Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sun Ra: Some Evidence CDs


[A little over 10 years ago, I used to write record reviews for Nine Times, a publication of Plan 9 Music. From time to time I will put up some of these reviews for posterity.]

Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra
"When Angels Speak of Love"

Sun Ra 
"The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums: Cymbals/Crystal Spears"

Sun Ra and his Astro Infinity Arkestra 
"Pathways to Unknown Worlds/Friendly Love"

Sun Ra

Sun Ra and his Arkestra
"Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel"

Back in 1991, Evidence Music began an ambitious CD reissue program of Sun Ra's albums originally put out on his own homegrown label Saturn.  When those albums were first released in the '60s and '70s, they were pretty hard to find.  Unless you bought them from the Arkestra after a gig, or lived in Philadelphia and were able to stop by Evidence owner Jerry Gordon's record store, you just didn't see those records around much.  You certainly couldn't pick them up at your local Woolworth's or Rose's.  Obscure from the first, many Saturn LPs had plain white covers with hand-drawn labels on the vinyl.  Lately, especially since Ra's passing in 1993, those original records have skyrocketed in value, fetching astronomically ridiculous prices on eBay.

For those if us without a few extra thousand bucks or so to spare for the occasional jazz album, the Evidence reissues have been a godsend.  Making so much of this music widely and easily available for the first time has caused major critical re-evaluation of Sun Ra's legacy.  It's a remarkable body of work, formidable and beautiful, dynamic and influential.  The early CDs put out by Evidence focused mainly on Saturns that had been recorded in the late '50s and early '60s, including such masterpieces as Angels and Demons at Play and The Magic City, and culminating in 1996's award-winning double CD The Singles.

Now we have a new batch of Sun Ra, and it's an amazing group of recordings: a classic from 1963, several early '70s recordings, and a greatest hits package.  Evidence even goes far beyond "reissues" to excavate Ra music never before released.  For Ra fans and fanatics, these new CDs are incredible finds, and for newcomers, they stand up as excellent examples of his musical vision of the magic of jazz, highlighting his versatility and vitality.

The earliest reissue here, When Angels Speak of Love (1963), may be the rarest Saturn of all: supposedly, only 150 albums were pressed!  Two tracks, the title cut and an edited "Next Stop Mars," appeared on the 1989 Blast First compilation Out There a Minute.  In 1963 Ra was still primarily playing acoustic piano, although he'd recorded electric piano as early as 1956.  The 10-minute "Ecstasy of Being" is one of the earliest Ra pieces to feature his playing on Clavioline.  With the heavy use of reverb ("played" on the spot by drummer Thomas "Bugs" Hunter), this track and "Celestial Love" are reminiscent of the 1963 psychedelic extravaganza Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy (also on Evidence).  When Angels Speak of Love is notable for several other reasons.  It shows Sun Ra to be firmly in the forefront of the New York avant-garde jazz scene.  It's got some of the most aggressive sax playing for its time this side of Albert Ayler, especially on "Next Stop Mars," which features tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, alto saxophonists Marshall Allen and Danny Davis, and Pat Patrick on baritone sax blowing the roof off, backed by Ra on piano at his most Cecil Taylor-esque.  Ra was a master of many keyboard styles; here he plays with power, dexterity, and inventiveness equaled only by Cecil Taylor in his prime (which I define as the last 40 years).  And yet, even at its most intense, it's not just uncontrolled blowing going on here; it's a carefully orchestrated series of solos and combinations of instruments played in a progressively logical manner.  Even at his most free, Ra exercised discipline and control.

When Angels Speak of Love also features extensively the wonderful trumpet work of Walter Miller, one of many excellent musicians who spent major parts of their careers playing with the Arkestra, and usually not getting the wider recognition they deserved from the jazz community or the jazz press.  Miller hailed from Birmingham, Alabama, same as Ra (when he was known by his earthly name Sonny Blount), and had played in one of Ra's early bands.  He does excellent work on several of Sun Ra's landmark recordings: The Magic City, Other Planes of There, and Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. 2, and this one.  His soloing is post-bop playing of the highest order.  Along with Gilmore, he navigates the insanely fast and tortuous head of "The Idea of It All" with ease.  It's a pleasure to have more of Miller on CD.

With Ra's ongoing experimentation with electronic keyboards, reverb, and other manipulated sounds, the invention of the synthesizer was tailor-made for him.  He even managed to obtain an early demo version of one of Robert Moog's synthesizers before they were commercially available (you can hear some of the results on 1969's My Brother the Wind Vol. II, also on Evidence).  He was one of the pioneers of the synthesizer, and the '70s were when he really began to use it extensively, especially the Mini-Moog.  Synthesizers opened up a whole new sonic universe for him, one he was to explore in depth for the next 20 years.  Live recordings like Black Myth/Out in Space (1970,  Motor Music) and Horizon (1971, Saturn)  feature long, bombastic explosions of industrial-strength synthesized sound, often in a solo context.  As the '70s went on, he began to integrate the synthesizer more into the predominantly acoustic sound of the Arkestra, to create a radically different jazz music not remotely similar to much else going on at the time (or since, really).  This is where we find Ra at the time of the 1973 recordings reissued here.

In 1972 Ra signed a contract with ABC/Impulse, both to put out new recordings and to reissue old Saturns.  Several albums' worth of  material was recorded, but of this new music only Pathways to Unknown Worlds and Astro Black were released (hopefully Astro Black will be reissued some day).  None of the Impulse albums stayed in print very long, and pretty soon Impulse dropped Ra.  But now, an archaeological miracle has occurred: in addition to Pathways, we also have 3 more albums that were never released, all recorded in 1973.  To put it mildly, it's amazing to have this much brand new Ra material come out at once.  Cymbals and Crystal Spears, packaged together as the 2-CD set The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums, were for a long time only rumored to exist (as it turns out, 3 cuts from Cymbals were in fact released by Saturn in 1973 on the LP Deep Purple).  Friendly Love, coupled on CD with Pathways, was unknown even to expert Ra discographer Robert L. Campbell until very recently.

