November 28, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Lucky me! I received a couple of gifts for my birthday which had been on my want list for a while and will help further my Sun Ra research project. Today, I want to take the time to briefly discuss them and thank my kind benefactors: Thank you so much!


Sun Ra: Collected Works, Vol.1: Immeasurable Equation was published by Phaelos Books & Mediawerks in 2005 and collects 260 of Sun Ra’s poems and a 1968 prose piece entitled, “Music Is My Words” in a handsome 226 page volume along with a handful of black and white photographs. Edited by Alton Abraham’s son, Adam, the book provides a comprehensive selection of Ra’s literary works, including numerous, side-by-side alternates and revisions along with introductory essays by James L. Wolfe and Hartmut Geerken which seek to contextualize these idiosyncratic writings within the otherworldly, messianic persona Sun Ra constructed. As Wolfe points out:

[Ra’s] poems are so bravely and unabashedly un-poetic. I know of no other poet who uses fewer concrete nouns than does Sun Ra…Wisdom, dimensions, endlessness, potentials, blackness, source, word, world, etc…abstractions all. Two barely concrete words reappearing every now and then are bridge and crossroads, signals of what Sun Ra is presenting to us in his volumes, crossings from one place to another, points of intersection where changes of direction become possible. Beyond these two, there are almost no moments in his entire written corpus that could be called “images” which suggest visual, sonic, or tactile scenes or experiences.

The question arose, and will again for others, is this really poetry? Is this philosophy disguised as poetry, just as Sun Ra’s music is “Images and forecasts of tomorrow/Disguised as Jazz?” (p.xiv)

Geerken focuses on the mutable materiality of Ra’s poetic language and, drawing upon ancient mythology and western metaphysics, suggests that he achieves “a kind of cosmic formula about life and the world which can be employed to harmonize the individual, society, science, politics and art”(p.xxv):

Sun Ra’s poems untie language following the recipes of the Dadaists, the structuralists, the lettrists, the futurists and the cosmologists. Above all, his poetic texts consist of energies. Sun Ra did not write because he wanted to communicate thoughts but because he cultivated particular vibrations and frequencies from which the texts emerged more or less automatically and spontaneously. The reader of Sun Ra’s poems “enters a while and free world, a world without a pope, without kings, without religion, and without refuge. He becomes a tree, a bird, a dancer, a barque, a wave—parts of a cosmos which creates all possibilities and destroys all certainties” (p.xxvi). [Quotation from Gerhard Penzkofer, Introduction to Poésie Spatiale/Raumpoesie, Bamberg 2001.]

Sun Ra may have been a shaman or he may have been a charlatan—or likely he was a little of both. He was a man born Herman Poole “Sonny” Blount, who reinvented himself as Sun Ra from the planet Saturn. The transformation was total: he legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra and disavowed his earthly mortality. This was decades before Prince! Sun Ra created his own reality—at least while he was alive—and his written works are keys to his mind. These Collected Works make for fascinating reading and will be a great resource for future Sun Ra Sundays. Thank you, Steve & Katie!


ESP-Disk’ recently unearthed over ninety minutes of unreleased material from the May 18, 1966 concert at St. Lawrence University in Potsdam, New York and has released the whole shebang on a two-CD set entitled, College Tour Vol.1: The Complete Nothing Is…The discovery of previously unreleased Sun Ra music from the ‘Sixties is reason enough to celebrate, but this release exceeds all expectations. Of course, Nothing Is… is a perfect album in itself, but it was skillfully edited to showcase the more out-there extremes of the Arkestra’s live act. This expanded edition restores the concert’s proper sequence, including some of the old-timey swing numbers and groovy space chants which were omitted from the original album; to hear this edition of Arkestra rip through some of the ‘Fifties-era material such as, “Advice for Medics” and “Space Aura,” is a rare delight indeed! And the second disc is truly revelatory, opening with an unusually expansive, contemplative version of “The Satellites Are Spinning” and going on from there.

This was one of the best bands Sonny ever assembled: Ronnie Boykins and Clifford Jarvis in the rhythm section (along with James Jacson and Carl Nimrod on percussion); John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, and Robert Cummings filling out the reeds; and, instead of the more usual trumpets on top, there are the trombonists, Teddy Nance and Ali Hasan, who give the ensemble sections are darker, mellower tone while also being strong soloists in their own right. My only complaint is the interminable drum solos—why, oh why, did Sun Ra indulge Jarvis so? It’s not that I have anything against drum solos per se (although I generally think they’re a bad idea); it’s just that Jarvis always just plays a bunch of flashy bullshit. Excuse my language, but it’s the most appropriate term. Every time he goes off like that, he abandons the truth of the music for the lie of empty technical displays. Usually, Sonny has to finally cut him mid-paradiddle so as to get things back on track. Left to his own devices, I swear he would go on forever.

But I quibble. Disc two includes almost thirty-five minutes of the evening’s soundcheck/rehearsal featuring two previously unknown compositions: “Nothing Is,” a floating, rhapsodic kind of blues, propelled by Ra’s wandering piano, is sometimes countered by long-toned horns while “Is Is Eternal” sets angular piano chords amidst cascading, rubato rhythms over which the horns heave and sigh in densely orchestrated harmony. Brief solo statements break the surface here and there, but this is very much a through-composed ensemble piece that was, apparently, never performed. Interesting. A leisurely romp through the riff-happy “State Street” follows, featuring dueling bari-saxes in the lead and “The Exotic Forest” concludes the disc in what sounds like a rehearsal but, curiously, applause can be heard at the end. Is it merely tacked on? Who knows? Regardless, College Tour Vol.1 is a most welcome addition to the Sun Ra discography, an essential document from this most fertile period. The Arkestra played five concerts on this tour, all of which were supposedly recorded by ESP-Disk’. Could this mean more volumes will be forthcoming? One can only hope. In the meantime, this will certainly do! Thank you, Kath & Justin!

