Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Member of the Angel Race

Well, I seem to have started one of my periodic Sun Ra jags - digging out album after album and reminding myself of how incredible this music is. The first Sun Ra album I bought was the Impulse reissue of The Magic City, from 1965. I don't know exactly how old I was, but I think that I was still a teenager. It got to me right away. I knew I was listening to another way of making music than I had experienced before - the music was based on a different aesthetic.

There are plenty of reason why a discerning listener might not like the music of Sun Ra. His music often has a campy, showbiz flavor - albeit from a pretty bizarre angle. His rhythm (and that of his ensembles) is sometimes lumpy/clunky. At times the sections of his large bands played with poor intonation and blend, making the listener wonder what went on at those legendary hours-long rehearsals. And his keyboard style, although it revealed formidable technique, was often offbeat and skittery.

But the impact of Sun Ra's music defies rational criticism. It's more than the sum of it's parts, and that's due to Ra's vision. The music is unusual, deep, accomplished, amateurish, serious, and campy - sometimes all at the same time.

The scope of Ra's recorded output is vast and somewhat baffling. Although he made albums for others, most of his records came out on his own label, Saturn (with its Thoth Intergalactic and Repeto subsidiaries). The release strategy and documentation Ra employed were unusual, to say the least. As I write this, Sound Sun Pleasure!! is playing in the CD player. This album of mostly standards was recorded in 1958, but not released until 1970, when the Sun Ra Arkestra (as he called his band) was playing a completely different style. It must have thoroughly confused those who bought the album at his concerts - the main distribution method for Saturn releases. Furthermore, the personnel list on the back of the album is bogus - Ra just listed a bunch of musicians that were in his band at the time the record was released, most of whom weren't playing with him in 1958. And the version of "Enlightenment" on this album had already been released (in a slightly different mix) on Jazz in Silhouette. This kind of discographical chaos is par for the course for Ra and Saturn - some pressings even paired side one of an album with side two of another.

The almost 850 pages of Robert Campbell and Christopher Trent's The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (2nd edition) make sense of this mess. It's a remarkable book, given the daunting task of sorting out Ra's recordings. I wish it had been around during that brief period in the early 1980s when Rounder Records distributed the Saturn label. One evening I walked into a suburban Atlanta record store and found that the jazz section had a dozen or so Saturn releases with hand-decorated covers. I didn't know much about the Saturn catalog at the time and was confused and uncertain about which records to get, so I walked out without buying anything. I wish I had just grabbed a few at random - they are all rare collector's items today.

What accounts for the impact of Sun Ra's music? Well, for one thing, it is often probing and forward-looking - music "on the edge," as Steve Lacy put it. Ra was a musical explorer who continually tried to push his musicians and himself into unknown territories. As early as 1955, an obscure piece called "Piano Interlude" (eventually released on Deep Purple and on the Evidence reissue of Sound Sun Pleasure!!) reveals a searching, advanced musical imagination, unlike any other in jazz. The piece is built on quartal harmony (chords built on fourths rather than thirds) at first, but flirts more and more with pantonality and atonality as it progresses. Not many jazz musicians were exploring this territory in 1955 - Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor come to mind, but Ra has his own voice and doesn't sound like either of them.

Sun Ra frequently wrote modal pieces in the 1950s - several years before Kind of Blue brought modalism to the forefront of jazz development. By the middle of the 1960s, Ra was creating music completely devoid of tonal center and metered rhythm. Others were doing the same (Cecil Taylor again comes to mind, as does Albert Ayler), but Ra's music is once again very different. Most so-called "free jazz" is still recognizable as jazz because it retains the intensity and forward motion of jazz. But The Magic City and Heliocentric Worlds are different - sounds drift in and out of focus; instruments combine and diverge; the speed and intensity of the music changes frequently. Much of the music from this period can be seen more as the presentation of a kaleidoscopic series of events than of a linear narrative. In that sense it has more in common with Stockhausen or Varese than with conventional jazz.

Ra was also "on the edge" with his use of electronics. He experimented with the Solovox, an early, monophonic electric keyboard, before 1950. He was an early adopter of the Wurlitzer electric piano - hear his 1956 solo piece "Advice to Medics," about which his longtime tenor saxophonist John Gilmore said, "There was a period when, if I was not practicing, I would be listening to that song. There's so much beauty and thought in there." In the mid 1960s he was using instruments like the Rocksicord and Clavioline, and by the end of the decade he had somehow gotten hold of one of the first Moog synthesizers. He seems to have instantly grasped the latter instrument's strengths and limitations; the five solo Moog pieces on My Brother the Wind, Volume II are a beautiful summary of the Moog's possiblities.