Ra's synthesizer is very much in evidence here (pun intended), and in his hands it doesn't sound like anyone else.  We're not talking Wendy Carlos here. Sun Ra uses the synth very much as a jazz instrument, fully integrated into the group sound both as a solo voice and as a background sound texture creating an electronic space environment--call it abstract comping.  Live recordings from this period, as mentioned earlier, are pretty wild, with a lot of unfettered group improv, however controlled by Ra, with blasts of keyboards, horns, and percussion.  These studio recordings get pretty wild, too, but in a more subdued, layered, subtle fashion, if that makes any sense.  The music is definitely out and intense, but with a depth of clarity and vision that is deeply beautiful.  Ra clearly knows what he wants his ensemble to achieve.  All of these recordings have a large amount of small ensemble guided improvisation--even though the Arkestra is a "big band," for much of the time only subsets of the group play at the same time.  This music is a direct development of the direction taken by 1964's Other Planes of There (Evidence), with its guided series of solo, duet, and trio combinations: heavily-arranged improvisation with strong compositional direction.

Of the 1973 albums, Cymbals has the highest quotient of conventionally swinging blues-jazz.  After "The World of the Invisible," a foray into tempered high energy with healthy doses of synthesizer, the album settles into long, slinking processional organ grooves.  "Thoughts Under a Dark Blue Light" has one of the greatest John Gilmore tenor sax solos he ever recorded (and that's saying a lot!).  It's also got a wonderful trumpet solo by another unknown Arkestra great, Akh Tal Ebah.  Ebah and Kwame Hadi were two of the great trumpet players Ra used in the 70s.  They often played together in duets, but on the 1973 CDs here Ra has them solo separately quite a bit.  Both are mellow but intense players who often use mutes and who burn with virtuosic energy.  "Order of the Pharaonic Jesters" is a feature for Ra's organ playing, backed by a great walking bass line from Ronnie Boykins.

The title track of Crystal Spears starts off with solo Mini-Moog, suggesting travel into the outer spheres of space, and also into the inner spheres of consciousness.  For Ra, space is the place, but that means not just outer space but inner space as well.  To that end, much of this music is contemplative and introspective, and its often arrhythmic fluctuations sometimes mirror the smooth movement of the freely-ranging mind.  "The Embassy of the Living God" is another long guided improv piece, played sparsely for the most part, with Marshall Allen on oboe.  "Sunrise in the Western Sky" is mostly a feature for John Gilmore.  It starts off with percussion, oboe, and electronic vibes and gong (played by Ra), then mutates into a long (almost 20 minutes) Gilmore solo.  The piece has a mysterious brooding beauty that gains depth with repeated listenings.  (All of this music, in fact, is very rich, and it takes several listenings to discover its hidden depths.)

Overall, Pathways to Unknown Worlds is much more out in an aggressive way.  Like When Angels, it boasts one of Ra's strongest rhythm sections, Ronnie Boykins on bass and Clifford Jarvis on drums, supplying a perpetually changing backdrop for the other players.  The title cut has muted trumpet (Hadi), Mini-Moog, oboe, bass clarinet (Eloe Omoe), and tenor sax lines darting in and out in an otherworldly conversation.  A new piece, "Untitled," that didn't appear on the original LP, is heavily percussive and highlights Ra's vacuum cleaner-style synthesizer.  "Extension Out" starts off with a bang, with intense bass clarinet and excellent energy playing.  "Cosmo-Media" has yet more intense sweeper synth, anchored by Boykins' bass and propelled by Jarvis' out drumming.  All of these pieces have the feel of a suite; the mood flows and is sustained thoughout all 4 tracks.

The same is true for the newly-discovered Friendly Love, which is simply numbered parts I-IV since the individual titles, if there were any, are unknown.  If anything, the music of Friendly Love is even more abstract than the other 1973 recordings. It features the heavy use of exotic instrumentation, including the "space dimension mellophone" (a mellophone with a contrabassoon reed) and the "Neptunian libflecto" (a bassoon with a mouthpiece from either a French horn or an alto sax), in addition to the more standard (for Ra in this period anyway) oboe, bass clarinet, and electronic keyboards.  As distinctive as these instruments are, though, they are all subservient to the overall sound of the ensemble as a whole, further testament to Ra's arranging and conducting genius.

Lanquidity, recorded 3 years later in 1976, originally appeared on the Philly Jazz label.  In recent years this album has become a favorite of dance music samplers, and it's easy to see why: it's chock full of great funky grooves.  It's very similar in feel to 1979's Strange Celestial Road (Rounder), with long, spacey grooves dominated by Fender Rhodes and two electric guitars, perhaps a galaxy or so to the left of Miles' '70s universe.  For me, the revelation of this album is that every track features yet another killer Gilmore solo.  How many earth-shatteringly brilliant tenor sax solos can one human not named John Coltrane record?  Quite a few, evidently.  The standout cut on Lanquidity, "Where Pathways Meet," is also the fastest, with its great heavy funk horn line, anchored by the baritone sax of Danny Thompson and doubled by piano.  The only vocals on the CD are the mostly wordless humming and ethereal whispering of "There are Other Worlds," backed by swirling keyboard lines.

A quick note about Greatest Hits: at least they didn't include any songs not already out on other discs.  One can always quibble with the selection of collections like this; as Irwin Chusid has quoted Dennis Diken as saying, "Everybody's compilation sucks but your own."  That said, this is a decent CD for the newcomer to Ra.  You get a good sampling of the wide range of Ra's music from the mid-50s to the late 70s, with a couple of great Gilmore features (especially "Rocket Number Nine"), early hard bop ("Saturn" and "Medicine for a Nightmare"), and the synthesizer marvel "The Perfect Man."  Yet there's also enough out stuff to let the novice know that the musical universe of Sun Ra is not always a safe one ("Thither and Yon" and "The Alter Destiny").  So it could have its uses.

