June 10, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Showboat Lounge, Silver Spring, MD 3-18-77 (AUD 2CDR)

On March 18, 1977 the Arkestra appeared at the Showboat Lounge in Silver Spring Maryland and a 150-minute audience tape circulates amongst the most fanatical Sun Ra collectors. Interestingly, this venue would quickly become one of Ra’s favorites: “[A]ccording to John Gilmore, Ra wrote several compositions meant to be played only at that location, including one titled, “Silver Spring” which was revived by the Arkestra in 1996” (Campbell & Trent. p.233). It would appear at least one of the things Sonny liked about the Showboat was that he was given free rein to play as long as he wanted. Take a look at the setlist: 
Disc 1: 1. //The Shadow World (5:15); 2. [unidentified title] (6:06); 3. Space Is The Place (12:12); 4. I’ll Never Be The Same (3:36); 5. Yeah, Man! (3:17); 6. King Porter Stomp (3:51); 7. The Mayan Temples (9:03); 8. Images (9:40); 9. Face The Music (5:06); 10. The Mystery Of Two (6:42). 
 Disc 2: 1.  Bye Bye Blackbird (2:36); 2. Watusi (21:31); 3. [unidentified title//] (3:24); 4. [//unidentified title]// (percussion only) (:33); 5. //Destination Unknown (1:25); 6. Journey To Saturn (9:26); 7. [unidentified title] (Rocksichord & French horn) (6:59); 8. The Satellites Are Spinning (2:04); 9. On Sound Infinity Spheres (4:30); 10. Embraceable You (6:33); 11. Greetings from the 21st Century/We Travel The Spaceways (2:53); 12. Love In Outer Space (8:58); 13. The Shadow World// (3:41).
This constitutes part of the first set and a mere fragment of the second—it sure looks juicy, doesn’t it? Well, be forewarned: the sound quality of this amateur recording is truly abysmal. To be fair, the circulating copy is probably pretty close to the original (mono) master tape since there is very little hiss or wow-and-flutter and, occasionally, it sounds… okay. So, it has that going for it. The problem is that the (decidedly lo-fi) microphone has been placed right up next to Sonny’s amplifier so the organ is much, much louder than anything else on stage—and when he steps on the gas and that amp starts to distort, you will think your own speakers are being shredded right before your very ears. It is most unpleasant to listen to, despite the otherwise high quality of the performance. 

Indeed, there is some incredible music buried under the noise: the old-timey big-band numbers are given relaxed, authoritative readings and Gilmore does his inimitable thing on “The Shadow World,” “Images,” “The Mystery of Two” and, most impressively, on “Embraceable You.” Pat Patrick takes the lead on baritone sax on a truly bizarre ballad composition (disc 1, track 2) and picks up the alto for a gorgeous rendition of “I’ll Never Be The Same.” But what’s most interesting are all those unknown titles such as the above ballad, the tangy “Discipline”-styled piece (disc 2, track 3) or the phase-shifty Rocksichord and French horn duet (disc 2, track 7), with Vincent Chancey sounding more assured than ever on that unwieldy instrument. It is always fascinating to hear “new” Sun Ra compositions, even if the sound quality sucks.

And, boy howdy, does the sound quality suck. Only the most hardcore Sun Ra fan will want to sit through this in order to mine any nuggets of musical gold that can be found. Even so, I keep coming back to those “unheard” compositions and find myself wishing the rest of the second set had been recorded; no doubt there were more “new” Sun Ra works to be found there, perhaps written especially for the venue. I guess that makes me hardcore. The rest of you should stay far, far away.


Jean K said...

Yep - that is hardcore listening bordering on the heroic. I have to admit that I've never managed to get all the way through this one. The unissued compositions are definitely very interesting though.

Sam said...

Aw, come on---it's not really -that- bad. Is it? Naw. I'd say "tolerable"--but just. All the new (and rarely recorded) compositions, as well as the too-rarely-played "On Sound Infinity Spheres," make this worth returning to. The treatment of "Bye Bye Blackbird" is similar to what RLC describes of the version from the WKCR show, and it's a pleasure to hear Gilmore's take on "Embraceable You."

Rodger Coleman said...

@ Jean K: This one nearly made me throw in the towel -- hence the break. BTW, I really enjoyed that poscast re: Evan Parker's record collection!

@ Sam: See above. Seriously, this was sheer torture for me. I did my best to point out the amazing music (and, yes, that Gilmore solo on "Embraceable You" is incredible), but sheesh! I realize that part of the problem is that my new system is much more revealing than what I had before and what it reveals here is a very, very bad recording! I will persevere, though... :)