloon, the legendary Lower East Side nightclub where the Arkestra regularly held court from 1966 until their departure to California in 1970. But things were not the same: On February 19, trumpet star Lee Morgan was shot to death at the club by his enraged girlfriend further scaring audiences away from what was already well known as a rough neighborhood. By the summer, the club was on its last legs and would shut its doors for good shortly thereafter (see Szwed pp.218-220). So the Arkestra’s residencies at Slug’s during the summer of 1972 were both festive homecoming and sad farewell to an unusually supportive New York City venue. Fortunately for us, most of a complete set from their appearance on June 7 was recorded from the audience and circulates amongst devoted collectors. The mono tape recording sounds pretty decent for the period although it suffers from all the usual sorts of problems: generational loss, assorted glitches and drop-outs, general muddiness and, sometimes, outright distortion. If you’re willing to tolerate such anomalies, then it is well worth seeking out this spectacular performance.

While the core musicians remained faithful to Sun Ra’s vision, The Arkestra’s extended membership was, as usual, in flux. Once again left without a bassist, Alzo Wright steps in with some barely audible cello while Akh Tal Ebah replaces mainstay Kwami Hadi on trumpet, giving him an opportunity to step out from the shadow of Hadi’s showy virtuosity. For all that, the band sounds well-rehearsed and they tackle a bunch of new Ra compositions and re-arrangements with gusto. After an opening improvisation for arco cello and oboe followed by a long percussion work out, another unknown number in the “Discipline” series arises, this one fulminating with regal pomp. Moments later, another unknown title gets its first (and perhaps only) hearing: an agitated ostinato in 7/4 held together by Danny Ray Thompson’s relentless riffing on baritone sax. “They’ll Come Back” gets a dramatic vocal performance from June Tyson and ends with a brief but exquisite moment of “Strange Strings”-style orientalism. Ebah’s smeared tonality contrasts nicely with the churning skronk on “Calling Planet Earth” and, after a short statement of “Theme of the Stargazers,” “Discipline 11” is given a gospel-ish reading via spirited drumming from Lex Humphries with Ra’s aggressive organ solo pushing the band to ecstatic heights of electro-free-jazz intensity. Wow. This is a superb version of this rarely heard composition.

Another under-performed piece, “Somewhere Else,” gets an interesting (if somewhat tentative) reading here, with John Gilmore staking out the harmonic areas a cappella before the Arkestra enters with the oddly swinging, interlocking riffage. Ra takes one of his patented barbequed organ solos before Ebah attempts his own high-register acrobatic act, showing he was Hadi’s equal in terms of brilliant ideas, if not in their flawless execution. Personally, I love Ebah’s warm, mellow tone and find his blurry articulation endearingly expressive. A quick run through “Enlightenment” is followed by a typically grooving “Love in Outer Space” with Sonny rapturously vamping away on the organ throughout. Yet another unknown “Discipline” number follows, this one in the swinging big-band mold with multiple riffs colliding over swelling chords. Sadly, the tape is marred by numerous drop-outs, obscuring the composition’s subtle intricacies. As the drums devolve into more tribal sorts of rhythms, Gilmore takes a truly incendiary solo on tenor sax that gradually but insistently pushes the band towards its ultimate destination: “The Shadow World!” As the sound quality of the tape begins to improve, Sun Ra lays down the enervating chord sequence at a blindingly fast tempo. Astonishingly, the Arkestra erupts with a note-perfect rendition of this fantastically complicated composition. This inspires a tense, “mad-scientist-style” organ solo, Sun Ra spraying cluster-bombs of notes about the room with wild abandon, much to the crowd’s obvious delight. Not to be outdone, Gilmore returns with another blistering solo before the band returns with a tight reprise. Outstanding! Shifting gears, Sonny plays a pretty organ interlude over a set of melancholically descending chords which serves as an introduction to another unknown “Discipline” number. This one sets a pair of repeating, minimalist horn figures to balance atop the polyrhythmic rhythm section while Ebah blows a long-breathed, minor-key melody on top. Interesting. Danny Davis (or is it Marshall Allen?) takes flight on alto sax before a relatively brief drum solo which introduces a rare performance of “Angels and Demons at Play” in its recent bare-bones rearrangement. Unfortunately, the band still sounds unsure of itself and, after failing to coalesce, Sonny cues up “Watusi” which eschews the head for another tumultuous tenor solo from Gilmore before the extended percussion jam -- although Ebah can be heard wailing away in the background throughout. The tape cuts off shortly thereafter.