All of these CDs maintain the high standards of sound reproduction, documentation, and packaging that Evidence has given past Ra releases.  These are substantial, hefty recordings that truly deserve to see the light of day.  The sheer diversity of the music here, even just from the single year of 1973, is staggering.  Sun Ra may have moved on to other galaxies, but he left us pathways and interstellar spaceways to keep us busy following him forever.

2000 (Originally published in Nine Times, November 2000)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Playlist, Week of 2014-02-23

Playlist 2014-02-24:

*Nino Rota: Giulietta degli Spiriti (original soundtrack)
*Anthony Braxton Quartet: 1993-11-12 Knitting Factory (CDR) set 1
*Anthony Braxton: Echo Echo Mirror House
*Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet: 2013-11-09 Jazz Gallery, NYC (CDR)
*Miles Davis Quintet: 1969-11-05 Stockholm (CDR)
*Miles Davis Quintet: 1969-11-07 Berlin (CDR)
*Miles Davis Quintet: 1969-11-09 Rotterdam (CDR)
*Miles Davis: The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (disc 1)
*LARK: 2013-06-16 Brooklyn, NY (CDR)
*Ingrid Laubrock/Tom Rainey: 2013-02-25 Brooklyn, NY (CDR)
*Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris: Testament: A Conduction Collection "Conduction 15, Where Music Goes II”
*New Ting Ting Loft: 2014-02-17 “On a Scale from Ben to Tim” (wav)
*Ches Smith and These Arches: 2011-10-22 Krefeld (CDR)
*Thirteenth Assembly: 2011-10-30 London (CDR)
*Mike Elder/Harry Forrest/Greg Jordan/Sam Byrd: 2014-01-24 (wav)
*Henry Cow: 1976-08-25 Vervey, Switzerland (CDR)
*Steve Howe: Beginnings
*Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: Give the People What They Want
*King Crimson: The Road to Red (disc 12)
*UYA:  Selections 24: Aural Energy
*Various artists: Enjoy the Experience: Homemade Records 1958-1992 (disc 2)
*White Stripes: Elephant

Reading List, Week of 2014-02-23

Reading List 2014-02-24:

*King, Stephen. Wizard and Glass (Dark Tower IV) (reread/started)
*King, Stephen. The Waste Lands (Dark Tower III) (reread/started/finished)
*King, Stephen. The Drawing of the Three (Dark Tower II) (reread/finished)
*Enjoy the Experience. Ed. Johan Kugelberg (in progress)
*Weldon, Michael J. Psychotronic Video Guide (in progress)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sun Ra: Some Live Recording Reviews

[A little over 10 years ago, I used to write record reviews for Nine Times, a publication of Plan 9 Music. From time to time I will put up some of these reviews for posterity.]

Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Research Arkestra
It's After the End of the World

Sun Ra and His Arkestra
Live at Montreux

These are two primo concert recordings of Sun Ra and his Arkestra from the 1970s. Both of these albums were originally released in that decade, and this is the first domestic release of either of them on CD (with one caveat).  It's After the End of the World, originally appearing on MPS in 1971, consists of heavily edited excerpts from two concerts of an early European tour, in Germany in the fall of 1970. The Arkestra was huge for the tour, including the stellar sax lineup of John Gilmore on tenor, Marshall Allen and Danny Davis on alto (featured on some blistering duets), Pat Patrick and Danny Thompson on baritone, and Absholom Ben Shlomo on alto. Add two of the greatest trumpeters ever to play with Ra, Kwame Hadi and Akh Tal Ebah, plus bass clarinet, oboe, French horn, and English horn, not to mention all the other instruments doubled on by most of these players, and you've got one hell of a horn section. Ra's arrangements put it to good use, and the results are astonishing, from all-out full-throttle blasting to solo spots, from dark brooding melodies to atonal screeching. Ra was heavily into the mini-moog at this time, and he adds outer space textures throughout. Although this is the first release of the original LP on CD, it should be noted that more complete versions of both of these concerts appeared on CD in 1998, on Black Myth/Out in Space (Motor Music). All of the music from It's After, plus over an hour of additional music, appears there; it may be out of print but is well worth tracking down if this single disc isn't enough for you. It's After is an album of exhilarating big band jazz, one of Ra's best, surpassed perhaps only by 1976's Live in Montreux.

Recorded just six years later at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Live at Montreux finds the Arkestra again in fine form. Most of this 2-CD set, originally a 2-LP set first on Saturn and then on Inner City, is not as consistently in your face as It's After, but it has its out moments. Ra assembled another enormous big band for the concert, including the return of two players who hadn't appeared with him since the '60s, Chris Capers on trumpet and Clifford Jarvis on drums. Pat Patrick again appears on baritone sax, along with the regular sax section. There's brilliant playing throughout, by John Gilmore as always (who particularly shines on an outstanding high-tempo "Take the A Train") and by Ahmed Abdullah on trumpet. But the true star of Montreux is Ra himself, whose organ, moog, and piano playing is exemplary here. From the solo piano intro to "Take the A Train" to his synthesizer interjections in the extended mix of improvisation and arranged riffs that make up most of the first disc, Ra is on fire. This is the real deal. The concert culminates in a majestic rendering of "El Is a Sound of Joy," one of Ra's best compositions from the '50s. With the grandeur of its opening theme and its foot-stomping baritone sax-anchored middle section with brilliant trumpet work from Abdullah, this is a killer version of a Ra classic. Excellent sound, nice gatefold case, and the inclusion of the original liner notes by Bob Blumenthal, combined with the music itself, make this a superb reissue of what may be Sun Ra's single best live recording released during his lifetime. Then again, with It's After the End of the World, Nothing Is, and Nuits de la Fondation Maeght, that last statement may not be true. Get them all and judge for yourself.