But at the same time, Ra kept one foot firmly planted in the music's heritage. Even during his most extreme period, much of his music was intended to swing in a conventional jazz sense, and he never totally abandoned standards as source material. Beginning in the 1970s, he revisited the repertoire of Fletcher Henderson, for whom he did some arranging in Chicago 30 years earlier. For the rest of his career, "Big John's Special," "Queer Notions," and "Can You Take It" frequently showed up in his concerts.

I haven't heard all of Sun Ra's recorded output, and I doubt that few, if any folks have heard it all. But I've heard a lot of it, including most of what are considered his "major" works. One of the striking things about this body of work is that no two albums, even no two pieces, sound alike. Music of great complexity, music of utter simplicity, carefully composed pieces, totally improvised pieces, large bands, small ensembles - they all exist side by side in Ra's world. Of the vast omniverse of Sun Ra's recordings, here are half a dozen of my favorites:

Interstellar Low Ways (also known as Rocket Number Nine Take Off For the Planet Venus (1959/1960) - My favorite early Sun Ra, with gorgeous pieces like "Interstellar Low Ways" and "Space Loneliness" alongside the cool/campy "Interplanetary Music" and "Rocket Number Nine Take Off For the Planet Venus." The latter tune has a tenor solo by John Gilmore that was ahead of its time and which justifies Coltrane's interest in Gilmore during this period.

The Magic City (1965) - The title cut takes up all of side one of the vinyl album - it's monumental and mysterious. The other side contains an early version of the intense "The Shadow World," a piece Ra recorded several times and played from the early sixties to the end of his career. Atlantis and Heliocentric Worlds (Volumes 1 & 2) cover similar ground and are equally fine.

My Brother the Wind, Volume II (1969/1970) - Half prescient synthesizer etudes; half swinging organ-based jazz.

Disco 3000 (1978) - From an Italian tour with a quartet - John Gilmore, Michael Ray on trumpet, and Luqman Ali on drums. Ra was using a Crumar keyboard with a built-in drum machine and programmable bass lines; he used it to create incredible swirls of sound over intense rhythms.

A Fireside Chat With Lucifer (1982) - This album contains the first appearance of the swing/funk anthem "Nuclear War," as well as some free improvisations that can only be described as eloquent. Good luck finding this one - it's never been reissued, although "Nuclear War" has appeared on other albums.

Mayan Temples (1990) - An excellent latter-day recital from Ra, with atonal improvisations, pop standards, modal exotica, and Ra classics like "El is a Sound of Joy."

There's so much more to write/talk about with Sun Ra - the incredible musicians like John Gilmore and Marshall Allen who played with him for years, his poetry, his apprenticeship years, his adoption of Disney songs into his repertoire late in life. But what about the whole outer space thing - did he really believe that he was sent to earth from outer space to save the planet through music, or was it just a showbiz act? He sang, "I know that I'm a member of the angel race; my home is somewhere there out in outer space." My feeling is that it was an act that became more and more real to him as the years passed.

In any case, exploring Ra's music is like traveling through a spiral galaxy. The deeper you get into it, the more you learn. You "see" the music from different angles and grasp more and more of it, although you realize that you'll never totally have a handle on it. But it's a great journey.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Virtual Jazz Tour of New Orleans

It's that time of year again. About halfway through February every year I start pining for New Orleans, that city where I've never lived, but which somehow feels like home to me. So I decided to give myself a virtual tour of my favorite city.

Lately I've been fooling around with Google Maps, particularly the Street View function. If you're not familiar with Street View, here's how it works. Go to Google Maps, zoom in on a location (close enough to distinguish individual streets), then click and drag the yellow humanoid figure at the top left, above the scroll bar. If any streets on your map are available in Street View, they will be highlighted in blue. Drop the little yellow guy onto a street, and the view will change to a panoramic, scrollable, street-level scene. It's an amazing technological achievement, as well as being somewhat creepy, in a Big Brother kind of way.

But it enabled me to "visit" some of my favorite jazz-related spots from 500 miles away. You can reproduce my tour here. I advise that you right-click on each link and open it in a new tab or window, so that you can easily find your way back here. At each location, you can pan, scroll down the street, zoom in, or zoom out. I encourage you to move your view around to get a sense of the neighborhood for each location. You'll figure it out.

We'll start where, in a sense, American music itself started: Congo Square. Before the Civil War, African musical traditions were kept alive during weekly Sunday gatherings of slaves ("generously" allowed by their owners). These meetings were centered around drumming, singing, and dancing. This shaded area is now part of Armstrong Park; you'll see the old Municipal Auditorium in the background. It's just past the edge of the French Quarter, toward the lake. (Directions in New Orleans are commonly given as "Lakeside, Riverside, Downtown, Uptown" instead of "North, South, East, West.") History hangs heavily in the air here, as it does in many spots in New Orleans. Here is the view from North Rampart Street.

