Scott Thomson / Bill Smith / Evan Parker / Ornette Coleman / Archie SheppJuly 17, 2011
Edited by Daniel Kernohan
Traveling the Spaceways
Sun Ra, the Astro Black and other Solar Myths Paper
Edited by John Corbett, Anthony Elms and Terri Kapsalis
White Walls/University of Chicago Press
To be informative and useful, books on music must be conceived of through a combination of enthusiasm and expertise. Too much of the former and the publication slides into salivating hagiography; too much of the later and it becomes a dry, pedagogical discourse. Luckily both these volumes avoid the obvious pitfalls, but there are times when extraneous or superfluous material affects both.
More ambitious, Music Is Rapid Transportation attempts to create a guide to recordings which its seven authors deem important to understand out-of-the-ordinary music. Sun Ra, the Astro Black and other Solar Myths on the other hand, is a compendium of information about enigmatic band leader Ra via scholarship, reminiscences and art.
All Canadian-based, though from different parts of the country, Transportation’s contributors discovered music was the chief motivating factor in their lives around the same time – their early teens. That this was variously in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, a time frame which affected what sorts of sounds they heard and appreciated; as did the availability of, in almost all cases LPs in their particular locations. All are, as Daniel Kernohan points out in his introduction, music collectors who still revel in the vast availability of recorded sounds.
That they all staked their claims to identity on non-mainstream music is the most interesting part of the volume, and it is expressed in first-person accounts of their journey from music fans to music expert/obsessive’s. Along the way each offers insights on accepting new music, whether he came to it as a musician, like Toronto-born trombonist Scott Thomson, now based in Montreal; as a photographer/writer/musician in the case of Bill Smith, a Londoner turned Torontonian who now lives on British Columbia’s Hornby Island; as an festival administrator in London who went into academe in Ottawa and Toronto as did Scots-born Alan Stanbridge; or as committed fans who follow other careers, which is what unites Montreal’s Lawrence Joseph, Toronto’s Dan Lander and Donal McGrath and White Rock, B.C.’s Vern Weber.
Familiarly enough each, along with his friends started off listening to whatever was the pop music of the day, including Hip Hop and Jazz-Rock fusion, then moved on to delve into literature about different musics and eventually began buying records on spec. None have completely abandoned more popular music, but now all are most interested in so-called experimental or avant-garde sounds. During the course of the essays not only are the challenges that go into following non-mainstream music outlined, but also the identical slow realization that came to most of them that these sounds will never have mass appeal. As Thompson notes after his musical epiphany was acknowledged: “It dawned on me that I simply wasn’t listening to music the same way my peers were … I pretty naively assumed that since I was overwhelmed by the raw beauty of John Lee Hooker for example, that all my friends would be too.”
Instead, rather than, as many so-called classical and pop music fans do, rejecting sounds because they don’t fit into preconceived slots, each of these music explorers constantly sought out even more new music to challenge their newly heightened sensibilities. Because of this as well they were frequently rewarded with new insights.
Consider Joseph’s description of a Xenakis CD: “Every serious music listener needs to hear some Xenakis, and while his music may not be to everyone’s taste, his genius is undeniable and his impact on all future composers enormous.” Or from the same person, a description of how, initially lacking background, he came to appreciate a live performance by saxophonist Evan Parker, bassist Barry Guy and drummer Paul Lytton. “I spent the first part of the concert totally puzzled as to how to listen to this music, with irregular stop and starts … from the sax, and similar lack of familiar territories from the bass and drums … but [by] the second set I got it and never looked back.”
In the same vein, McGrath describes the CDs by saxophonist Ornette Coleman he admires. “Coleman wishes to challenge himself. He wanted to avoid falling into a rut of becoming complacent. By playing instruments he had not yet mastered like the trumpet and violin, he found new kinds of expression … There is still a sentiment that one must learn to ride a horse before one flies … that is master the instrument … before one improvises freely … [Coleman’s] adventures in the 60s actually proved how unnecessary this might be.” Or further on in the volume when McGrath reveals his strategy for appreciating a Pascal Comelade LP. “It was an LP I listened to several times trying to unravel the mystery”.
Most music fans of any stripes won’t take the time to move out of their comfort zones to embrace new, non-popular music. By publishing these individual testimonies, this volume provides necessary succor for those who would follow a similar path.
But after that its appeal is more problematic. Since every one of the 172 discs extensively written about are attached to memories for Joseph, Lander, McGrath or Weber – the other two didn’t participate in writing longer appreciations – critical judgments are often clouded by nostalgia or personal psychological advances. Too many discs are described as “best”, “marvelous” or “life changing experiences”; strange connections between musicians are imagined; and some of the prose is given to the affectation that is more commonly found in art school essays or rock fanzine writings.
