We make a big deal out of David Bowie’s multiple musical personalities, but what about Sun Ra?
He’s an avant-gardist, but his catalogue also embraces pop: doo-wop, swing, and, sincerely, Disney showtunes. At the same time, some digging will reveal stuff that’s beyond even the usual scope of free jazz, like the sparse group improvisation “The Magic City” or the album Strange Strings, where Arkestra members improvise on exotic stringed instruments they hadn’t yet learned how to play.
Volunteering at KZSU gave me exposure to some of this music, and now I can explore it even further. A wealth of Sun Ra material came online this fall, available on Bandcamp and eMusic. In fact, it’s overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start.
Diving in almost at random, I gave a listen to Other Voices, Other Blues, a 1978 live session with John Gilmore on tenor sax and Michael Ray on trumpet. There’s no bass; Sun Ra provides basslines with his keyboards while Luqman Ali holds down the drum kit.
The 1970s synthesizers can be a dated distraction on tracks like “Bridge on the Ninth Dimension,” but all is forgiven when a Gilmore/Ray free-for-all emerges later. Even under the fluorescent glow of synths, that’s some heart-warming free jazz there.
One track that really caught my ear was “Along the Tiber,” a more traditional jazz piece. I think it was a matter of encountering that song at just the right time and mood for me; it clicked. That Sun Ra sticks to acoustic piano on this one helped.
I’ll probably delve into the 1978 funk of Lanquidity next. That album got re-released on CD by Evidence Music in 2001, part of a small Sun Ra block that was sent to us at KZSU. I never gave it the attention it deserved, and I can say that for a lot of Sun Ra’s catalogue.
The strategy remains the same: High-energy improvisations that mix classical precision with free-jazz-like abandon. Dialectical Imaginations is the piano-drums duo of Eli Wallace and Rob Pumpelly, both hammering away ecstatically.
The new album, which officially releases on Christmas Day, can be pre-ordered on Bandcamp. And on a personal note — it’s hard to find good music shows during the holidays, so I’m glad to see the Octopus cafe in Oakland booking these guys for the day after Christmas.
The Angel and the Brute Sing Songs of Wrath is full of lengthy high-energy segments, but it’s not just random bashing. Both players execute a deliberate accuracy even when they’re bashing away — as on “Autopoietica I,” which combines a flurry of piano sticklers with some stormy drums.
“Autopoietica II” shows off the duo’s more subtle side. It’s still full of bombast, but at lower intensity, with Wallace splashing fluidly around the keyboard and Pumpelly battering furiously but quietly at the toms. The piece ends with a slower movement, with the kind of drama that evokes the crashing ocean surf.
“Strength and Presence” is where the “wrath” really kicks in — a 13-minute musical attack, with both players relentlessly filling space. It’s a signature moment, albeit a long one.
The track that’s available for early sampling on Bandcamp is “Hatchling,” which builds from a quiet opening where Wallace’s jazz influences, including possibly Cecil Taylor, are more clearly on display.
(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)
I might have been the first mail-order customer for Tim Berne’s Screwgun Records, only because I couldn’t accept an invitation to drop by his house.
Screwgun is Berne’s second record label. He’d cut his teeth on Empire Records starting in 1979, having learned from the example of Julius Hemphill. In 1996, he was ready to give it another go.
He started with Bloodcount Unwound, a gloriously DIY effort: three CDs in a cardboard package with a gloriously insane fold-up card that combines credits, track listings, and a vegan cookie recipe by Jim Black. Artist Steve Byram‘s fingerprints are all over this thing.
I was in New York some weeks prior to Unwound‘s release, and I struck up a conversation with Berne after a gig — at the old Knitting Factory, I think. He was talking about getting a mail-order label started, with a live Bloodcount album as the first release. “But you know,” he said, “you could just drop by my house tomorrow and pick one up.”
Two problems. First: Berne lives in Brooklyn. Being new to the New York experience, I was nervous about wandering outside Manhattan, not out of snobbery, but because we didn’t have GPS devices and cellphone maps back then. Stepping a few blocks off the grid to find the Knitting Factory was disorienting enough; I didn’t think I stood a chance at navigating Brooklyn.
More importantly, I had a flight to catch the next day. I theoretically had time, but — I would have to find Berne’s house in one try, then find a cab (I was savvy enough to assume Brooklyn wouldn’t be swarming with them), and hope for forgiving traffic along the slog to JFK.
I honestly considered it. But with my trip nearing its end, the grown-up in me took over. I declined.
I don’t recall what happened next, but most likely, Tim provided me instructions for mailing a check. (Berne had no website at the time, and online credit-card processing wasn’t in the hands of most DIY types anyway.) Some time later, Bloodcount Unwound found its way to our little townhouse in San Jose.
Unwound is the best of the Bloodcount albums, capturing the band at their fiery peak. “These recordings were not produced!” the liner notes proudly proclaim. (In the photo above, it’s at the top, near the center.) Berne essentially bootlegged his own concerts with a DAT recorder — another practice that’s commonplace today but seemed forward-thinking in 1996.
The new tracks on the album were a treat, but I also enjoyed hearing older pieces like “What Are the Odds?” and “Bro’ball” (a combination of “Broken” and “Lowball” from the 1993 trio album Loose Cannon). You get all the subtleties of Bloodcount’s long improvisational phases as well as moments of sheer, oversaturating power, particularly from Jim Black’s drums. Check out “Mr. Johnson’s Blues:”
This is what happens when a band gets familiar with each other in a good way. If you want to learn why this band remains so popular, Unwound is the place to look.
My recollection is that Unwound‘s original run of 2,000 sold out, and Berne eventually printed more. DIY CDs were looking like a promising business model for independent musicians.
But for Berne and other musicians, that dream would be chipped away in the coming years, first by piracy (despite what pop-music fans seem to think, “touring” isn’t a substitute for selling records) and more recently by the paltry royalties of streaming services. Berne found haven in the form of an ECM contract — in fact, his Snakeoil band has a new album that I’m overdue to pick up.