Friday, June 27, 2008

The new shape of music: Music has its own geometry, researchers find

The figure shows how geometrical music theory represents four-note chord-types -- the collections of notes form a tetrahedron, with the colors indicating the spacing between the individual notes in a sequence. In the blue spheres, the notes are clustered, in the warmer colors, they are farther apart. The red ball at the top of the pyramid is the diminished seventh chord, a popular 19th-century chord. Near it are all the most familiar chords of Western music. Credit: Dmitri Tymoczko, Princeton University

The new shape of music: Music has its own geometry, researchers find

The connection between music and mathematics has fascinated scholars for centuries. More than 200 years ago Pythagoras reportedly discovered that pleasing musical intervals could be described using simple ratios.

Now, three music professors – Clifton Callender at Florida State University, Ian Quinn at Yale University and Dmitri Tymoczko at Princeton University -- have devised a new way of analyzing and categorizing music that takes advantage of the deep, complex mathematics they see enmeshed in its very fabric.

Writing in the April 18 issue of Science, the trio has outlined a method called "geometrical music theory" that translates the language of musical theory into that of contemporary geometry. They take sequences of notes, like chords, rhythms and scales, and categorize them so they can be grouped into "families." They have found a way to assign mathematical structure to these families, so they can then be represented by points in complex geometrical spaces, much the way "x" and "y" coordinates, in the simpler system of high school algebra, correspond to points on a two-dimensional plane.

Different types of categorization produce different geometrical spaces, and reflect the different ways in which musicians over the centuries have understood music. This achievement, they expect, will allow researchers to analyze and understand music in much deeper and more satisfying ways.

The work represents a significant departure from other attempts to quantify music, according to Rachel Wells Hall of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. In an accompanying essay, she writes that their effort, "stands out both for the breadth of its musical implications and the depth of its mathematical content."

The method, according to its authors, allows them to analyze and compare many kinds of Western (and perhaps some non-Western) music. (The method focuses on Western-style music because concepts like "chord" are not universal in all styles.) It also incorporates many past schemes by music theorists to render music into mathematical form.

"The music of the spheres isn't really a metaphor -- some musical spaces really are spheres," said Tymoczko, an assistant professor of music at Princeton. "The whole point of making these geometric spaces is that, at the end of the day, it helps you understand music better. Having a powerful set of tools for conceptualizing music allows you to do all sorts of things you hadn't done before."

"You could create new kinds of musical instruments or new kinds of toys," he said. "You could create new kinds of visualization tools -- imagine going to a classical music concert where the music was being translated visually. We could change the way we educate musicians. There are lots of practical consequences that could follow from these ideas."

"But to me," Tymoczko added, "the most satisfying aspect of this research is that we can now see that there is a logical structure linking many, many different musical concepts. To some extent, we can represent the history of music as a long process of exploring different symmetries and different geometries."

Understanding music, the authors write, is a process of discarding information. For instance, suppose a musician plays middle "C" on a piano, followed by the note "E" above that and the note "G" above that. Musicians have many different terms to describe this sequence of events, such as "an ascending C major arpeggio," "a C major chord," or "a major chord." The authors provide a unified mathematical framework for relating these different descriptions of the same musical event.

The trio describes five different ways of categorizing collections of notes that are similar, but not identical. They refer to these musical resemblances as the "OPTIC symmetries," with each letter of the word "OPTIC" representing a different way of ignoring musical information -- for instance, what octave the notes are in, their order, or how many times each note is repeated. The authors show that five symmetries can be combined with each other to produce a cornucopia of different musical concepts, some of which are familiar and some of which are novel.

In this way, the musicians are able to reduce musical works to their mathematical essence.

Once notes are translated into numbers and then translated again into the language of geometry the result is a rich menagerie of geometrical spaces, each inhabited by a different species of geometrical object. After all the mathematics is done, three-note chords end up on a triangular donut while chord types perch on the surface of a cone.

The broad effort follows upon earlier work by Tymoczko in which he developed geometric models for selected musical objects.

The method could help answer whether there are new scales and chords that exist but have yet to be discovered.

"Have Western composers already discovered the essential and most important musical objects?" Tymoczko asked. "If so, then Western music is more than just an arbitrary set of conventions. It may be that the basic objects of Western music are fantastically special, in which case it would be quite difficult to find alternatives to broadly traditional methods of musical organization."

The tools for analysis also offer the exciting possibility of investigating the differences between musical styles.

"Our methods are not so great at distinguishing Aerosmith from the Rolling Stones," Tymoczko said. "But they might allow you to visualize some of the differences between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And they certainly help you understand more deeply how classical music relates to rock or is different from atonal music."