2003 (Originally published in Nine Times, July 2003)

The Sun Ra Arkestra
Live at Praxis '84
Leo Records

This 2-CD set, recorded live in Greece in 1984, is a reissue of what was originally 3 LPs released on the obscure Praxis label. It's a recording of an entire Ra concert, which means the music covers a wide spectrum of jazz styles, from Fletcher Henderson big band arrangements and piano blues to wild freewheeling improvisation, and everything in between and beyond: original Ra compositions ("Fate in a  Pleasant Mood," "They'' Come Back"), more modern jazz and pop covers ("Satin Doll," "Mack the Knife," with Satchmo-style vocals from James Jacson), a healthy dose of space chants, and a burning (pun intended) version of "Nuclear War." There's a great vocal version of "Enlightenment" that flows into "Strange Mathematics/Rhythmic Equations," where Ra discourses on music history: "They tried to fool you / Now I got to school you / All about jazz."

By this time, Ra's wilder days were behind him, and his concerts had settled into a comfortable, programmatic groove. But the Arkestra continued to be a formidable big band, driven largely by Ra's keyboard mastery (best featured here on the solo piano "Over the Rainbow"), Marshall Allen's driving alto sax (Allen continues to lead the Arkestra to this day), and John Gilmore's commanding presence on tenor sax. Gilmore was a masterful player whose authority, phrasing, and sense of beauty and wonder were second to no one. His presence is sorely missed on the jazz since since his passing in 1995, so every release featuring him is a cause for celebration. He solos extensively here on several tracks, especially "Egyptian Fantasy [Carefree]," "Satin Doll," and "Discipline 27."

The mood throughout this concert is joyful and buoyant. The sound is occasionally boomy, and the bass is sometimes underrecorded, but for the most part it conveys a good sense of the spectacle and theatricality of a typical '80s Ra concert. Dancers are listed in the personnel, and even though you can't hear them, you can sense their presence in the sheer physicality and energy of the performance.

2000 (Originally published in Nine Times, August 2000)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Video from "(the) nature (of things) likes to hide"

Here's a short video from the performance of Daniel Barbiero's piece "(the) nature (of things) likes to hide" that took place earlier this month.  It's actually excerpts from all three pieces performed that night, and the music doesn't correspond with the footage, but it gives a nice flavor of the event. Music: the Subtle Body Transmission Orchestra. Dance: Nancy Havlik's Dance Performance Group.

Tatsuya Nakatani and Jimmy Ghaphery at the Ghost Print Gallery

Here's a special event, tomorrow night:

Tatsuya Nakatani and Jimmy Ghaphery at the Ghost Print Gallery

Thursday February 20 Richmond VA Ghost Print Gallery 
220 W. Broad St, Richmond, VA

SOLO PERCUSSION and collaboration with
" Jimmy Ghaphery "
Doors open 8:30.
Music starts 9pm sharp.
Tatsuya Nakatani returns to Ghostprint Gallery for another solo set. Nakatani will also perform duo with Richmond local Jimmy Ghaphery. Percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani (born in Osaka, Japan and currently based outside of Philadelphia), deftly wields his array of percussion instruments- including small metal bowls, gongs, broken cymbals, homemade bows, tom, and snare. Witnessing and listening to Tatsuya Nakatani hits on a number of intersecting sensory paths.Sliding Scale Donation $5-15 (suggested) will be used to help Tatsuya Nakatani fund this tour. No one turned away for lack of funds.
I'll be there, groovin'!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Playlist, Week of 2014-02-16

Playlist 2014-02-17:

*Anthony Braxton, Walter Thompson, & the Walter Thompson Orchestra: 2009-04-16 Brooklyn (CDR)
*Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: 2013-12-23 Nashville (wav)
*Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: 2013-12 LP mix (wav)
*Colla Parte: 2011-11-11 “Tenebrae” (wav)
*Miles Davis Quintet: 1969-11-03 Paris (CDR)
*Miles Davis Quintet: 1969-11-04 Copenhagen (CDR)
*Ingrid Laubrock’s Sleepthief: 2013-06-18 Brooklyn NY (CDR)
*Living By Lanterns: 2013-08-25 Sant’Anna Arresi (CDR)
*New Ting Ting Loft: 2014-01-27 “Threshold on Fever Town” (wav)
*New Ting Ting Loft: 2014-02-03 “Surface of the Surface” (wav)
*Steve Noble/John Edwards/Ingrid Laubrock: 2008-02-21 Pinewood Studios, BBC (CDR)
*Tom Rainey Trio: 2010-10-17 Sibiu, Romania (CDR)
*Tom Rainey Trio: 2013-10-19 Brooklyn NY (CDR)
*Ches Smith and These Arches: 2012-08-23 Willisau (CDR)
*Various artists: Musicircus 2009 (2009-10-22), Richmond VA
*Beach Boys: The SMiLE Sessions (discs 1, 3)
*Beatles: Live Volume One: Star Club (boot CDR)
*Ceramic Dog: Your Turn
*Deerhoof: Friend Opportunity
*King Crimson: The Road to Red (discs 10, 11)
*Shelby Lynne: Just a Little Lovin’
*Shirelles: The Very Best of the Shirelles
*Various artists: WSAM: Down Hole Soul, Vol. 1 (CDR compilation)

Reading List, Week of 2014-02-16

Reading List 2014-02-17:

*King, Stephen. The Drawing of the Three (Dark Tower II) (reread/started)
*King, Stephen. The Gunslinger (revised ed.) (Dark Tower I) (started/finished)
*King, Stephen. The Gunslinger (reread/started/finished)
*King, Stephen. “The Little Sisters of Eluria,” in Legends, ed. R. Silverberg (started/finished)
*Markson, David. Wittgenstein’s Mistress (finished)
*Sterne, Laurence. A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (finished)
*Enjoy the Experience. Ed. Johan Kugelberg (in progress)
*Weldon, Michael J. Psychotronic Video Guide (in progress)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sun Ra: The Journey Continues

[A little over 10 years ago, I used to write record reviews for Nine Times, a publication of Plan 9 Music. From time to time I will put up some of these reviews for posterity.]