November 27, 2010

Playlist Week of 11-27-10

* Biber: The Rosary Sonatas (Manze/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Vivaldi: Concertos for the Emperor (English Concert/Manze) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Beethoven: Symphony No.1 (Academy of Ancient Music/Hogwood) (L’Oiseau-Lyre CD)
* Takemitsu: I Hear the Water Dreaming (BBC Symphony/Davis) (Deutsche Grammophon CD)
* Takemitsu: Quotation of a Dream (London Sinfonietta/Knussen) (Deutsche Grammophon CD)
* Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (Impulse! CD)
* Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (Impulse! CD)
* Thelonious Monk: The Complete Blue Note Recordings (d.1-3) (Blue Note 4CD)
* Thelonious Monk: Brilliant Corners (Riverside/OJC CD)
* Thelonious Monk: Alone in San Francisco (Riverside/OJC CD)
* John Coltrane: Ballads (Impulse! CD)
* John Coltrane: Coltrane (Impulse! CD)
* John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (Impulse! CD)
* Grant Green: Idle Moments (Blue Note CD)†/‡
* Sun Ra: College Tour, Vol.1: The Complete Nothing Is… (ESP-Disk’ 2CD)
* Sun Ra: The Singles (d.2) (selections) (Evidence 2CD)
* Anthony Braxton Diamond Curtain Wall Trio: Chiostro di Villa d’Este, Tivoli, Italy 7-02-08 (AUD CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Falling River Quartet: Settlement Music School, Philadelphia, PA 10-10-08 (AUD CDR)
* Ches Smith & These Arches: Finally Out of My Hands (Skirl CD)
* Ches Smith & These Arches: Firehouse 12, New Haven, CT 11-19-10 (AUD 2CDR)
* Pharoah Sanders: Message From Home (Verve CD)
* Ethiopiques 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-1974 (BudaMusique—France CD)
* Bill Laswell: Hear No Evil (d.1) (Meta 2CD)
* David Torn: Clouds About Mercury (ECM CD)
* Tortoise: It’s All Around You (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Johnny Cash: The Original Sun Singles ‘55-‘58 (Sun/Sundazed 2LP)
* Johnny Cash: The Fabulous Johnny Cash (Columbia LP)
* Johnny Cash: The Sound of Johnny Cash (Columbia LP)
* Johnny Cash: Orange Blossom Special (Columbia LP)
* Willie Nelson: Phases and Stages (Atlantic LP)
* The Velvet Underground & Nico: The Velvet Underground & Nico (Verve CD)
* Van Morrison: The Healing Game (Polydor CD)
* Van Morrison: Back On Top (Pointblank CD)
* Grateful Dead: Civic Center, Hartford, CT 3-14-81 (AUD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Berkeley Community Theatre, CA 11-03-84 (SBD 3CDR)
* Yes: The Yes Album (Atlantic/Mobile Fidelity CD)
* Yes: Fragile (Atlantic/Mobile Fidelity CD)
* Yes: Close To The Edge (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Yes: Tales of Topographic Oceans (Atlantic/Rhino 2CD)
* Yes: Relayer (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Yes: Going For the One (Atlantic/Rhino 2CD)
* Genesis: Three Sides Live (Atlantic 2LP)
* Genesis: Invisible Touch (Atlantic LP)
* Peter Gabriel: So (Geffen LP)
* Big Star: Keep An Eye On the Sky (d.1-2) (Ardent/Rhino 4CD) †/‡
* Robert Pollard: Moon: Robert Pollard Live (Merge promo-CD)



So what about Yes?

I was never all that big a fan. When I was a kid, I liked “Roundabout” enough to buy the Fragile album—but even then, there were things that bugged me. For instance, “Cans and Brahms,” is a twee synthesizer arrangement of the third movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony that sounded cheesy even then. Furthermore, Jon Anderson’s singing is an irritating, high-pitched whine (albeit leavened by meticulous multi-tracking). Even so, the soaring melodies are uplifting and the musicianship first rate. The fantastical, gatefold cover art by Roger Dean combined with all the mythical mystical mumbo jumbo of the lyrics definitely appealed to my pimply, adolescent self; I would doodle alien landscapes in my notebooks at school, scribble over-wrought lyrics to unwritten songs and lamely try to rock-out on the piano. As I got older, King Crimson prevailed as my favorite of all those British Art-Rock bands (Genesis probably comes in second—heck, I even still like to listen to their 80s pop stuff once in a while). Being a jazz snob (and budding Deadhead), I blithely dismissed Yes as purveyors of fey, populist pabulum while still only a teenager. “Owner of a Lonely Heart” didn’t help matters any.

As it turns out, my good friend (and drummer extraordinaire), Sam Byrd, was way into Yes in his younger days and saw the band many times during their ‘Seventies prime. I consider Sam of consummate good taste and erudition—he has an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and popular music and a most discriminating palate. We don’t always agree, but I’m always interested in his perspective—and I am always open to having my mind changed. The last time I saw him, he revealed to me that Yes had meant as much to him as the Grateful Dead had meant to me in my youth. Now, that’s saying something! Later, while talking about all this with another friend whose aesthetic I admire, he informed me that Going for the One was one of his favorite albums and that he, too, had seen Yes in concert a bunch of times during that era. These admissions made me reconsider my long-held bias against these prog-rock titans whom I had blithely dismissed. So, over this past summer and fall I’ve gone back and listened with new ears.