Source: Princeton University

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Avreeayl Ra: Issue 34: Jazz



Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The following unabridged interviews originally appeared in Issue 34: Jazz.

Avreeayl Ra and Robert Barry have spent decades holding down the drums in Chicago jazz bands. Each played with the great Sun Ra. Both musicians were kind enough to sit down and share some of their experiences with STOP SMILING.


Stop Smiling: How did you start playing music?

Avreeayl Ra: I started with drums. I was just at home practicing by myself. I didn’t have a teacher or anything.

SS: Had you ever played music before?

AR: No. I was 21 when I first got interested and bought my first set. I had a friend who I went to school with and he was taking lessons. He had a little practice set at his house. I used to go there, and we used to hang out and just mess around.

SS: What kind of music were you playing?

AR: I’d been listening a lot to Coltrane and Shepp. I guess I had what you’d call a sophisticated listening habit before I started playing. I started playing like Trane, Elvin and McCoy. But I got a job driving a cab specifically to buy the set.

SS: Once you got the kit, did you quit the job?

AR: Yeah. One night, around two or three in the morning, I picked this cat up and he had three horns with him. I was telling him I wanted to get me a set of drums. So we talked. I was taking him home. I told him that my father played tenor. He said, “Oh yeah, who’s your father?” I told him they called my father Swing Lee O’Neil — that’s my original last name. He said, “I’m playing with your father.” They were playing together in the Bread Basket band. It was Ari Brown.

When we go into schools and talk with kids, I sometimes tell them that story as a source of inspiration for them. It was just a dream of mine: I wanted to play, and I was driving a cab to buy a set of drums, and I ended up picking up Ari.

SS: Did it take you a long time to learn? Obviously, Elvin and Coltrane are dealing with some advanced musical concepts.

AR: Yeah. In fact, I didn’t consider it hard, but I didn’t know any better. My older brother had musical experience. He played clarinet in high school, and my other brother played snare drum in a marching band. I remember when I was in grammar school, he took a trip to Texas. That always impressed me. He was a big part of my influence — my brother, Glenn. He is seven years older than me. He used to take me out there by the water on 63rd Street. He used to play congas out there, and that turned out to be a great influence on me and it still is.
I would go out early in the morning and set up my stuff, and then later in the evening I would go over where the drummers were and play with them.

SS: You worked with Phil Cohran, too?

AR: Yeah, Phil was the first group I played with. When I first started going around him trying to get lessons — it was somewhere around 1969, maybe ’70. He had Brother Atu teaching him African drums. I started studying with him. I think they called Atu him Black Harold. (Harold Murray was his given name.) Harold and Phil were my first teachers. Harold, Phil and Eugene Easton. When the group split up, most of the group was in the Pharoahs. When I was with Phil, I wasn’t playing traps, although traps were my first instrument. When I started playing with Phil, I had congas — I was studying congas and soprano saxophone. I was studying with Phil and Eugene Easton: Phil was teaching us theory and I was learning technique from Eugene.

SS: Had you already been playing congas or African drums?

AR: I had purchased them, but I wouldn’t really say I was playing them. I got together with Phil because I wanted to study more. Same with the soprano. I got pretty good. I got to where I was playing the lead parts with Phil. I had a beautiful sound. I was playing congas and soprano saxophone with Phil. In fact, when I left Phil, that was one of the reasons, because I wanted to get more into the traps. I wanted to get more into traditional jazz.

SS: He was just playing free at the time?

AR: Modal. Phil’s music still has a great influence on me because his rhythmic concept is so advanced. If you’ve ever seen him play kalimba or harp, his rhythmic concept is very advanced. He really got me started in odd meters. We’d play a lot of odd meters and poly meters. That was very important. He was my first teacher aside from my father.

SS: Did you ever play with your father?

AR: Yeah. In fact, before he died we got to play in several of groups together.

SS: I remember you mentioned that he taught John Gilmore a little bit.

AR: Yeah, he was a mentor to Gilmore, to a lot of the cats around the city I didn’t realize. Ed Wilkerson told me that he used to mentor him a little bit. He was very inspirational to younger cats. Gilmore told me this. I didn’t learn this from my father because he had died.

Robert Barry was in the group around the same time as my father, and Sun Ra used to also work with my father — whoever would get the gigs. Barry told me that they had a trio and they would work two or three times a day. Back then, music was really happening: they would do brunches and afternoon sets, and then in the evening they would play more.

SS: When was the first time you played with Sun Ra?