Sun Ra  "The Journey Continues"

Atavistic Unheard Music


Leo/Golden Years

Sun Ra may well be the most misunderstood figure in jazz.  He certainly encouraged this, not only by his persona and outlandish stage appearance, with flowing robes and science fair headgear, but also of course by his insistence that he was born on Saturn.  Who's to say?  Or, to use Ra's own words, "If you came from somewhere here, why can't you go somewhere there?"  Part trickster, part shaman, part cult leader, Ra was perfectly serious, and yet coy at the same time, when he proclaimed, "Some call me Mr. Ra--Others call me Mr. Re--You can call me Mr. Mystery."  He is also misunderstood because he's hard to pigeonhole, both in the world of jazz, with its rigidly enforced definitions of style, and in the broader world of popular music.  You can find enough evidence in his recorded output to call his music swing, blues, bebop, modal, hard bop, classical, neo-conservative, avant-garde, experimental, funk, and even disco.

The thing is, his music is all these things.  And the cloak of mystery Ra drew around himself also served to obscure his very real and un-mysterious contributions to music.  Ten years after his death, Mr. Ra remains a mystery, but that's certainly part of the fun, especially as new recordings continue to come to light, adding to his already impressive legacy.  The three new releases dealt with here do little to dispel the enigma.  Even accounting for the kinds of changes a person could go though over the 30-year span covered by these recordings, it's hard to come to terms with the man behind such disparate releases.  How could the same person be a vocal pop-jazz and doo-wop arranger, a super-Afro Black Messiah blaxploitation movie star, and a sensitive, innovative piano stylist?

Hot on the heels of last year's Music from Tomorrow's World, John Corbett with his Unheard Music Series has unearthed another stellar batch of hitherto unknown Ra recordings.  Spaceship Lullaby documents Ra's vocal arrangement and piano accompanist work from 1955-1960 in Chicago with three different vocal groups, two of them vocal quartets:  the Nu Sounds, the Lintels, and the Cosmic Rays.  What a find!  One of the most revelatory aspects of The Singles (Evidence), a compilation of 45 RPMs released on Ra's Saturn label, was its documentation of his work with doo-wop groups in the 1950s.  Here for the first time is a home recording of Ra rehearsing a street doo-wop group, the Lintels.  These are the roughest songs on this CD, since the group is decidedly amateur and the least polished of the vocal groups.  The Nu Sounds, on the other hand, are more professional, if at times a bit schmaltzy (as on "Haunted Heart").  They are more in the pop-jazz vein than doo-wop per se.

The first 17 cuts on the CD are the Nu Sounds in 1955, backed only by Ra on piano and Robert Barry on drums, cruising through peppy standards like "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Holiday for Strings."  The most exciting songs by them are three Ra originals, two of them long known to Ra scholars but never known to be recorded.  "Black Sky & Blue Moon" is an a capella rendering of a doo-wop song that reappears later on the disc in a version by the Cosmic Rays.  "Spaceship Lullaby" is a boppish tune that includes vocal bits that would later reappear in "Rocket No. 9" and "Interplanetary Music."  "Chicago USA" was written for a theme song contest for the city.  With its time changes and modulating chords, it's one of the most advanced of the pieces here.  The selections featuring the Cosmic Rays, from the late 1950s, are unique to this CD in that they include backing by the entire Arkestra.  "Africa" is particularly notable for its integration of dissonant vocals and the mystical African jungle groove of the band.  "Black Sky & Blue Moon" gets the full band treatment, and it's a gorgeous rendering.

Besides their obvious historical interest as additions to Ra's oeuvre, these recordings are important because they demonstrate Ra's early work as arranger.  Arranging was a skill he'd been working on since the 1940s with Fletcher Henderson, Wynonie Harris, Red Saunders, and many others, and it was a skill out of which he would get much creative mileage as a bandleader with the Arkestra.  Spaceship Lullaby is a fascinating document of Ra's unique approach to jazz and doo-wop vocals.

Skip the '60s and jump to the '70s for the next two releases....and God bless the '70s!  No other decade could have supplied the kind of environment needed for the creation of the blaxploitation/science fiction/philosophical treatise feature film Space Is the Place.  Combining elements of (purposely) cheesy sci-fi movies, Ra's own esoteric Afrocentric philosophy, and "Sweet Sweetback," this is one strange, funny movie.  Filmed in Oakland, California, the movie disappeared from sight after its completion in 1974, only to resurface on video in the '90s.  Now Plexifilm has given it the deluxe treatment on DVD, with the director's cut in widescreen format with 20 restored minutes, and it's a hoot.  Not that there isn't a lot to take seriously--as director John Coney and producer Jim Newman reveal in a short interview included as an extra, although the basic plot and script were by someone else, Ra insisted on writing all of his own dialogue.  There's sporadic footage of the Arkestra performing, but for the most part the film sticks to the plot:  Sun Ra comes back to Earth from outer space (in a music-propelled spaceship that looks like a yellow doggie bone with eyes) to rescue African Americans from the planet (think about this in the context of the Black Panthers and Vietnam, with the draft capturing a disproportionate amount of African American youth).  Ra is chased and harassed by two bad guys from NASA who want to know the secret of his spaceship, and he's also engaged in a cosmic battle for black souls with a shady pimp known as the Overseer.