They were nothing if not over-ambitious, at least in their heyday, attempting to fuse classical music’s technical processes and instrumental prowess with rock music’s brawn and beat. They were not always successful. While there are many moments of fleeting brilliance on the sprawling, Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973), it is, in the end, an overwrought, bloated mess, its handful of leitmotifs and quasi-cosmic libretto spread impossibly thin across the album’s ninety-plus minutes. No other rock band—not even the mighty Crimson—has attempted anything so outlandish: a work of truly symphonic breadth and scope. It was even too much for über-pretentious keyboardist, Rick Wakeman, who quit the band after the lengthy tour that followed. Nevertheless, the three preceding albums, The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971), and Close To The Edge (1972), are imminently satisfying, despite an occasional misstep here and there (e.g. the aforementioned “Cans and Brahms” or Steve Howe’s incongruous ragtime-acoustic-guitar escapade, “The Clap,” which mars the otherwise impeccable Yes Album). The young Bill Bruford’s propulsive, polyrhythmic drumming buoys the sometimes ponderous material while Chris Squire’s monster-toned bass anchors the most wayward chord changes with a surprising melodic wit. They were quite a rhythm section, allowing Howe and Wakeman to take flight while giving weight and heft to Anderson’s most ludicrious lyrical conceits. Close To the Edge is their most fully-realized album consisting of two of their most musically coherent epics capped by the majestic tour de force, “Siberian Khatru.” But I still think “Roundabout” is the best thing they ever did: an FM-radio hit that combined the procedures and techniques of classical training with the muscular power of hard rock in a way that still sounds uniquely inventive and fresh. It hardly matters that Anderson’s lyrics make no sense; the overall effect is exhilarating, even all these years later. Nothing else they did ever achieved such heights of perfection.

Alan White replaced Bruford on Tales From Topographic Oceans, and he seemed an odd fit, coming from a more straight-ahead rock background (notably, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band); but he gamely jumps into the thicket of odd meters and criss-crossing themes, forcefully stepping out on side three’s “The Ancient/Giants Under the Sun,” probably my favorite of the four, side-long long suites. But I doubt even Bruford’s natural exuberance could have rescued this plodding beast of a record. Relayer (1974) was something else altogether: Wakeman is replaced by the flamboyant Patrick Moraz, who gives it a refreshing jazz-rock-fusion feel. “The Gates of Delirium” is another twenty-minute opus yet it benefits greatly from a looser, more improvisational approach and White sounds more at home on the less self-consciously convoluted material. Howe’s kaleidoscopic guitar tones are particularly impressive throughout the album, especially on the fusion-y workout, “Sound Chaser,” which sounds like Led Zeppelin covering the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Wakeman rejoined the band for Going for the One (1977) and it is viewed by some as a return to form, with a focus on shorter songs, tighter constructions, and big, catchy hooks. Certainly, “Wonderous Stories” is one of the prettiest things they ever recorded and the ethereal, fourteen-minute “Awaken” comes close to recapturing their old glory. Although Going For The One topped the album charts in 1977, over the intervening years the musical landscape had radically shifted. With punk rock and “New Wave” newly ascendant, Yes would, unfairly or not, come to epitomize the overblown pomposity of progressive rock. Things would never be the same. Various bandmembers came and went, and, in 1983, Trevor Rabin produced “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which, while an international hit, was Yes in name only.

Yes sold zillions of LPs back in the day, and they are fixtures of used bins everywhere. However, like Led Zeppelin records, finding one is good condition is almost impossible. People not only bought them, they listened to them, over and over and over, while fondling the jackets and scrutinizing the inner sleeves. By now they are almost always completely trashed—even clean-looking vinyl can sound noisy and distorted. I finally gave up looking and have settled on compact discs. Thankfully, Mobile Fidelity has worked their magic on The Yes Album and Fragile, proving once again that redbook CD can sound stupendous if done right. The 2003 Rhino editions feature related bonus tracks and nice packaging, but the sound quality is overly-compressed and flat by comparison. Friday Music’s recent reissue of Relayer is extremely disappointing: while the beautiful gatefold cover is lovingly reproduced and the 180-gram vinyl is flat and quiet, it sounds identical to the 2003 CD—that is to say, not so great. What a wasted opportunity! I wish Mobile Fidelity would continue with the series; Close to the Edge definitely deserves such deluxe treatment. And, who knows? Perhaps a MoFi edition of Tales From Topographic Oceans would change my mind on that one.

November 26, 2010

First Fire in the Fireplace

Fire!, originally uploaded by Rodger Coleman.

The arrival of cold weather has prompted the first fire of the season. Building a fire in the fireplace is my favorite thing about winter, so warm and cozy!

November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Pumpkin Pie!, originally uploaded by Rodger Coleman.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday; it's all about food--and being thankful for life's blessings. I am most thankful for my beautiful wife, Liz, and our wonderful life together. I hope you all have great holiday!

November 21, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday


Come my brother, you are dear to me
I will take you to new worlds
Greater in splendor than anything earth possesses.
If you are fearful, you are of the futile persuasion
If you are strong, you will be as I
I am nothing
My symbol is the name of nothing
And yet I speak as the living pattern
For the spirit.
The spirit is as I
Nothing can withstand my will
I cover the earth
And hold it like a ball in my hand
I can dash it to bits if I will
Or with the power of many forces
I can take it in seconds
To another galaxy
And set it gently in another place.