The Arkestra appeared once more at Slug’s a month later and again surreptitiously recorded from the audience (we'll take a listen to that one next time). Both of these gigs have been compiled into a six-disc box set by the Transparency label, purportedly with improved sound and approximately thirty minutes of additional material, but I have not heard it and do not know anyone who has. Can anyone out there in Internetland comment on this? These performances are so good I would gladly pay for an improved mastering of these recordings. Until then, I’m happy to have these widely-circulated “bootlegs,” despite their obvious flaws.

June 19, 2010

Playlist Week of 6-19-10

* Vivaldi: Double Violin Concertos (VBO/Marcon/Carmignola/Mullova) (Archiv Prod. CD)
* Geminiani: Cello Sonatas, Op.5 (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics CD)
* Handel: Solo Sonatas, Op.1 (AAM/Egarr) (d.1) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Handel: Trio Sonatas, Op.2 & Op.5 (AAM/Egarr) (Hamonia Mundi 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Clavier, Vol.2 (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Schoenberg: String Quartets (Arditti) (d.2) (Montaigne/Naïve 2CD)
* Sun Ra: Slug’s Saloon, New York, NY 6-07-72 (AUD 2CDR)
* Sun Ra: Strange Celestial Road (Rounder CD)
* Grant Green: Idle Moments (Blue Note CD)
* Grant Green: The Complete Quartets with Sonny Clark (Blue Note 2CD)
* Herbie Hancock: Thrust (Columbia CD)
* Herbie Hancock: Arena Santa Giuliana, Perugia, Italy 7-16-08 (FM 2CDR)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Moment’s Energy (ECM CD)
* Shine: Heaven and Hell (Innerrhythmic CD)
* Kip Hanrahan: Days and Nights of Blue Luck Inverted (American Clavé/Pangaea CD)
* Kip Hanrahan: Exotica (American Clavé CD)
* Olu Dara: In the World: From Natchez to New York (Atlantic CD)
* Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home (mono) (Columbia/Sundazed LP)
* Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (mono) (Columbia/Sundazed LP)
* Bob Dylan: Infidels (Columbia SACD)
* Grateful Dead: Winterland June 1977: The Complete Recordings (6-8-77) (GD/Rhino 9+1CD)
* Grateful Dead: The Horizon, Rosemont, IL 3-10-93 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: The Horizon, Rosemont, IL 3-11-93 (SBD 3CDR)
* King Crimson: The Great Deceiver (Live 1973-1974) (d.1) (DGM 4CD)
* U2: The Unforgettable Fire (Deluxe Edition) (d.1) (Island/Universal 2CD)
* Robert Pollard: Moses on a Snail (GBV, Inc. LP/CD)
* Animal Collective: Spirit They’re Gone…/Danse Manatee (Fat Cat - UK 2CD)
* Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam (Domino CD)
* Animal Collective: Water Curses (Domino CDEP)
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino CD)
* Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind (Domino CDEP)


Robert Pollard’s umpteenth solo album is (despite its cheesy cover) an undeniable late-career triumph. As you know, I’m a huge fan and love to obsessively collect the endless stream of records the guy puts out. But regular folks are likely put off by the sheer volume of releases and unlikely to even stick a toe in the ever-expanding discography (especially with a cover like that). So it’s too bad that Moses on a Snail will likely not be heard by the huge numbers of people out there who would undoubtedly enjoy Pollard’s mature song-craft. At age 52, Pollard still believes in the redemptive power of rock music and, with longtime collaborator Todd Tobias, has just released his most immediately enjoyable album since 2008’s Off to Business. (That was, by the way, several albums ago.)