Some of the best scenes include Ra on another planet, in pseudo-Egyptian costume, and Ra being kidnapped by the bad guys (they tie him up and force him to listen to "Dixie" on headphones!).  Even though the Arkestra is only sporadically seen performing, Ra's music is in the soundtrack constantly, including much music not included on the soundtrack CD released on Evidence--which includes a lot of music not heard in the film.  Some of the best music actually heard in the film consists of wild synthesizer outings, which fit perfectly with the film's cosmic overtones.  Ra is in the movie a lot, and he really floats through it like a being from another planet.

For the most part, the movie is plot-driven.  Like many a rock movie, the climax of Space Is the Place is a concert--will Sun Ra escape from the clutches of NASA in time for the show?--but when it finally happens, not much music is performed there before mayhem breaks out.  On the one hand, it is frustrating not to have more concert footage of the band (there isn't that much from the '70s), but on the other hand, this is a strangely funny, engaging cult movie that holds up well outside of the context of the time in which it was made.  Also included on the DVD are about 15 minutes of silent home movies of the Arkestra in Egypt, dancing and playing in front of the pyramids.

The third release, Piano Recital (Teatro La Fenice, Venezia), is a solo piano concert performed by Sun Ra in Venice in late 1977.  This is Ra at his purest, at the peak of his powers.  If it wasn't clear from much of his output of the '70s, where he focused more on synthesizers and other electronic keyboards, this recording demonstrates once and for all that he was a formidable master of jazz piano.  After a free improvisatory opening, where he ranges from contemplative introspection to high classical posturing, he barrels though a program of hard blues, stride, space originals, boogie-woogie, and jazz standards, all played with authority, technique, and, most of all, swing.  It's nice to hear "Outer Spaceways, Inc." (usually done as a space chant with the Arkestra) played as an instrumental, with its melody broken apart and transmuted.  He accompanies his piano with vocals on "Angel Race."  Among the standards are such Ra perennials as "St. Louis Blues" and "Take the A Train," but the highlight has to be "Penthouse Serenade," a tour-de-force that clearly shows Ra's mastery of several jazz piano idioms, seamlessly woven together into a beautiful performance.

So, which of these is the real Sun Ra?  Well, there doesn't have to be just one, certainly, but after listening to an hour of his solo piano playing, it's easy to see how he could use the power of his music as a basis for a philosophy that promises a better, abstract world in space (inner space, perhaps).  Ra's music and beliefs continue to challenge and intrigue us with its possibilities.

2003-11-10 (Originally published in Nine Times, Dec/Jan. 2003/04)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Playlist, Week of 2014-02-09

Playlist 2014-02-10:

*Sergei Rachmaninoff: The Complete Recordings (disc 3)
*Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: Shadow Man
*Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet & 7-tette: Navigation (The Complete Firehouse 12 Recordings)
*Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: 2013-12 LP mix (wav)
*Miles Davis: The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (discs 2-4)
*Miles Davis Quintet: 1969-10-27 Rome (CDR)
*Miles Davis Quintet: 1969-11-02 London (CDR)
*Mary Halvorson: 2009-02-13 Roulette, NYC (CDR)
*Thelonious Monk: Paris 1969
*Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris: Testament: A Conduction Collection "Conduction 11, Where Music Goes"
*New Ting Ting Loft: 2014-01-27 “Threshold on Fever Town” (wav)
*Paradoxical Frog: 2011-06-10 Vision Festival, NYC (CDR)
*Matthew Shipp Duo with Roscoe Mitchell: 2-Z
*Sun Ra & His Astro-Infinity Arkestra: Other Strange Worlds (streaming)
*These Arches: 2010-11-19 Firehouse 12, New Haven CT (CDR)
*John Zorn: Enigmata
*Beatles: Anthology 1 (disc 1)
*Beatles: Unsurpassed Broadcasts, 2nd ed. (CDR) (disc 1)
*Circus Devils: My Mind Has Seen the White Trick
*Faust: C’est Com...Com...Complique
*Henry Cow: Industry (London 1978) (boot CDR)
*King Crimson: The Road to Red (discs 7, 8, 9)
*Paul McCartney: New
*Melody’s Echo Chamber: Melody’s Echo Chamber
*Dan Penn: The Fame Recordings
*Various artists: Enjoy the Experience: Homemade Records 1958-1992 (disc 1)
*Willis Earl Beal: Nobody Knows

Reading List, Week of 2014-02-09

Reading List 2014-02-10:

*Markson, David. Wittgenstein’s Mistress (started)
*Lewisohn, Mark. All These Years, Vol. 1: Tune In (Extended Special Ed.) (finished)
*Enjoy the Experience. Ed. Johan Kugelberg (in progress)
*Sterne, Laurence. A Sentimental Journey (in progress)
*Weldon, Michael J. Psychotronic Video Guide (in progress)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Measure of Time

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. --Nabokov, Speak, Memory (Putnam 1966), p. 19
I couldn’t let the week go by without acknowledging the event that took place fifty years ago, the event that has had such a profound impact on my life: the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I watched that first show, 8 years old and not even knowing how hungry I was for that music. Tonight we re-watched that show (and the two that came after it), and as always it was a revelation. The first show was weighed heavily toward Paul; he sings lead on three of the five songs they played, and John’s mic wasn’t loud enough at first. But John made up for it in Miami, where he absolutely nailed “This Boy.” He flubbed the first line right off the bat (“this” instead of “that”), but my god, the middle eight section: he sings it perfectly, with a passion and intensity so real and so revealing that he had to undermine it, which he attempted at song’s end, trying to make Paul laugh with a high-pitched aside. It didn’t work: that intensity and beauty remains and resonates even now, fifty years down the line. Goose bumps every time I hear it. I am so glad my brief crack of light, these past fifty years which have gone by in a flash, coincided with that of the Beatles.