--Sun Ra

November 20, 2010

Playlist Week of 11-20-10

* Vivaldi: “Manchester” Sonatas (Romanesca) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Venice Baroque Orchestra (Marcon/Carmignola): Concerto Italiano (Archiv Produktion CD)
* Boulez: The Three Piano Sonatas (Jumppanen) (Deutsche Grammophon 20/21 CD)
* Louis Armstrong: Hot Fives and Sevens, Vol.1 (JSP CD)
* John Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse! 4CD)
* Sun Ra: Pathways to Unknown Worlds + Friendly Love (Evidence CD)
* Sun Ra: The Singles (d.2) (selections) (Evidence 2CD)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: This Brings Us To, Vol.1 (Pi CD)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: This Brings Us To, Vol.2 (Pi CD)
* Myra Melford’s Trio M: Old Custom House, Tampere, Finland 10-31-09 (FM CDR)
* Myra Melford’s The Same River Twice: Willisau, Switzerland 9-03-95 (FM CDR)
* Scanner with The Post Modern Jazz Quartet: Blink of an Eye (Thirsty Ear CD)
* The Beatles: The Beatles (a/k/a The White Album) (2009 mono) (Apple/EMI 2CD)
* The Beatles: Let It Be (2009) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Abbey Road (2009) (Apple/EMI CD)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips Vol.4, No.1: Big Rock Pow-Wow ’69 (GDP/Rhino 3CD)
* Grateful Dead: Formerly The Warlocks (Hampton, VA Oct. 1989) (selections) (GDP/Rhino 6CD) †/‡
* Van Morrison: Days Like This (Polydor CD)
* Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball (Warner Bros. CD) †/‡
* Tom Waits: Glitter and Doom (Live) (Anti 2LP)
* Yes: Tales From Topographic Oceans (Atlantic/Rhino 2CD)
* Yes: Relayer (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Yes: Going for the One (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Genesis: Abacab (Atlantic LP)
* Genesis: Genesis (Atlantic LP)
* Robyn Hitchcock: Eye (Expanded Edition) (Yep Roc CD)
* Robyn Hitchcock: While Thatcher Mauled Britain (Yep Roc 2CD)
* Buckethead: Colma (CyberOctave CD)†/‡



Great googly-moogly, it’s another Grateful Dead Road Trips—just in time for the holidays! This time we go back to May 1969, to the “Big Rock Pow Wow” held on the Seminole Indian Reservation in Hollywood, Florida. In March, Jim Morrison had been arrested on obscenity charges in Miami after the infamous Doors concert wherein he allegedly “exposed himself” to the audience. Accordingly, rock concerts were cancelled en masse, particularly in Florida, where the Dead were scheduled to play at the “Expanded Spiritual Music Concert” over Easter weekend. A typically hippie solution was found via connections with the Indian chiefs at the nearby reservation, where neither local police nor federal agents had any jurisdiction. A three-day festival was scheduled, headlined by the Grateful Dead on the first two nights. Being “The Sunshine State,” there were multi-gallon jugs of free orange juice available backstage and, given the presence of not only Timothy Leary but also Owsley “Bear” Stanley (who ran the Dead’s soundboard and made this recording)—not mention the total absence of cops—you can imagine what happened next.

It was a different era, that’s for sure. To be honest, this kind of super-intense, teeth-grindingly psychedelic stuff is not really my favorite. I know that makes me a bad (or at least suspect) Deadhead, but I just can’t get beyond the atrocious intonation of the guitars and weirdly affected singing style—but, moreover, the severely constricted repertoire gets old for me fast. And here we have two takes of “Turn On Your Lovelight” totaling more than an hour and it is just a bit too much of a (sort of) good thing. One Internet wag accused Pigpen’s blues stylings as being near to “blackface minstrelsy” and, while that is perhaps going (way) too far, I have to admit that the schtick can wear a little thin. Nevertheless, the “Dark Star>St. Stephen>The Eleven” sequence features some sublime playing and there is a taste of what was to come with a touching rendition of the traditional folk song, “He Was a Friend of Mine” that has an authentic country & western flavor. Even so, I doubt I’ll be pulling this off the shelf very often. Of course, your mileage may vary. Only available from

November 15, 2010

Happy Birthday to Us!

Birthday Cake, originally uploaded by Rodger Coleman.

You say it’s your birthday
It’s my birthday too—yeah
They say it’s your birthday
We’re gonna have a good time
I’m glad it’s your birthday
Happy birthday to you!

-- “Birthday” (Lennon/McCartney)

One of the many wonderful, amazing things about my wife, Elizabeth, is that we have the same birthday. Today, we cumulatively celebrate our eighty-ninth birthday. Pretty fun, right? Happy birthday, sweetie!!

November 14, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Astro Infinity Arkestra: Pathways to Unknown Worlds + Friendly Love (Evidence CD)

Pathways to Unknown Worlds
was released by Impulse! in 1975 but was soon deleted along with the rest of the catalog licensed from El Saturn Records. That meant literally cutting off the corners of the jackets and dumping the remaining stock below wholesale, thereby cutting off Sun Ra from any royalties that would have otherwise been due (see Szwed p.333). For a brief period in the mid-1970s, Sun Ra records could be found in the sale bins of mom-and-pop record stores across America, but they quickly disappeared for good and, by the end of the end of the decade, had become rare, expensive collectables. It wasn’t until the Evidence label began reissuing Sun Ra’s music on compact disc in the early-1990s that Ra’s most obscure discography was again readily available. In 2000, Evidence concluded their reissue campaign with the resurrection of two Great Lost Sun Ra Albums recorded for Impulse! which were originally conceived as part of a proposed trilogy that would have progressed from earthy blues of Cymbals (AS-9296) through the hyper-modern jazz of Crystal Spears (AS-9297) and on to the improvised outer-space music of Pathways to Unknown Worlds (AS-9298) (see Campbell & Trent pp.194-196).