Sure, Pollard can’t hit the high notes the way he used to with Guided By Voices, but his voice remains an instrument of vast and subtle range, from a cockney-esque drawl to blue-eyed crooning; from strutting rock godhead to frail, vulnerable folkie to every other musical persona imaginable. Yet Pollard always sounds like his own inimitable self, singer and song united in a convincingly charismatic whole. And here Pollard delivers one of his most focused and impassioned vocal performances in ages. The songwriting is also consistently compelling with the typically elliptical lyrics conveying an unusually somber tone. Meanwhile, Tobias’s deft multi-instrumentalism and layered production style provides slickly polished yet respectfully weighty musical settings perfectly tailored to each song, contributing to the album’s beginning-to-end coherence. From the stately, strummy opener (“The Weekly Crow”) to the conclusion of the epic, hard-rocking title track, Tobias consistently demonstrates a profound sensitivity to Pollard’s uniquely quirky musical vision as well as a mastery of the art of record-making. Tobias has, over time, become Pollard’s most perfect amanuensis.

Not due in stores until next Tuesday, my copy arrived in the mail yesterday and (in an unusual move for me) I’ve been listening to it over and over ever since. It’s just that good! Thankfully the LP comes with a free copy of the CD or I would be relentlessly wearing away the grooves of the limited edition vinyl. Moses on a Snail is an instant classic (never mind the cover).


Re: Animal Collective. It took a while, but I get it now. That means I have to hear the rest of it. Fun!

Pileated Woodpecker (mother feeding juvenile)

This isn't the sharpest photograph ever, but today I was lucky to catch a mother Pileated woodpecker feeding some of our suet to her young. Such amazing birds! It makes me happy to see them thriving in our back yard.

June 13, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday


The vibrations of the sounds seem the same
But the meaning of the sounds
Take separate directions
At the crossroads
of the Cosmic point of the arrow…
Beyond this Age
Through the darkness of the light years
And the light years of the darkness
And the pure darkness of the pure light.
The light is as the darkness
Because the light is the image
And the shadow of the fire.

-- Sun Ra

June 12, 2010

Playlist Week of 6-12-10

* Buxtehude: Sonatas, Op.1 (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)
* J.S. Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Clavier, Vol.1 (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Vivaldi: Violin Concertos, RV331, etc. (VBO/Marcon/Carmignola) (Archiv Prod. CD)
* Duke Ellington: The Great Paris Concert (Atlantic 2LP)
* Sun Ra: Astro Black (ABC/Impulse! LP>CDR)
* Bobby Hutcherson: Happenings (Blue Note CD)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Stadtgarten, Köln 5-13-10 (AUD 2CDR)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: WDR, Bismarck-Saal, Köln 5-14-10 (AUD CDR)
* Herbie Hancock: Sextant (Columbia CD)
* Herbie Hancock & Headhunters: Sendsaal, Bremen, W. Germany 11-6-74 (FM CDR)
* Pat Metheny Group: The Road to You (Geffen CD)
* Sly & The Family Stone: A Whole New Thing (Epic/Sundazed LP)
* Bob Dylan: The Times They Are A-Changin’ (mono) (Columbia/Sundazed LP)
* Bob Dylan: Another Side of Bob Dylan (mono) (Columbia/Sundazed LP)
* Bob Dylan: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (mono) (Columbia/Sundazed LP)
* Jeff Beck: Truth (mono) (Epic/Sundazed LP)
* Jeff Beck: Beck-Ola (Epic/Sundazed LP)
* The Who: Who’s Next? (Decca LP)
* The Who: Who Are You? (Polydor/Classic LP)
* Grateful Dead: Winterland June 1977: The Complete Recordings (6/7/77) (GD/Rhino 9+1CD)
* Jerry Garcia Band: After Midnight: Kean College 2/28/80 (Rhino 3CD)
* Yes: The Yes Album (Atlantic/MSFL CD)
* Yes: Fragile (Atlantic/MFSL CD)
* Genesis: Selling England By the Pound (Charisma LP)
* Can: Unlimited Edition (Spoon SACD)
* Saturday Night Fever (original soundtrack) (RSO/Polydor 2LP)
* Big Star: Radio City (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Boston: Boston (Epic LP)
* The Feelies: The Good Earth (Coyote LP)
* Los Lobos: Kiko (Slash/Warner Bros. CD)
* Guided By Voices: Do the Collapse (TVT CD)
* Robert Pollard: Motel of Fools (Fading Captain EP)
* Robert Pollard: Robert Pollard Is Off to Business (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Robert Pollard: “Weatherman and Skin Goddess” (GBV, Inc. CDEP)
* Circus Devils: Ringworm Interiors (Fading Captain Series LP)
* Radiohead: I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings (Capitol CD)
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino CD)
* Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind (Domino CDEP)


* Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford University Press, 1997)

After several previous failed attempts, I finally got through Roger Scruton’s monumentally ambitious The Aesthetics of Music. I can’t really say it was worth the effort. While Scruton makes some interesting observations and comes to some plausible conclusions as to why human beings respond to (certain kinds of) music in the way they (sometimes) do, he undermines an otherwise noble enterprise with a not-so-hidden ulterior motive: the needless rescue of “tonality” and so-called “classical” music from the presumed barbarism of a decadent modern culture. Uh-oh.