[Elstir to Marcel:] “There is no man,” he began, “however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived a life, the memory of which is so unpleasant to him that he would gladly expunge it. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man--so far as it possible for any of us to be wise--unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations, by which that ultimate stage must be preceded.”
--Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove, p. 605 (Kilmartin/Enright transl.)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Reading Highlights for 2013

I realized that if I didn’t get this up soon, it’ll be 2015! So, here’s a quick rundown of what my reading highlights were for 2013.

The year started with a bang as I finished up rereading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I had started back in September 2012. One of the greatest novels of all time, and one of the funniest. My main regret is that my French isn’t good enough to read it in the original. (My wife would say that reading it in translation doesn’t count, but what ya gonna do? Not read it at all?) This time I read the Enright revision of the Kilmartin/Moncrieff translation, and it worked for me, flowing beautifully and not getting in the way. Once you get started with this, you get enthralled and it’s really hard to put down. I like the way John Williams puts it: with any great work, it doesn’t take very long to acclimate to Proust’s rhythms and idiosyncrasies. This is not to say the reading experience picks up steam. A nearly extinct brand of patience is required. The pages don’t start turning any faster; I’m just more and more content to be immersed in them. (John Williams, "Reading Proust: A First-Timer Dives In")
I first read Proust back in the early ‘80s, and, not surprisingly, many things have changed about me and my reactions to the novel the second time around. One thing was that since I already had a general idea of how things developed, the major plot twist and turns didn’t amaze me like they did the first time. That’s to be expected. What I didn’t expect, though, was my sense of how well-developed Albertine is as a female character. First time through, knowing as I did that Albertine was based on in part (and was a stand-in for) Proust’s chauffeur Albert Agostinelli, I felt she lacked something as a woman, although that didn’t bother me because I understood (or thought I did) that it was really a homosexual relationship being presented. I so underestimated Proust as a novelist. This time through, I could appreciate (or I think I did) the steps Proust took to ensure that Albertine stands alone outside the hidden context, and further, that she exists on her own very female terms. I am undoubtedly not explaining this as well as could be done, but after all, this is a blog, not a term paper.

Another aspect of the novel that surprised me upon reprise was my strong sympathy for Charlus. I was repelled by him the first time around, but now I sympathized with his plight, and I felt ashamed for Marcel the narrator when he so rudely rejects Charlus. In fact, the whole novel wrenched me up all over again, even though I had a hard time abiding Marcel’s selfish insularity and self-centeredness when it came to Albertine (and to others scattered throughout the book). The first time through, I was much more sympathetic to his jealousy and need of control.

The major publishing event of the year for me was, of course, Pynchon’s new novel Bleeding Edge. Even though I was a bit disappointed, I also know his writing well enough to know that there’s way more to it than what you get on first reading. I’m tired of the clever-strong-likeable-female-falling-for-fascistic-asshole plot point (a strong Pynchon motif in, at least, Vineland, Inherent Vice, and Against the Day). I didn’t totally buy it that Maxine would go so far as to strip and pole dance just to find a certain computer geek at a club--I felt like it was more of an excuse for Pynchon to use the clever club name Joie de Beavre (which, granted, is pretty damn funny).  Never before have I felt that a whole episode of Pynchon’s novels existed solely to be a set-up and not for other reasons as well. Here, it didn’t add anything to the plot that couldn’t have happened otherwise.

All that said, there were many, many moments of pure brilliance in the novel, from Pynchon’s understated depiction of New York City post-911, to his character Speedwell Conkling, a client with a nose for trouble. It was wonderful to return to Pynchon’s world of words. As Jonathan Lethem puts it in his excellent review: “Our reward for surrendering expectations that a novel should gather in clarity, rather than disperse into molecules, isn’t anomie but delight.”

Besides Lethem’s there are two other strong reviews of Bleeding Edge worth seeking out: Michael Chabon’s and Joshua Cohen’s. All three are gathered in one place at the Bleeding Edge wiki. I’m sure I missed way more than I got from a first reading. I’ll get back to it again after revisiting Against the Day.


I really enjoyed Volume 2 of critic and editor Steven Moore’s ongoing history of the novel, The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600-1800. Volume 1 (Beginnings to 1600) was a revelation. Based on his interpretation of the Webster definition of the novel as “a book-length work of fiction,” Moore widely expands the scope and breadth of most literary histories, dealing with works appearing centuries before where most literary histories designate as the start of the novel (say, Tale of Genji or Don Quixote or Pamela). The introduction on its own is well worth reading.

Volume 2 (1600-1800) continues the revelations, although Moore does admit he had to scale back in order to include more of what he’s most interested in, the experimental and the innovative (not surprising given his groundbreaking work on Gaddis). As it is, he cranks through pithy, entertaining commentary on hundreds of novels from all over the world. This is the kind of book that requires having an ongoing list nearby to keep track of everything I must read. Here’s my list of novels to investigate from Vol. 2 alone:

Grimmelhausen, Hans Jakob Christoph von. Simplicissimus (tr. Mike Mitchell) Dedalus, 1999
Richter, Jean Paul. 
1. Invisible Lodge (tr. Charles Brooks, 1883)
2. Hesperus (tr. Charles Brooks, 1865)
3. Flower, Fruit, and Thorn Pieces, etc. (tr. Brooks 1877)
4. Titan (tr. Brooks, 1862)
Sorel, Charles. Critical edition of The Comical History of Francion (1655). Tr. John Wright. Chicago
   Spectrum, 2005
Challe, Robert.  Love and Laughter in the Reign of Louis XIV (The Illustrious French Lovers), tr. 
    Preston, Book Guild, 2008
Marivaux, Pierre. Pharsamond,  tr. Lockman (1743)
Marivaux, Pierre. The Life of Marianne, tr. Lockman? (1750)
Diderot. Jacques the Fatalist and His Master. Tr. Coward, Oxford 1999
Maistre, Xavier de. Voyage around My Room (tr. Sartarelli, New Directions 1994)
Lu Tiancheng. Embroidered Couch. tr. Lenny Hu, 2001
Tung Yueh. Tower of Myriad Mirrors. tr. Shuen-fu Lin & Larry Schulz. Asian Hum. Press. 1978. 2nd  
     ed: U Mich., 2000. Prefer 1st ed. (it is more complete)
Kim Manjung. Kuunmong: The Cloud Dream of the Nine. Tr. Rutt & Kim Chong-un, in Virtuous
     Women: Three Masterpieces of Traditional Korean Fiction. UNESCO, 1974.
Tamenaga Shunsui. Love’s Calendar. Tr. Woodhull. In “Romantic Edo fiction” (PhD diss., Stanford, 
Swift, Jonathan. Tale of a Tub. ed. Walsh. Cambridge, 2010
History of Charlotte Summers. London: Charles Corbett, 1749 [anonymous]
Beckford, William. Vathek (tr. Henley, Marzials)
Adventures of Jonathan Corncob, Loyal American Refugee [anonymous] Godine, 1976 
Brown, Charles Brockden. Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker (Library of America)