Shorn from its intended context, Pathways to Unknown Worlds must have appeared a puzzling artifact for the very few people who heard it back in 1975. Mixed to primitive Quadrophonic Sound, almost no one owned the expensive Sansui QS decoder and extra pair of speakers required—and those who did probably wondered why it was being deployed for a mere twenty-seven minutes of skronky free-jazz-noise (even so, I would be very interested in hearing these original “surround sound” mixes!). In 2000, Evidence remixed the album to stereo from the multitrack tapes and, in the process, discovered an additional (untitled) track that was omitted from the original LP, expanding it to a (slightly) more reasonable thirty-four minutes of music.

The pieces on Pathways to Unknown Worlds are all “guided improvisations,” with Sun Ra directing the flow of music from his bank of electric keyboards. Ronnie Boykins is back, anchoring the proceedings with his rock-solid bass, accompanied by the indomitable Clifford Jarvis on drums, who plays with admirable restraint here. This was by far the most fluent and supple rhythm section Ra would ever enjoy (sadly, it was intermittent at best and ultimately short lived). Joined by a full complement of horn players, this was an Arkestra particularly sensitized to Ra’s vision and well suited to realize his most exploratory music.

A blow-by-blow description seems rather pointless; I can only say that the music is a model of tightly controlled chaos and this album stands with the best of that lineage of long form improvisations, like Magic City and Other Planes of There. Sun Ra disdained the excesses of the “free jazz” scene and his group improvisations are as thoughtfully constructed as any of his written compositions, full of startling dynamic contrasts and unusual instrumental textures, fueled by his own endlessly inventive approach to electronic keyboards. Kwami Hadi is present on trumpet joined by Akh Tal Ebah on mellophone (a cross between a trumpet and a French horn), making it possible to really compare them side-by-side. Sometimes, Ebah shoves a contrabassoon reed into the mouthpiece to create the “Space dimension mellophone,” rendering an earth-shattering blast of sound akin to the Neputunian libflecto (a bassoon with either a French horn or alto saxophone mouthpiece attached).

Eloe Omoe is given especially prominent solo space throughout the album, allowing an opportunity to fully appreciate his richly expressionist bass clarinet in a variety of settings. Omoe’s story is interesting: born Leroy Taylor (1949-1989), he was a member of a Chicago street gang until 1970, when Sun Ra took him in and changed his name (see Szwed p.280). While his frantic overblowing shtick was a constant feature of the Arkestra’s live gigs during this period, he was, in fact, a gifted auto-didact, and his playing here shows a remarkable versatility.

John Gilmore comes through with one of his typically mind-melting tenor saxophone solos on “Cosmo Media,” but this album isn’t about individual soloists or group freakouts. The Arkestra is literally Sun Ra’s living instrument, their highly individualistic voices subordinated to his stringent yet benevolent command. Accordingly, this music cannot be said to be freely improvised; it is rather composed by Sun Ra in the moment of its realization. If anything, Boykins is the star of the show, the glue that holds it all together; there is hardly a moment where he is not furiously thrumming or bowing away with astounding facility and invention. Yet Pathways to Unknown Worlds is also not merely a concerto for bass; it is a thoroughly ensemble conception, with the whole being much more than the sum of its parts—hence the pointlessness of a detailed description. Together with The Great Lost Albums, these are some of the crowning achievements of Sun Ra’s long recording career and need to be heard to be believed.


Four more LPs were recorded by Saturn and offered to Impulse! as part of the proposed licensing deal, but were rejected. Across the Border of Time (Saturn 576), Flight to Mars (Saturn 547) and Tone Poem (Saturn 672) were never released, although Prof. Campbell has speculated that tracks from some of these records were cannibalized for later Saturn releases, such as the ultra-rare Song of the Stargazers (Saturn 487) (see Campbell & Trent pp.196, 270-271). However, while preparing these Evidence CDs, the two-track reel-to-reel tapes containing the long-lost Friendly Love (Saturn 565) were found in a box and issued for the first time, appended to Pathways to Unknown Worlds.

Unfortunately, Boykins is once again absent but the laconic Harry Richards returns on drums along with Atakatune (Stanley Morgan) on congas and they provide a relaxed, contemplative rhythmic feel throughout. Lacking formal titles, the album is presented as a suite in four parts, and while Prof. Campbell suggests in his liner notes that these are all guided improvisations, I’m not so sure: Sonny’s organ often seems to be outlining pre-ordained chord sequences and parts one and four settle into the kind of dreamy, modal grooves that were a hallmark of Sun Ra’s compositions during this period—in fact, the horns play a repeating, five-note figure towards the end of the suite that was obviously written out and harmonized. It may be possible the Arkestra was merely “jamming out” on this date, but I kind of doubt it. In any event, the soloists are exceptional: Hadi and Ebah each deliver delightfully contrasting brass excursions and Danny Davis is featured throughout on alto saxophone. Danny Ray Thompson even coaxes some surprisingly tender melodies from the unwieldy Neptunian libfliecto. But Gilmour’s tenor sax solo on part four is the real standout, an especially soulful, bluesy meditation seasoned with astonishing extended techniques and punctuated with pregnant silences. Yes, it’s another incredible John Gilmour solo. Get used to it!