He gives the game away from outset by defining what we hear as music is the “transformation of sounds into tones” (p.17). This appears at first a useful definition; but by choosing the word “tone” upon which to build his aesthetics, he then embarks on a philosophical jeremiad against “atonality” (with sneering jibes at “post-modernism,” “pop music” and “Heavy Metal” thrown in for good measure). It seems to me that any comprehensive aesthetic of music would have to account for the widest possible range of musical experiences to be at all insightful. For even though I may not personally like a particular genre or style of music, there remain fundamental standards of “good” and “bad” within such genres or styles and the reason this is so should be the true subject of a musical aesthetics.

Elsewhere, Scruton is more useful. He confronts the ineffable immateriality of music by admitting that “the intentional object of musical perception [] can be identified only through metaphors” (p.108) which allude to the essentially “pure abstract quality” of music (p.122). This is suggestive of the reasons why music is so nutritive to the human spirit -- and so very difficult to write about. “Music inspires and consoles us partly because it is unencumbered by the debris that drifts through the world of life” (Id). Scruton thoroughly demonstrates that music is like “language” only in a strictly metaphorical sense since it lacks any representational ability. Music is always only about itself. Not even Scruton's beloved functional harmony can produce a generative syntax understandable as language. Accordingly, tonal harmony is not a strictly prescriptive grammar but a set of crudely-wrought tools, a certain traditional way of putting music together. But Scruton goes further and insists that this is the only way truly meaningful music can be put together and here his aesthetics veers off into sad polemic and unadulterated snobbery.

He graciously honors the importance of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School and offers a grudging respect for certain quasi-tonal works such as Berg’s Violin Concerto; but he summarily concludes that the “serialism” of Boulez is utterly unintelligible except by “incorporating what we hear into tonal or quasi-tonal categories” (p.294) and “eliciting the ghost of a tonal order” (p.296) while we listen. He goes on to assert: “The possibility remains that tonal music is the only music that will ever really mean anything to us, and that, if atonal music sometimes gains a hearing, it is because we can elicit within it a latent tonal order” (p.308). Hogwash! This is contrary to my own experience and is further evidence of Scruton’s ideological agenda. Any attempt to mentally impose “a tonal order” upon atonal music is an exercise in frustration and will result in the kind of learned revulsion Scruton feels for Boulez, Stockhausen, Babbitt and the like. This is, of course, the desired result. Scruton refuses to accept that anyone can find musical meaning in these composers’ works and triumphantly declares: “[a]tonal music proved unable either to find an audience or to create one” (p.507). The audience for such music might be small, but it persists.

He has nice things to say about jazz but only to the extent that it serves to bolster tonality’s primacy, while conveniently ignoring its African roots and the “atonal” developments of Cecil Taylor and his ilk. And by the time he starts comparing the “ugliness” of Nirvana to the clever harmonies of The Beatles and the “shapeless cries” of REM to the rounded cadences of Cole Porter, well, it just gets silly:

[M]usic is a character-forming force, and the decline of musical taste a decline in morals. The anomie of Nirvana and REM is the anomie of its listeners. To withhold all judgment, as though taste in music were on a par with a taste in ice-cream, is precisely not to understand the power of music (p.502).
Even if we are to grant Scruton’s contention that “taste in music matters and that the search for objective musical values is one part of our search for the right way to live” (p.391), it does not follow that joining in his crusade to rescue classical music from the bogeymen of (post)modernism is “the right way to live.” He concludes the book with an exhortation to embark on “the great task…of recovering tonality as the imagined space of music, and of restoring the spiritual community with which that space was filled…a rediscovery of the tonal language, which will also redeem the time” (pp.507-508). As far as I can tell, tonality needs no such saving. What is needed is an aesthetic of music that can account for the infinity of its instances. Indeed John Cage demonstrated that even unintentional sounds can be heard as music without being “transformed into tones” as Scruton would, for ideological reasons, insist. This profound cognitive ability is what enables us to ascribe meaning to music of all kinds but Scruton’s tome ultimately fails to elucidate what this meaning might be or why we should care. What a waste.

