January 23, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Live In Paris at the “Gibus” (Atlantic—France/Universe CD)

Unlike the previous European tour (an extended sojourn which ranged widely across the continent, culminating in an impromptu trip to Egypt), the 1973 visit seems to have consisted of barely a handful of gigs in and around Paris. Also unlike the well-documented 1971 excursion, there were no high-profile radio broadcasts and very few amateur recordings survive. The tour likely began with the ill-fated Fête de l’Humanité at the end of September (possibly found on Transparency’s Lost Reel Collection Vol.5) and while Prof. Campbell mentions a 180-minute audience tape from the Nancy Jazz Festival on October 14, that’s about it (p.203) (and I haven't heard this tape). Otherwise, it seems the Arkestra settled into a multi-night stand at the famed Gibus Discotèque in Paris until their return to the states sometime in mid-to-late-October. Fortunately, the French division of Atlantic Records recorded a portion of this gig and released it as Live In Paris at the “Gibus” (Atlantic 40540) in 1975—but only in France (Id.). It remained an obscure collector’s item until 2003, when the Italian Comet label reissued it on CD on their Universe imprint in a deluxe, gatefold mini-LP package with excellent sound quality. Finally! This is one of the essential Sun Ra albums: an impeccable performance, well-recorded, documenting a crucial period in the Arkestra’s development.

It helps that the repertoire and sequencing is particularly inspired, possibly assembled by Sonny himself from several night’s recordings (he was, after all, a master of the razor blade and splicing tape). Who knows?—the liner notes are deliberately vague. The album begins with two of Ra’s most whimsically captivating compositions, both of which had been out of the setlists for a while and are now radically rearranged. “Spontaneous Simplicity” dispenses with the horn statements altogether and becomes a feature for Ra’s chiming organ and the “space-rhumba” groove is a bit looser, with Boykins leaning heavily on the riff. Suddenly, Ra goes into a frenetic double-time feel but the rhythm section keeps right with him to the end. An interesting re-imagining of this piece. The beautiful and tranquil “Lights On a Satellite” which follows is intricately through-composed, from the flute and trumpet harmonizations right down to the arco bass pedals and pitter-pattering percussion figures—and it is taken at a glacially slow tempo. The Arkestra sounds a little restrained but they deliver a note-perfect performance of this chamber-jazz masterpiece, one of my very favorite Sun Ra compositions.

A deft edit (indicative of Sun Ra’s hand) puts us smack in the middle of “The Shadow World” (mysteriously re-titled “Ombre Monde #2”), with Danny Ray Thompson’s baritone sax riffing just tailing off. John Gilmore comes in with another spine-tingling tenor solo, made all the more intense by Sun Ra’s insistently busy organ figuration. Kwami Hadi then solos on trumpet, easily holding his own against the rumbling thunderclouds and lightning flashes of electric organ but Sonny finally takes over with an apocalyptic fury before another surgically precise edit dramatically brings the track to an end. Wow! It would be nice to have the whole thing, but this is a powerfully edited fragment that stands alone as a coherent piece of music. Whether constructed by Ra or unknown French engineers, this is a bravura bit of record making.

Then we have something completely different: The Arkestra busts out a free-wheeling arrangement of Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp,” a proto-jazz number dating back to 1923. This signals a brash new direction for the Arkestra: resurrecting the old (if not old-fashioned) practices of the swing-era big bands within their futuristic space music and re-connecting the so-called avant garde to the deepest roots of early jazz. This kind of stuff was always an element of Sun Ra’s music, with its old-timey shuffle rhythms and pre-bop formalism, but here it becomes explicit. Of course, at age 59, Sonny was older than almost everyone else in the band by a number of years and had worked with Fletcher Henderson in Chicago back in 1946. Henderson was Herman Poole Blount’s childhood idol in 1930s (see Szwed, pp.11-12) and it may very well be one of Henderson’s arrangements the Arkestra plays here. By 1973, “[t]he recent deaths of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong had him reflecting about the forgotten masterworks of that era” and he began to introduce “mini-concerts of swing classics” at every performance.

It was a move both oppositional and prescient: he had seen the limits of the avant-garde, and sensing a shift beginning in American sensibilities, he was unwilling to give up the large audiences he had drawn. And even if he moved toward the middle, his goals were still the same: “My music is self-underground—that is, it is out of the music industry: I’ve made records with no titles, primitive, natural and pure. I’m also recording standards so that people can compare what I do with those in the past. The avant-garde can’t play other people’s music because they’re not mature enough” (Szwed, pp.337-338).

One may agree or disagree with his last assertion, but it is in keeping with Ra’s musico-philosophy, which was about discipline, not freedom, and this little swing revival within the Arkestra was in keeping with a living tradition that was perhaps obscured by the “out-there” music and space-age trappings. The Arkestra's exuberant performances of these old chestnuts are anything but polite re-creations made for nostalgic, easy listening. No, the music is as sweaty and funky as a roadside saloon, a room full of crazed jitterbuggers ecstatically dancing the night away. The music is alive! Thence forward, every concert would feature a number of swing tunes from the ’20s and ‘30s, done up with rousing enthusiasm. It’s over before you know it and now we're blasting off into outer space. “Salutations From The Universe” is a group improvisation which opens with a some jittery space chords and a brief declamation from Ra, but he soon embarks on a long synthesizer/organ solo full of scary spaceship sounds; hieroglyphic counterpoint; weird, microtonal effects; and hair-raisingly aggressive, two-fisted noise attacks. The howling space chords return and Sonny sounds the air-raid sirens as bombs boom forth from his speaker cabinets. Finally, a repeated organ note cues “Calling Planet Earth” and everyone joins in the chanting (including someone with a policeman’s bull-horn), all of them gleefully hectoring the crowd while Ra continues his sonic onslaught. Another perfectly timed edit ends the album with a dramatic silence. Whew!

Live At The Gibus is one of the great live Sun Ra albums, not only because of the interesting song selection and excellent sound quality. The Arkestra is at its disciplined best and Sonny is the star of the show—not only as master composer and bandleader, but also as virtuoso instrumentalist. His electronic keyboard solos on this record are truly out of this world. Sun Ra was a visionary player; no one even tried to sound like him on synthesizer or organ! He is sui generis! This record also shows the band in transition: swing numbers are coming to the fore and the Cosmo Drama is being reinvented and routinized. But the routine was paying dividends, both commercially and artistically, and within that structure, Ra could continue to work his magic. Pushing sixty, he was well aware of transient nature of fads and fashion and was positioning himself, as always, for the long haul. Live At The Gibus documents the Arkestra at a mid-career peak and showcases Sun Ra’s outrageous musicianship to stunning effect. An absolute must-have record.


Sam said...

Re: "King Porter Stomp"--it definitely is Fletcher Henderson's arrangement. Henderson had done a version of this in late '20s, but he revamped it for the swing era (mid-'30s), renaming it "New King Porter Stomp" (and basically speeding it up). It is this arrangement that Ra closely follows here (and in practically every other version I've heard him play). Henderson's version can be heard on the ASV/Loving Era disc "Under the Harlem Moon" (which, by the way, is primo Fletcher 1932-1937!)

Rodger Coleman said...

Thanks for confirming my suspicion, Sam! I need to hear that recording!