Exact dates and locations for all these recordings are unknown, but Prof. Campbell’s research indicates they were likely made in early-to-mid-1973 at Variety Recording Studios in New York City (and I have no reason to doubt him):

As on so many recordings done for Saturn, the mythical “El Saturn Studio” in Chicago is given as the location on the Impulse jacket. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it’s wisest to assume that [Sun Ra’s] studio recordings during the 1970s were made at Variety (and if [James] Jacson, who was living in New York City and often not touring with the band, is really present, that would make Variety even more likely [since he had connections there]). (Campbell & Trent, p.196)

Clearly, Sonny had high hopes for the Impulse! deal and spent much of 1973 in the studio, going so far as to prepare a handful of seven-inch singles for the El Saturn label. Indeed, with the release and widespread distribution of the brilliant Astro Black and the reissue of a number of classic Saturn LPs, Sun Ra’s fortunes were looking up: the Arkestra would make its triumphant return to Carnegie Hall in July, in a concert recorded and broadcast by Voice of America, and the fall tour of Europe was, by any measure, an unqualified success. It wasn’t until 1975 that things fell apart with Impulse! and Sun Ra returned to the “sub-underground.” Nevertheless, his reputation was firmly established amongst the hip-jazz cognoscenti and new records would continue to pour forth from Saturn and various independent labels, like breadcrumbs on an intergalactic space trail. His music was treated with near-reverential respect abroad and foreign sojourns would become constants of the Arkestra’s life, grueling itineraries that barely managed to provide a modicum of financial security for the band.

Meanwhile, back home, “The New Thing” fad gave way to slick, commercial fusion by the late-1970s and the band worked where and when it could, crisscrossing the country playing dingy nightclubs, outdoor jazz festivals, and any colleges or universities that would have them. For the most part, Sun Ra’s music was met with indifference or, at best, a bemused skepticism—and in some quarters, he provoked outright hostility, summarily dismissed as charlatan, a fake. By the 1980s, with much of the discography long out of print and/or impossible to find, Sun Ra’s music was shrouded in mystery, his live show an anachronistic circus act, wildly out of step with the neo-conservative times exemplified by Wynton Marsalis and his ilk.

Thankfully, the invention of the compact disc has since allowed Sonny’s vast output of incredibly obscure recordings to be heard once again. Moreover, the rediscovery of these “lost” albums offer profound insight into Sun Ra’s unique musical genius in its full flowering, at its most ambitious. Hopeful of a better world realizable in sound, Sun Ra sincerely thought he could change the world, and in some not-so-small ways, he did. These albums are essential documents of one of the Twentieth Century’s most widely misunderstood and underappreciated masters.

November 13, 2010

Playlist Week of 11-13-10

* Veracini: Sonatas (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (ECM CD)
* Geminiani: Cello Sonatas, Op.5 (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics CD)
* Handel: Trio Sonatas, Op.2 & 5 (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Venice Baroque Orchestra (Marcon/Carmignola): Concerto Veneziano (Archiv Produktion CD)
* Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe (Boston Symphony/NEC Chorus/Munch) (RCA-Victor CD)
* Charles Mingus: The Great Concert of Charles Mingus (Paris 4-19-64) (Verve 2CD)
* Sun Ra: Pathways to Unknown Worlds/Friendly Love (Evidence CD)
* John Coltrane: The Complete Africa Brass Sessions (Impulse! 2CD)
* John Coltrane: Impressions (Impulse! CD)
* Anthony Braxton Large Ensemble: Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT 5-08-08 (AUD CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Septet: Hursaal Chamber Hall, San Sebastián, Spain 7-25-08 (FM CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Quartet: Opéra Théâtre de Besançon, France 6-27-08 (AUD CDR)
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (Moscow) 2008 (Leo CD)
* Mary Halvorson Quintet: Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12 CD)
* Tom Rainey Trio: Pool School (Clean Feed CD)
* The Beatles: Please Please Me (2009 mono) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: With The Beatles (2009 mono) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Night (2009 mono) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Beatles For Sale (2009 mono) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Beatles For Sale (2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Help! (2009 mono) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Rubber Soul (2009 mono) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1965 (2009) stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1987 (2009) stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Rubber Soul (U.S. stereo) (Capitol CD)
* The Beatles: Revolver (2009 mono) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Revolver (2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (2009 mono) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour (2009 mono) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Mono Masters (Apple/EMI 2CD)
* Grateful Dead: Oklahoma City Music Hall, Oklahoma City, OK 11-15-72 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Go To Nassau (GDP/Arista 2CD) †/‡
* Van Morrison: A Night in San Fracisco (Polydor 2CD)
* Lucinda Williams: Live @ The Fillmore (Lost Highway 2CD)†/‡
* Yes: The Yes Album (Atlantic/Mobile Fidelity CD)
* Yes: Fragile (Atlantic/ Mobile Fidelity CD)
* Yes: Close To The Edge (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Genesis: Duke (Atlantic LP)
* Robert Pollard: We All Got Out of the Army (GBV, Inc. CD) †/‡
* Robert Pollard: Moses on a Snail (GBV, Inc. CD) †/‡
* Boston Spaceships: Our Cubehouse Still Rocks (GBV, Inc. CD) †/‡



A year later, The Beatles remasters continue to astound me. The mono box is just awesome, from its jewel-like packaging to the audiophile sound quality. Yes, standard Redbook CDs can sound good—if you try! I tend to prefer the mono mixes in general, but some of the stereo remasters are truly revelatory, particularly Beatles For Sale. The vocals are amazingly lifelike and the stereo effect actually manages to achieve an exquisite three-dimensional ambience surrounding the chiming acoustic and electric guitars. This was an album I had mostly overlooked, but it has since become one of my favorites—especially in stereo.