June 6, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Astro Black (ABC/Impulse! LP)

According to the jacket of Astro Black, Sun Ra’s first new recording for ABC/Impulse! was made at “El Saturn Studio” in Chicago on May 7, 1972, but that date is questionable since the Arkestra was just leaving California in May -- and the studio name is “strictly mythic” (Campbell & Trent p.186) Whatever the date or actual location, it was clearly made in a professional recording studio as the sound quality is exceptionally good. Sun Ra was obviously determined to take advantage of the mass exposure a major label could bring, producing one his finest albums. Notably, Ronnie Boykins makes a welcome return on bass after a long absence and he is prominently featured here, driving the band to great heights. The Arkestra is augmented with both Akh Tal Ebah and Kwami Hadi on trumpets, Charles Stephens on trombone, Alzo Wright on violin and viola, along with several conga players, who give much of this record its avant-exotica feel. But Boykins’s clearly inspires Sonny and his fluent explorations on organ and synthesizer throughout the album demonstrate a consummate mastery of electronic instruments. Astro Black is, in my opinion, one of Sun Ra’s crowning recorded achievements.

A radical re-arrangement of the title piece opens the album with June Tyson’s lugubrious singing supported by Sun Ra’s swooshing synthesizers, a pointillist horn chart, and Boykins’s stuttering bass groove. After the vocals subside, a thoughtful improvisation follows featuring a woozy synth duetting with Boykins on the bow, the horns eventually entering with some energetic episodes of free jazz blowing. After a few minutes of controlled chaos, Tyson reprises the lyrics and Sonny ends the piece with more spacey synthesizer noises while Boykins continues to saw away in the uppermost registers of his instrument. Nice. A brief rendition of “Discipline 99” again demonstrates Boykins’s ability to provide a rock-solid rhythmic and harmonic foundation on this obliquely swinging composition. Ra provides some glistening, tremulous vibraphone and the ensemble sounds tight and well-rehearsed with individual soloing kept to a minimum, thereby turning in a note-perfect reading. Boykins again leads the way on “Hidden Spheres,” spinning endlessly inventive variations on the hypnotic three-note ostinato over the percussionists’ simmering, semi-exotic groove. On top of all this, John Gilmore contributes a pithy but harmonically adventurous statement on tenor saxophone before Hadi’s wide-ranging trumpet solo and Eloe Omoe’s honking bass clarinet which concludes the piece.

All of side two is taken up with a nearly twenty-minute conducted improvisation entitled, “The Cosmo Fire,” which ranks up there with the other great long-form pieces in the discography such as “Other Planes of There,” “The Magic City” and “Atlantis.” While only loosely structured, Ra is totally in control, directing the band from behind his bank of “mad scientist” keyboards, signaling space chords and drawing out various sub-ensembles that come together and mutate while soloists enter and exit at his command. This extended piece is not as overtly episodic as the aforementioned previous experiments and instead builds up a cumulative momentum with Marshall Allen’s delightfully quacking and squealing oboe an almost constant presence within the restlessly shifting instrumental textures. The oboe is not an instrument you hear much in jazz except for Marshall Allen and here he distantly evokes the ancient Middle Eastern nay amidst all the cosmic afro-futurism and “out jazz” blowing. Allen is an underappreciated virtuoso on this difficult, rarely heard instrument. And again, Ronnie Boykins’s inimitable bass anchors the proceedings with an effortless élan which allows the rest of the band to freely take flight. Really, Boykins’s playing on this album is quite remarkable -- even for him -- and his unifying effect on the band is obvious and thrilling. Too bad he could not commit himself full time to Sun Ra.