If we go to the Downtown edge of Congo Square, by the main entrance to Armstrong Park, then cross Rampart at St. Ann, we'll be at Donna's. Donna's is a little bar with incredible music - brass bands, traditional jazz, modern jazz, and all combinations of the above. It's one of my favorite places to hear music in the city. That's the entrance to the park across the street.

From Donna's we'll head Uptown on Rampart Street. South Rampart Street marks the slightly seedy edge of the Central Business District, and passes through Louis Armstrong's old stomping grounds - a pretty rough neighborhood a century ago, but one with plenty of great music. On the right, at the corner of Rampart and Perdido, is the building which once housed the Eagle Saloon; it still looks solid and formidable. Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson, and Sidney Bechet all played here.

Continuing down South Rampart, there's a lonely-looking building on the left. Now a law firm, this was once the Red Onion, a tavern immortalized by the Red Onion Jazz Babies, a recording band featuring Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. They both played here during their New Orleans days.

Further uptown we enter one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans. At the turn of the 20th century, though, it was a middle-class, mixed-race neighborhood, and was home to Charles "Buddy" Bolden, reputedly the first musician to put together the strands of ragtime, blues, and spirituals in such a way that a new music was formed. Here's the view from the corner of Libery and 1st; the Bolden home is behind the big tree. A few feet further down 1st, we can turn around for a good view of Buddy Bolden's house. The house has deteriorated noticeably in the 20 years I have been visiting New Orleans.

St. Charles Avenue follows the curve of the river uptown. One of its major cross streets is Napoleon Avenue, and almost at the end of Napoleon, where it runs into Tchoupitoulas , you'll find Tipitina's, the famous club that was started for a simple reason: to give the late Professor Longhair a place to play. They feature all kinds of music, and most of it is worth hearing.

If you continue down St. Charles, you'll reach its end - you can't go any further without swimming in the Mississippi. Take a right on Carrollton, and you'll end up the the neighborhood of the same name, formerly a separate town. It seems sleepy and slow, even for New Orleans, but the Maple Leaf in the heart of Carrollton is anything but sleepy, especially on Tuesday nights, when the Rebirth Brass Band is in residence. The brilliant, troubled pianist James Booker was a frequent performer here.

After visiting Carrollton, we'll head way back Downtown, to Frenchmen Street in Marigny, past the French Quarter. Frenchmen Street has become the musical center of New Orleans, with a bunch of great clubs - d.b.a., The Blue Nile, etc. But the Cadillac of New Orleans Jazz Clubs is Snug Harbor, where you might hear Ellis Marsalis, Astral Project, Charmaine Neville, or a big name from out of town. If you leave this elegant club, you can cross the street to my favorite New Orleans dive, the Spotted Cat, an amiable dump where you can hear the fabulous Panorama Jazz Band, as well as other talented local musicians.

Further up Frenchmen, at the corner of North Robertson, you'll find the home of Jelly Roll Morton. Like some of the other historic structures in the city, this house has seen better days. This neighborhood was hit pretty hard by Katrina, and many of the houses are in rough shape.

Time to hit the French Quarter - an amazing place, full of incredible architecture, great food, tacky tourist stuff, and bars that never close. These days it's not really the most interesting part of the city for music, though. But I love walking around the quiet part of the Quarter, where Danny Barker was born in a substantial brick house on Chartres Street. There is a nice plaque on the house commemorating its heritage, unlike at the other homes of famous jazzmen in the city.

Around the corner and up a couple of block, you'll find George Lewis's house - it's the orange house with green shutters. I'm sure that Lewis paid next to nothing to rent this place in the 1940s, but it's probably worth a small fortune now. Many of Bunk Johnson's best American Music recordings were made here, and the first New Orleans brass band recording session was held in the back yard in 1945.

We'll make the last stop Preservation Hall on St. Peter Street - it has been my last stop many evenings. Depending on your outlook, the Hall is a tourist spot to be avoided, or it's holy ground. I lean toward the latter viewpoint. Even though my first visit was in 1990, when many jazzheads already considered Preservation Hall to be past its prime, I have heard Percy and Willie Humphrey, Kid Shiek, Narvin Kimball, Jeannette Kimball, Chester Zardis, Tuba Fats, Frog Joseph, and Harold DeJean, among others, in the cramped, uncomfortable confines of the Hall.