Rubber Soul is perhaps the most problematic album of them all, with no fewer than four different versions to choose from. The mono mix is, of course, the most cohesive whereas the original 1965 stereo mix is a murky mess. In 1987, George Martin remixed the album for compact disc and that is the version that is used on the new remaster. Sadly, Sir George utilized primitive digital tape for his mixdown and while the remaster certainly improves on the original CD, the high frequencies still suffer from a grainy hardness that is grating on the ear. Oh, and then there is the “butchered” version of Rubber Soul released by Capitol in the United States, with some songs were added while others deleted and the whole thing slathered with an extra bath of reverb. As a Yank, I grew up with this version and, for me, the U.S. sequence nicely emphasizes the new folk-rock aspect of their songwriting during this period, making it in some ways my favorite version—even in yucky hard-panned stereo. Heresy, I know!

Revolver is more of a toss-up: the mono is, as usual, just exactly perfect, yet the stereo remaster sounds great too, with a vivid, Technicolor presentation. But when it comes to Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, the mono mixes are where it’s at; they are very, very different from the stereo versions, meticulously constructed for maximum psychedelic impact. As John Lennon insisted, “you haven’t heard Pepper until you’ve heard it in mono.”

Not to quibble, but I do wish they had included all the relevant singles on each canonical album instead of relegating them to a separate set of discs. Yeah, sure, I understand why they wanted to preserve the integrity of the original albums, blah blah blah—but it still seems kind of chintzy when most of them are barely thirty-five minutes long and the singles are so integral to their epoch. Oh well, it seems ridiculous to complain; the folks at Abbey Road did a spectacular job in delivering the definitive edition of The Beatles catalog. Rumor has it a vinyl edition is forthcoming. We’ll see if they lavish the same kind of care and attention to detail on these as they did with the CDs, which are impeccable. If the LPs are mastered from the high-resolution digital files (and the plating and pressing is of good quality), they could sound quite stunning.

What is it about The Beatles that makes their music so timelessly enjoyable? I don’t know. But I do know one thing from listening to a whole bunch of bootlegs over the years: they worked exceedingly hard to achieve this kind of perfection. They spent hours and hours making zillions of re-takes and they always just chose the right one, the one where the spark caught fire and magic happened. It is, I think, this sense of craftsmanship that enables these songs—these specific recordings—to appeal to a broad swath of humanity and stand up to near-infinite hearings.

Now, how about a definitive edition of the uproariously funny (and incredibly strange) fan-club Christmas messages? ‘Tis the season and all…Heh heh…I’m not going to hold my breath on that one.

November 12, 2010

Lizzy's Civic

Lizzy's Civic, originally uploaded by Rodger Coleman.

Lizzy drove her 1996 Saturn for thirteen years, but we finally had to put the car down. We got a 2008 Civic sedan, which will hopefully last another thirteen years. Saturn started out as a good idea (and the unintended Sun Ra reference was a hoot), but it all slowly disintegrated (like Lizzy's car). We now have his and her Hondas. In my opinion, Hondas make the best cars for the dollar. They look nice and they're fun to drive to boot (my Si coupe kicks butt!). I'm just glad to know Lizzy has a reliable car that will be safe to drive on these crazy Tennessee roads.

November 7, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday


Beyond other thought and other worlds
Are the things that seem not to be
And yet are.
How impossible is the impossible
Yet the impossible is a thought
And every thought is real
An idea, a flash of intuition’s fire
A seed of fire that can bring to be
The reality of itself.
Beyond other thought and other worlds
Are the potentials…
That hidden circumstance
And pretentious chance
Cannot control.

--Sun Ra

November 6, 2010

Playlist Week of 11-06-10

* Vivaldi: Concertos & Sinfonias for Strings (Venice Baroque Orchestra/Marcon) (Archiv Produktion CD)
* Vivaldi: Double Violin Concertos (VBO/Marcon/Mullova/Carmignola) (Archiv Produktion CD)
* Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (d.1-2) (Riverside 3CD)†
* Eric Dolphy: Iron Man (Douglas/Fuel 2000 CD)
* Eric Dolphy: Conversations (Douglas/Fuel 2000 CD)
* Charles Mingus: Town Hall Concert (4-04-64) (Jazz Workshop/OJC/Fantasy CD)
* Charles Mingus Quintet: Bremen, W. Germany 4-16-64 (FM CDR)
* Charles Mingus: Revenge! (Paris 4-17-64) (Revenge! Passport 2CD)
* Sun Ra: The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums: Cymbals & Crystal Spears (Evidence 2CD)
* Sun Ra: Pathways to Unknown Worlds + Friendly Love (Evidence CD)
* Anthony Braxton & Joe Morris: Four Improvisations (Duo) 2007 (d.3-4) (Clean Feed 4CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Falling River Music (Wesleyan University 5-07-08) (AUD 2CDR)
* Evan Parker/Mark Dresser/Gerry Hemingway: The Stone, New York, NY 10-04-09 (AUD CDR)
* Evan Parker/Sylvie Courvoisier: The Stone, New York, NY 10-06-09 (AUD CDR)
* Sylvie Courvoisier Trio: The Stone, New York, NY 1-04-09
* Sylvie Courvoisier Quartet: The Stone, New York, NY 6-02-09 (AUD CDR)
* Tom Rainey Trio: Pool School (Clean Feed CD)
* Tom Rainey & Ingrid Laubrock: The Stone: 1-07-09 (AUD CDR)
* Ingrid Laubrock Quintet: The Stone, New York, NY 8-01-09 (AUD CDR)
* Ingrid Laubrock Trio: The Stone, New York, NY 8-21-09 (AUD CDR)
* Ingrid Laubrock’s Anti-House: Anti-House (Intakt CD)
* Myra Melford Quartet: The Stone, New York, NY 7-07-09 (AUD 2CDR)
* Myra Melford’s Happy Whistlings: Firehouse 12, New Haven, CT 4-09-10 (AUD 2CDR)
* Myra Melford’s Be Bread: Le Poisson Rouge, New York, NY 6-20-10 (AUD CDR)
* Matana Roberts Quartet: Zebulon, Brooklyn, NY 3-30-09 (AUD CDR)
* Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet: Stadtgarten, Köln, 6-08-09 (AUD 2CDR)
* Scanner with The Post Modern Jazz Quartet: Blink of an Eye (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Isotope 217: Who Stole The I Walkman (Thrill Jockey CD)
* Funkadelic: Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow (Westbound—UK CD)
* Grateful Dead: The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA 8-30-80 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Formerly the Warlocks (Hampton, VA October 1989) (d.5) (GDP/Rhino 6CD) †/‡
* Big Star: Keep An Eye On the Sky (d.3) (Ardent/Rhino 4CD) †/‡
* Robert Fripp: Exposure (Deluxe Edition) (d.1) (DGM 2CD)
* Cocteau Twins: Lullabies to Violaine (d.3-4) (4AD 4CD)†/‡
* Robert Pollard: Moses On A Snail (GBV, Inc. CD)†/‡