It’s also too bad that, within three years, the purportedly “lucrative” deal with ABC/Impulse! went sour and the label unceremoniously dropped Sun Ra from the roster and promptly deleted all the albums (which included a number of reissued Saturn titles). To add insult to injury, Astro Black has never been re-issued on CD or otherwise, despite the label’s continued exploitation of other perhaps less-worthy “New Thing” titles in its catalog. It boggles the mind that this classic album is still out of print. Accordingly, original copies in good condition are extremely hard to find and fetch astronomical sums from collectors. That is really a shame as it truly is one of the finest records in Sun Ra’s discography.

June 5, 2010

Playlist Week of 6-05-10 (Happy Anniversary!)

* Benjamin Alard (solo harpsichord): Radio Classica, Barcelona 5-11-09 (FM CDR)
* Concerto Madrigalesco (Guglielmi): Mozartsaal, Konzerthaus, Wien 1-21-10 (FM CDR)
* Baroque Fever: St. John’s, Smith Square, London 5-15-10 (FM CDR)
* Venice Baroque Orchestra (Marcon/Carmignola): Victoria Hall, Genève 2-28-08 (FM 2CDR)
* Messiaen: Réveil des oiseaux, etc. (Orch. Nat. de France/Nagano/Loriod) (Erato CD)
* Lachenmann: NUN/Notturno (WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, et al.) (Kairos CD)
* Duke Ellington: The Pianist (Fantasy LP)
* Duke Ellington: The Intimate Ellington (Pablo LP)
* John Patton: Boogaloo (Blue Note CD)
* John Patton: Understanding (Blue Note CD)
* Jackie McLean: One Step Beyond (Blue Note CD)
* Jackie McLean: New and Old Gospel (Blue Note CD)
* Sun Ra: Astro Black (Impulse! LP>CDR)
* Henry Threadgill & Make a Move: Everybody’s Mouth’s a Book (Pi CD)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: Up Popped Two Lips (Pi CD)
* David Torn: Cloud About Mercury (ECM CD)
* Pat Metheny Group: Imaginary Day (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Bill Frisell: Gone, Just Like a Train (Nonesuch CD)
* Marc Johnson: The Sound of Summer Running (Verve CD)
* Shin Terai: Unison (Ion CD)
* Hip Hanrahan: Vertical’s Currency (American Clavé LP)
* Bob Marley & The Wailers: The Complete Wailers 1967-1972 (Pt.III) (d.1) (JAD 2CD)
* Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 (d.4) (Rhino 4CD)
* Frank Zappa: Waka/Jawaka (Bizarre/Reprise LP)
* Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks Vol.8: Harpur College 5-2-70 (GDM 3CD)
* Grateful Dead: Steppin’ Out With the Grateful Dead: England ’72 (d.3) (GD/Arista 4CD)
* Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks Vol.31 (August, 1974) (d.4) (GDM 4CD)
* Grateful Dead: Copps Coliseum, Hamilton, Ontario 3-21-90 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Copps Coliseum, Hamilton, Ontario 3-22-90 (SBD 2CDR)
* David Crosby: If Only I Could Remember My Name (Atlantic DVD-A)
* Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra: Wally Heider Studios 1970-1971 (fan/boot 2CDR)
* Big Star: #1 Record (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Wilco: (the album) (Nonesuch CD)
* Jim O’Rourke: Insignificance (Drag City LP)
* Robert Pollard & His Soft Rock Serenaders: Choreographed Man of War (FCS LP)
* Circus Devils: Mother Skinny (Happy Jack Rock Records CD)
* Cobra Strike: The 13th Scroll (Ion CD)
* Tortoise: It’s All Around You (Thrill Jockey LP)
* The Flaming Lips: At War With the Mystics 5.1 (stereo) (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* The Flaming Lips: Embryonic (Warner Bros. DVD-A)


Sixteen years ago today, Elizabeth and I were married in a small garden ceremony at her grandmother’s house in Santa Ana, California. It was a happy, happy day as our families came together through marriage. And we had a fun honeymoon traveling up the coast to San Francisco (with a detour to not-so-scenic Sacramento to see the Grateful Dead at Cal Expo). After all these years, I remain deliriously in love with my wife and feel like the luckiest guy in the world to be married to this beautiful, amazing woman. We’ve had a wonderful life together and I look forward to many more years to come. To celebrate our anniversary, we’re going to go out to dinner at an exquisite little restaurant located right here in Kingston Springs called Mack & Kates, It should be delicious. Happy Anniversary, Liz!