AR: I guess it was in 1984. Rollo Radford called me saying they were playing down at the Chicago Jazz Fest, and that Sun Ra wanted me to come down. There was a sound check that afternoon. I got down there, and Pete Cosey was there. I felt a little more comfortable, because there was somebody I knew. Sun Ra was playing the piano. I didn’t want to disturb him. But he’s still so into it, he ain’t looking at me. After a while I said, “Excuse me, Sun Ra. I’m Avreeayl.” He said, “Yeah, I know who you are.” Anyway, I came in with my drums — that’s all I could figure. Sun Ra wasn’t a man of many words with me. I was waiting for him to give me some instructions. He said, “Go on, set up.” So I go to set up and already on the stage are Wilbur Campbell and Rashied Ali. I just remember thinking, “I’m not going to set up in the middle between these cats.” [Laughs]

I set up my set so that Rashied Ali would be in the middle. So Wilbur Campbell was on one end, Rashied Ali was in the middle and I was on the right side. At one point Sun Ra said, “Drummers, y’all kick it off in 7.” So I’m playing in 7 and I guess Wilbur is too, but Rashied Ali is doing some different kind of stuff. I’m paying attention to what I’m doing. When we finished that section, Wilbur Campbell came over to Rashied Ali saying, “He was saying 7.” And Rashied Ali said, “Yeah, I was dividing the 3 into the 4.” [Laughs] I remember Wilbur just looked at him. It was some heavy shit. He didn’t know what he was talking about and I didn’t know what he was talking about, but he didn’t want to question it. But this opened up my consciousness to look at things in different ways. It really stayed with me. It kind of opened up my consciousness in a way of, “Okay, check that out.” Being with Sun Ra was like that: It expanded your consciousness, and provided a different way of looking at things.

SS: Do you focus on the healing properties of music?

AR: Yeah. Going back to my first influences: Phil Cohran taught us music from a healing perspective. And it was more than just music; it was a way of life, hygiene and diet. He used to take us on the railroad tracks and show us plants that were edible, in case of emergency. In some kind of way it would all translate into the music. He would take Ubangi Makala out on the lakefront, over by Larrabee Street. I don’t know if it was Sundays or what, but we would go to catch the sunrise. Even in the winter. I can see us sitting in the front seat of his car, waiting for the sunrise and he was playing the kalimba. He may have been first influenced with the healing aspect of the music through Sun Ra. He certainly exposed us to the healing aspect of the music. It was interesting. He would write out our music in different colors and the notes pertaining to the vibration per second of the color — things to open up our consciousness on different levels, meditation concepts. He had us heavily into the voice-long toning. He was teaching us back in the late Sixties.

Now I’m more inspired with the healing aspect of the music. I’m getting back into it. This music is very powerful in that regard, and through principles of resonance you are able to bring people up to that vibration. You provide a porthole for them to experience that with you. It is very fulfilling when people give me feedback on how the music made them feel and let you know that you’re right on the money, that your intention was understood.

Robert Barry: Issue 34: Jazz



Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The following unabridged interviews originally appeared in Issue 34: Jazz.

Avreeayl Ra and Robert Barry have spent decades holding down the drums in Chicago jazz bands. Each played with the great Sun Ra. Both musicians were kind enough to sit down and share some of their experiences with STOP SMILING.


Stop Smiling: Do you remember your first gigs as a professional musician?

Robert Barry: At 15, I played with Tom Archer and a lot of the guys that were around the community center on King Drive in Chicago: John Gilmore, George Estridge, Clifford Jordan. When I first started I was working on 47th and 43rd Streets.

SS: Were you playing bebop at the time?

RB: Yeah, we were all into Bird. I was into Bird when I was 11 or 12 years old. Bird used to play at the dances.

SS: Did you ever get to play with Bird?

RB: Yeah, in a dope den one time. We were working for a dude. He was a promoter, you dig, but he was the dope man at the same time. Bird came by to cop. We was up there waiting for him to take us where we were going, because he’d get a big station wagon and take a bunch of guys to the gig. He didn’t work the gig, but he would collect the money and then pay us. So we were waiting for him to take us and Bird stepped up in there. He came to cop. Stepped out of the bathroom and drank a glass of whiskey. The man said, “Play us a number, Bird.” Bird said “Sure,” and took out his saxophone, put a reed on, played some blues (“Don’t Blame Me”), and then he started another number.

SS: When did you start playing drums?

RB: I was 15 when I got my first gig. But I had my first set of drums when I was 14. I had a good sense of rhythm — right off the bat, before I even learned how to read music. That’s how I started working with Tom Archer. Those guys were in their 40s when I started working with them.

SS: Was your family into music?