†/‡=iPod in car


One thing that is striking about the contemporary Downtown New York avant-jazz scene is the prominence of women, as both instrumentalists and composers/bandleaders. While female instrumentalists have reached near-parity in the classical music world by now, jazz has remained something of a boy’s club. Sure, women are allowed to sing, like Billie Holiday, or Ella Fitzgerald, or Diana Krall (just like sopranos and altos were always necessary in classical music) but women have, historically, not been encouraged to play an instrument. Yes, I know there were notable exceptions to this (e.g. Alice Coltrane, Carla Bley, Emily Remler, Joanne Brackeen, et al.), but let’s face it, these exceptions prove the rule. And the truth is: women composers continue to be marginalized in “classical” music institutions as well—just look at the programming of any symphony orchestra/chamber ensemble. But in the utopian world of Downtown New York, women and men are seemingly on an equal footing, cooperatively creating music that feels altogether current and thoroughly exciting—while also offering a fresh take on a long but neglected and abused tradition: “jazz.”

The acclaimed German saxophonist, Ingrid Laubrock, relocated from London to New York a couple years ago and has since joined forces with guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist John Hébert, drummer Tom Rainey and (sometimes) Kris Davis to form a band called “Anti-House.” Their self-titled debut on Intakt is a sprawling, magnum opus, showcasing not only superlative musicianship, but Laubrock’s uniquely eclectic compositional vision. For example, on the very first track, “Slowfish Glowfish,” the music alternates between slow, tender lacework and full-throttle prog-punk-rock and, after a blurry solo from Laubrock, it doesn’t so much come to a conclusion as stop in the middle of a thought. Thanks to an intricate arrangement and the players’ impassioned discipline, these disparate elements cohere into enigmatically powerful music. Each of Laubrock’s compositions on this disc is similarly complex and equally compelling: “Quick Draw” and “Anti-House” draw upon freebop’s melodic drive, but with multisectional scoring and careful orchestration, while “Tex & Clementine,” and “Tom Can’t Sleep” are ballad forms but with peculiarly fractured rhythms and pan-tonal harmonic schemes; “Big Crunch” and “Betterboon” are something else altogether, a kind of modernist chamber music that could only come out of the jazz tradition but which sounds totally up to the minute. Interspersed are four very short group improvisations, ranging from quiet spaciness (“Is Life Anything Like This”) to raucous skronk (“Big Bang”). The album concludes with two epic constructions: “Oh Yes” begins as a lament and ends in contrapuntal triumph while “Mona Lisa Trampoline” dares to incorporate long stretches of silence into its dreamlike unfolding. I can’t say I’ve ever heard music quite like this before and, at over seventy-two minutes, there is a lot here to absorb. This CD has stood up well to repeated listening over the past couple weeks, each time revealing more of its mysteries. Anti-House is definitely one of the most interesting records I’ve heard this year and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

So is music by women different from music by men? In terms of ability, sheer technique, obviously not. Nor in the level of emotional intensity or artistic ambition—one listen to this record should disabuse you of that notion. But boys and girls are obviously, um, different. And in creative music like jazz, different perspectives are the lifeblood of the genre, its whole reason for being: immediate personal expression. In that sense, women like Ingrid Laubrock and Mary Halvorson and Kris Davis (and many others) are necessarily bringing a new and different take on what has historically been a male-dominated music. I hesitate to put into words what that difference sounds like, but the music these women create seems to be more concerned with a holistic group conception than in demonstrations of instrumental prowess—despite their own obvious virtuosity. This is a refreshing change from the ego-driven “cutting contests” of jazz lore and signals the way forward for the tradition. I look forward to hearing more from them in the future.

November 5, 2010


My friend, Keith Krisa, just emailed me this photo, taken outside The Paradise in Boston just minutes ago. From what I've heard, the band sounds great. Great capture! Wish I was there! Have fun, Keith!

Update: Here we are inside:

Only Keith could take such great photos with a dang phone. Check out the neon "The Club Is Open" sign hovering in the near distance. How did he do this? RAWK-ON, DUDE!