I hope you enjoyed the tour, which really only scratched the surface. If you've never been to New Orleans, go! There is much more to the city than Bourbon Street - you can hear incredible music every night of the year.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Magic of Mediocre Monk

Which album is Thelonious Monk's best? Brilliant Corners, Monk's Music, or a collection of his best Blue Note sides would all be reasonable nominees for that honor. Maybe the fairly recent issue of the Carnegie Hall concert with Coltrane is a contender. I know of a few knowledgeable listeners who rate 5 By Monk By 5 above all other Monk albums. But I don't think anyone would place the Columbia album simply called Monk. at the top of the Monkian heap.

And I agree - Monk. (the period is part of the title) is not only not Monk's best album, it's not really even near the top of Monk's Columbia output, which most listeners don't consider on the same level as the Blue Note or Riverside recordings. Without thinking about it very hard, I would put Monk's Dream, Big Band and Quartet in Concert, and Underground from the Columbia catalog above Monk., and on reflection would probably consider other Columbia albums superior to Monk.

But I've listened to Monk. several times in the last few days, and am struck with the realization that even this lesser Monk effort is a magical thing, full of striking moments. The record was made in 1964 by Monk's working quartet of the time, including longtime musical companion Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, Ben Riley on drums, and Larry Gales on bass, except on "Teo." That track was recorded seven months earlier than the rest of the album; Butch Warren was the bassist - a fact which wasn't noted on the original album, and is still not mentioned on my 2002 reissue.

Monk. is unusual in that it contains more pop standards than Monk originals - there are only two of the latter. Monk opens the album with his imaginative reharmonization of Gershwin's "Liza;" Rouse's brilliant solo here justifies Monk's loyalty to a saxophonist some critics never thought was musician enough to hang with Monk. "April in Paris," a tune Monk recorded at least seven times, follows. My favorite moment is Monk's last chord, a thick cluster sustained until it fades away. Another standard, "I Love You," is played solo in Monk's best stride-piano-on-acid style. There are two originals, an old one ("Pannonica," written in 1956) and a brand-new one ("Teo"). I don't think anyone would claim that "Teo" is classic Monk, but this deceptively simple tune has some nice, unusual touches.

I'm glad we have the Blue Notes, the Prestige recordings, and the Riversides, but I'm also glad we have albums like Monk. The title of this post is only to be taken seriously in context; if Monk. is mediocre, it's only in comparison to his masterpieces. If this was somehow the only recording we had by an obscure pianist/composer named Thelonious Monk, we'd still know that he was something special.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wlder Concert Report

Last Saturday's Evening With Alec Wilder was more to less successful in these aspects:

Audience response: The smallish hall was packed - we had to put out more chairs. The audience was attentive and appreciative - they even laughed or exclaimed at my Alec Wilder stories. The most gratifying aspect of the event was the number of people who came up with some variation of "Thank you for introducing me to Alec Wilder." They even called for an encore. We didn't have anything prepared, but if I had had the presence of mind, we could have played the last two minutes of "All the Cats Join In" again.

Musical quality: Kind of a mixed bag. There were some really good moments, but nerves took their toll to an extent. If we had a couple of more performances, we could really have things smoking. C'est la vie.

Finances: Well, I didn't lose too much money. I wish I could have paid the musicians more, but at least everybody got something. How does anybody make any money promoting good music?

Anyway, the final tally is on the positive side of the ledger, as far as I'm concerned. Maybe we'll make the Atlanta Alec Wilder concert an annual event. In the meantime, there are some pictures - and more importantly, a few mp3 clips from the concert - here. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Alec Wilder in Atlanta

I'm taking a break from folding programs for the Alec Wilder concert I'm presenting this Saturday night. It's a strange thing - like a campaign staff on election night, I suppose. Ben, my bassist and close friend, reminded me the other night that I've been talking about putting on a concert of Wilder's music for 15 years. About three years ago I started to really pin down repertoire and got that great Atlanta clarinetist, Sandy Wade, to agree to perform the Clarinet Sonata. Various obstacles slowed things down for a year or two, but the pace of the planning picked up about a year ago. We started rehearsing about six months ago, with intensive rehearsals for the past three months. Our final rehearsal made me think we timed the pace just right - the music flowed easily, but still seemed fresh. With a little luck, it could be a really good concert.

But two days out, who really knows? And I have no clear picture of how many people might show up to hear us. And in terms of preparation or publicity, there's not a whole lot more that can be done now. It's going to be what it's going to be. But those of you who are close to Atlanta on Saturday, Feb. 6 are urged to drop by the First Existentialist Congregation (The Old Stone Church - 470 Candler Park Drive) at 8:00 for what should be an interesting and unusual concert. You'll hear some of the best musicians in Atlanta (Scott Hooker, Janna Nelson, Sandy Wade, Ben Gettys, Keith Leslie, Dan Clemenz) and me present some of Alec Wilder's greatest pop, jazz, and classical pieces. Bring ten bucks.