The highlights of this volume were many, and I’ll mention just two: his lengthy essay on Don Quixote (which also appeared as a separate article here), and the masterful essay on Tristram Shandy--what a way to wrap up the 18th century!

You can find an excellent interview with Steven Moore on his project here.

Let’s see… what were the other high reading points for me in 2013? I decided to reread all of the Ian Fleming James Bond novels. That was great fun. My favorites were Moonraker and Diamonds Are Forever

I finally got around to reading the magnificent Recording the Beatles, by Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan, a masterwork of recording detail and audio gadgetry that’s the best description ever of the technical (and magical) work of George Martin and the team at EMI. It’s the ideal companion to Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, with more than you’d ever want to know about reverb, flanging, ADT, and multitrack recording.

I reread Shakespeare’s Tempest in two different editions (Arden second series and Arden third), then watched (and thoroughly enjoyed) the Julie Taymore film with Helen Mirren as Prospero (er, Prospera).

Finally, another novel that really resonated with me was Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars.  A poetically brilliant rendering of a post-apocalyptic world and a meditation on the purpose of life, Dog Stars was just beautifully written. I’d like to close with a passage at length. The main character, Hig, is flying his plane over the mountains, thinking about the past:

Winter Park and the Fraser Valley revealing itself on the other side as we go over. Scores of ski trails tender green against the rust of the dead forests. We used to ski there. The last time Melissa and I split up for a run and I rode next to a big man who said he was here for winter break with a church group from Nebraska. Nondenominational.

We just follow the Bible word for word he said. Word for word you can’t go wrong. Shook his head nice smile. I’d be crazy to disbelieve him.

I thought of stones in a river, rock hopping. One rock to the next, nothing to think about. Word for word. Just follow them, man. Breadcrumbs right to God. Sitting the chair next to him, our skis dangling over sixty feet of air, I thought Maybe there is a different translation for meek. Maybe it’s not the meek who inherit, maybe it is the simple. Not will inherit the earth, they already own it.

I told him I always got stuck at the Begats. I said I had just read Lamentations though and it seemed like Mad Max. I mean women eating their babies, everybody dying.

He didn’t laugh.

He said, I try to stay on the Right Side of the Bible. Left side was written by Jews. Some things to pay attention to, I guess, but if I were you I’d start with John.

We should all have paid more attention to the Left Side I am thinking now. The Wrong Side, the Side Where Shit Goes Really Really Wrong. (p. 157)

Monday, February 3, 2014

Playlist, Week of 2014-02-02

Playlist 2014-02-03:

*Arcana: Arc of the Testimony
*Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: 2013-12-23 Nashville (wav)
*Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: 2013-12-27 Nashville (wav)
*Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: 2013-12 LP mix (wav)
*Miles Davis Quintet: 1969-07-07 Central Park, NYC (CDR)
*Miles Davis: The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (disc 1)
*Mary Halvorson Septet: Illusionary Sea
*Joseph Jarman/Don Moye/Don Pullen: The Magic Triangle
*David Murray and the Gwo Ka Masters: The Devil Tried to Kill Me
*New Ting Ting Loft: 2013-09-30 “Random Parameters” (wav)
*New Ting Ting Loft: 2013-12-02 “Not Breaking the 43-Minute Barrier” (CDR)
*Art Pepper: Laurie's Choice
*Tom Rainey Trio: 2012-12-30 Brooklyn NY (CDR)
*Tom Rainey Trio: 2013-10-19 Brooklyn NY (CDR)
*Matthew Shipp Quartet: Critical Mass
*Subtle Body Transmission Orchestra: 2013-10-05 Sonic Circuits Festival, Washington DC (wav)
*Sun Ra/Beach Boys: Sunburnt Boys (cassette compilation)
*Sun Ra: A Fireside Chat with Lucifer (side 1)
*Sun Ra Arkestra: Live at the Red Garter
*Cecil Taylor/Tristan Honsinger/Evan Parker: The Hearth
*Scott Brookman: Smellicopter
*Elvis Costello and The Roots: Wise Up Ghost
*Martin Denny: Exotica
*Guided By Voices: Let’s Go Eat the Factory
*Guided By Voices: The Bears for Lunch
*Guided By Voices: English Little League
*Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival
*Henry Cow: Live on Radio Bremen 1978 (boot CDR)
*Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: Give the People What They Want
*King Crimson: The Road to Red (discs 4, 5, 6)
*Stock, Hausen, & Walkman: Organ Transplants Vol. 1
*Teenage Guitar: Force Fields at Home

Reading List, Week of 2014-02-02

Reading List 2014-02-03:

*Enjoy the Experience. Ed. Johan Kugelberg (started)
*Sterne, Laurence. A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (started)
*Lewisohn, Mark. All These Years, Vol. 1: Tune In (Extended Special Ed.) (in progress)
*Weldon, Michael J. Psychotronic Video Guide (in progress)