This may, in fact, be the only book dealing with so-called “outside”, mostly 20th Century recorded music, to not include an appreciation of a single disc by either Albert Ayler or John Coltrane, two of Jazz’s protean saxophone figures. Instead one disc by Coltrane’s wife, harpist Alice is included, as well as four by saxophonist Archie Shepp, an unabashed Coltrane follower, whose contributions to improvised music are arguably less noteworthy. Similar shortcomings also exist when notated and so-called pop music is discussed. Besides this, precisely because they mean something special to each man personally, Weber writes favorably about Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV and Joseph about Paul McCartney & Wings Band on the Run. Epiphanies for each man they may have created, but listening to either will not likely lead anyone else to experimental music.
Quibbling about individual selections may be a mug’s game, although the suspicion that enthusiasm overcomes expertise throughout is invariably confirmed. There is also one glaring anomaly. Why is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue session, likely the best-selling Jazz record of all time printed here as Kinda Blue? If it’s a typo it should have been corrected; if an inside joke, it doesn’t amuse.
One-third the size of the other volume, Traveling the Spaceways comes from the expertise side of the continuum, with the essays informed by the writers’ enthusiasm for the oeuvre of Sun Ra (1914-1993), a major 20th Century outside-music figure, who for an extended period survived, created major works for his Arkestra and thrived in an atmosphere without radio play, media coverage or large scale disc distribution. Sun Ra’s musical career lasted longer and arguably influenced more people than more than a handful of players mentioned in Music Is Rapid Transportation, although one disc from his massive catalogue, Jazz in Silhouette is mentioned in that other volume.
In contrast, Traveling the Spaceways grew out of a symposium and installation dedicated to the work and thoughts of the composer, born in Birmingham, Ala. – or planet Saturn as he preferred to insist – and based in either New York of Philadelphia during his later period of fame; but whose musical maturity was defined in the Chicago of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s.
Profusely illustrated, with vintage Ra photos, album cover and label art, ephemera from the collection of Ra and his associates, plus artists’ representations of his influence, the book does a masterful job of confirming that Ra’s oddness was actually part of the major currents of African-American thought, if one knows where to look.
Among the highlights are detailed investigations of Ra and Arkestra Chicago gigs during the late 1950s by scholar/discographer Robert L. Campbell; and an aural examination of some of the band’s earliest recordings by critic Kevin Whitehead noting similarities in Ra’s work to contemporary advanced compositions by more mainstream figures such as Shorty Rogers, Neal Hefti, Tadd Dameron and fellow Chicago pianist Andrew Hill. Other well-researched essays situate Ra’s triple concerns with the relatively static position of American Blacks in society; space travel imagery; and philo-Egyptianism well within a long tradition of Afro-American polemical writing and thought.
In fact, Graham Lock who wrote another book on Ra’s exploration of the links between the composer’s outer-space images and those of earlier African-American spirituals and sermons may have penned the most insightful essay here. “Making the vision real was a central impulse in Sun Ra’s performances,” he writes. “…if his vision had been dubbed ‘Afro Futurist’ the means he used to actualise (sic) it were steeped in 19th Century black cultural traditions.” And later on: “For Sun Ra empowering Astro Black mythology could replace a history of black … oppression because space … was the place where ‘there are no limits …’.”
Also included in this volume are textural analyses of Ra’s poetic, polemical and aphoristic writings, in the context of word play and early 20th century spiritualist movements. Some of the suppositions however lean more towards scholastic new criticism than methods to interpret the work of someone who, after all, was primarily a musical composer and improviser. Using the art of some early Sun Ra LP cover as a stepping off point, veteran academic Victor Margolin contributes a perceptive piece on Black graphic artists and designers in Chicago in the period following the Second World War. However these keen observations move further away from the focus on Ra,
Including essays, poetry, visual art and prose influenced by the Sun Ra persona, other chapters of the book are more problematic. A few complicate the picture by veering into other contemporary – and more fashionable –issues, which are only vestigial to Ra’s repertoire; some even confuse individual history and enthusiasm for insight.
Overall though, anyone interested in understanding more about the somewhat enigmatic career of Sun Ra should find new insights in the thoughtful scholarship that makes up most of Sun Ra, the Astro Black and other Solar Myths. Meanwhile those searching for a personalized guide to venture into listening to non-mainstream music will find some sonic threads they can follow and unravel in Music Is Rapid Transportation.