September 4, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Civic Center, Santa Cruz, CA 12-11-74 (AUD 2CDR)

Of all the gigs the Arkestra played on the west coast at the end of 1974, only this set from the Civic Center in Santa Cruz, California from December 11 was documented (see Campbell & Trent pp.215-217). Surprisingly, the 100-minute audience tape was recorded in stereo—but the sound quality is pretty horrific: boomy, distorted and indistinct (not surprising given the cavernous venue). Nevertheless, it’s a fine performance and a little patience on the listener’s part is periodically rewarded with some great music.

The tape cuts in on the opening improvisation, free-jazz skronk featuring a snippet of Marshall Allen's oboe, Kwami Hadi's high-wire trumpet act and some pscyho-delic guitar from Dave Williams. The Arkestra is on fire! “Discipline 27,” “Enlightenment” and “Love In Outer Space” are the usual thing and well-played but the fifteen-minute “Shadow World” is something special, indeed. After a near-perfect run through of the ridiculously complicated head, John Gilmore delivers one of his typically amazing, high-energy solos, inspiring excellent contributions from Danny Ray Thompson on libflecto, Hadi on trumpet, Williams on wah-wah guitar and Allen on alto sax. It’s an epic tour de force guided by Ra’s scumbling keyboards; after a series of ever-greater climaxes, Ra signals the reprise to end, leaving the audience clearly stunned. Wow! Despite the poor sound, this version of "The Shadow World" is well worth hearing.

The set continues with “Theme Of The Stargazers” and “Calling Planet Earth,” with some outrageous synthesizer and organ work from Ra eventually giving way to “Space Is The Place,” in a full horn arrangement. “Images” makes another welcome appearance, but the tape cuts in and out and the levels go up and down, making it impossible to tell what’s really going on. Yet about half-way through, the band has settled into a sultry groove, the audience clapping along, when all of a sudden, Gilmore comes in with a rip-snorting, gut-bucket, blues-drenched solo. He’s blowing his lungs out, “walking the bar”—but also spinning off complex chromatic runs punctuated with keening, multi-phonic wails, chasing the rhythm section in spiraling circles—on and on, coming back again and again to a three-note flourish and ending with a bang. Whew! Yes, it’s another incredible Gilmore solo! And again, while the sound quality is dreadful, this performance needs to be heard to be believed.

As usual, “Discipline 27-II” devolves into a series of space chants, including “Life Is Splendid” and “Destination Unknown,” with June Tyson and Akh Tal Ebah taking the lead but, after a swelling space chord, “Astro Nation” follows in its first known performance. It’s come a long way from the rehearsal tape we previously heard yet while the rhythm section is more solid, only Sonny seems able to recite the off-meter syllables on top of the up-and-down disco beat. (It would take a while for the band to get this odd little tune together.) Soon, Hadi pierces the din and the saxophones begin to take it out and things really start to get interesting—but as Sonny tries to bring the vocals back around, it falls apart and just sort of dissolves. Then a super-intense improvisation rises up over Ra’s droning organ, with loud, distorted guitar, pealing trumpets and squalling saxophones but, sadly, the tape fades out after only a couple of minutes. Argh!

“We Travel The Spaceways” is given an relaxed reading, evolving into a lovely doo-wop-style medley, incorporating elements of “Journey To Saturn” and “Rocket Number 9,” sung in luscious harmonies and anchored by Ebah’s (?) rich baritone. Just lovely! After a quick statement of “Planet Earth,” Watusi” follows with the flutes weirdly dominant. Fortunately, Clifford Jarvis’s over-excited drumming is countered by some weird, metallic counter-rhythms, adding interest to the usual percussion-fest, but the sound quality is particularly grim at this point, overloaded and distorted. Things quiet down for “Friendly Galaxy No.2,” although the mix is still wonky. Flutes and bass clarinet play the serpentine melody while the bleating trumpet figure is passed around the rest of the band and, as the flutes begin to improvise, an eerie calm is established—then Ra steps up to recite “I, Pharoah,” with June Tyson and others emphasizing each declamation. Sonny’s on a roll: “I Could Have Enjoyed Myself On This Planet” he shouts, “if the people had been alive!” The band joins in on some swing/rap silliness, repeating the refrain accompanied by the Yoko-esque shrieking from one of Ethnic Space Vocalists—is this impromptu or pre-conceived? It’s hard to tell. The craziness subsides, replaced by the tranquility of “Pleiades,” pretty flutes and rubato percussion, with Damon Choice’s glistening vibraphone faintly audible in the background. Very nice—but Ra continues with the tirade: “The Universe spoke to me!” Etc. Finally, the set concludes with “Face The Music,” taken at a slow-ish tempo as the Arkestra sings, chants and saunters off the stage.

You’re probably wondering what the heck takes me so long with these blog posts. Well, I was ready to write this one off as yet another dismal sounding bootleg, but I kept listening—and my ears became more and more used to the sound. And each time through, I found interesting little nuggets, diamonds buried in a dung-pile of noise. So I kept listening. At this point, weeks have gone by…well, this is how it seems to go. Is it worth it? I suppose so; there is some extraordinary music here (Gilmore is in particularly good form), even if it’s a struggle to discern. It may not be the worst-sounding bootleg out there—like I said, my ears got used to it—but this one is strictly for hardcore fans only. Frankly, I’m looking forward to moving on to 1975…


Sam said...

Yeah, that "Images" solo really makes it all worthwhile! The sound of this show is certainly not as bad as some, but I'd suffer through far worse than that to hear a Gilmore solo of that caliber. Hot damn.

Rodger Coleman said...

@ Sam. Agreed!