RB: My old man was a violinist, and my two sisters played violin as well. My old man loved the classics, and I guess if he’d kept going, he would have probably been a classical violinist. My sisters and I used to sit down on Sundays and listen to the radio. There was’ no television then. We’d listen to the classics. We had a Zenith and my dad would make us sit right in front of the Zenith. It was boring as shit. Where’s the beat, you ‘know? Ain’t nobody having no fun with this music! We’d wind up going to sleep. But I appreciated it. When I got to high school, I knew what was going on with the classics. It was some long, drawn-out sheet music, and I would be patient. [Laughs] It would have some parts that were nice. I played the classics all in high school. We played Bartók, Ravel, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.

SS: Where did you go to high school?

RB: DuSable High School. We had a marching band, swing band, concert band. Captain Walter Dyett was a phenomenal teacher. He taught all the guys that wound up coming out of Chicago: Nat King Cole, Benny Green, Johnny Griffin, Wilbur Campbell, Irma Thompson, Gene Ammons, John Gilmore, Clifford Jordan, Julian Priester, Richard Evans, myself. He was a positive thinker. You couldn’t mention the word can’t in his presence. He’d go into a rage and would physically throw you. [Laughs] He’d take you by your collar or by the seat of your pants — somebody open the door and boom! He’d say, “Don’t never come back here until you lose that word.” And he’d say, “You are what you eat and you are what you think you are.” He used to keep a .38 on the desk. Everybody would carry knives. He’d say, “You guys think you’re bad with your knives and your switchblades — I got something for you!” [Laughs] Walter Dyett — he was something else.

SS: Who were some of your inspirations on drums?

RB: I know I heard Max Roach early on. And Baby Dodds and Ike Day, because he lived in the neighborhood. He was a child prodigy. At the age of 12 he was working professionally. He had such a sense of timing, he wouldn’t even need no music. He played in pit bands in downtown Chicago. They would say: “And now we bring to you… Ike Day,” and the other drummer would get up and let him sit down. That was something to behold. He made a drum set sound like there were melodies coming out of it. He had all the coordination. Max would look for him, Jo Jones, Buddy Rich. Everybody knew him: Miles and Sonny Rollins. But he was strung out on heroin, and that’s what took his life. The heroin had weakened his body so much he ended up dying of tuberculosis. He started shooting all that dope and hemorrhaged. He was so weak that when they put him on the operating table, he couldn’t make it. He couldn’t survive the operation.

SS: How old was he?

RB: Twenty-eight.

SS: He and Wilbur used to play together?

RB: Wilbur Ware, yeah they were partners. That’s how they got their dope money. They used to go around and play as a duo. Shit, when they come in, the sets would stop. Wilbur used to sing, and would be playing bass, and a lot of time Ike didn’t even have no drums. He’d just play on the bar, and Wilbur would sing standards or sing the blues. Those two were a phenomenal pair. They’d come in and the band would say, “Ladies and gentlemen, in the house we’ve got the great Wilbur Ware, the great Ike Day — they’re gonna do a number for you.” But all they wanted was to get some dope money. Yeah Wilbur would pass the hat while Ike was playing, they get their money and they gone, gone to cop somewhere.

SS: Did you feel that the music during that time in Chicago was very different than the music in New York?

RB: Yeah. Everybody was coming here because Chicago had the most clubs. New York had the famous clubs: Bandbox, Birdland, Onyx, Three Deuces — say, about seven or eight clubs. But Chicago had clubs from downtown all the way down to 63rd Street. On State Street, there were clubs on both sides of the street, all the way down. A lot of guys started walking: They’d walk from 29th, stop at each club in the 30’s, walk down to the 40’s and hit all the clubs, and just keep going.

SS: And how many clubs do you think there were?

RB: Oh man, there was a lot of money to be made. It attracted a lot of people, a lot of nightlife. The clubs would be open from six in the afternoon until six in the morning. So anybody who was anything in New York would come play Chicago. They would have stage shows in the theaters, even in the neighborhood theaters. This was before and during the war — everything was wide open, man. There was a lot of money to be made; there was a lot of partying to be done. They had a place called the Breakfast Dance. The club opened at six o’clock in the morning and people wouldn’t even go to work. Why go to work when you can party? [Laughs] That was a good time. And if you went to St. Louis, they had the same thing down there. I started going there when I was 14, because I had a little lady there. I used to take the train down. It took about five hours. A round-trip ticket cost $7. I used to go there on Friday evening, get there before 12 or 1 am, go to the hotel, scout out and see who was where and what was going on. Ain’t nobody asleep. Those were really good times in this country, as far as music goes.
When I was six or seven years old, we’d go up to Belmont and shine shoes, but you could get into clubs. You could walk into bars, shining shoes and dancing, just listening and learning.

SS: Did you ever tap?

RB: I didn’t tap. I did sand. We’d take sand and put it down on a smooth surface. We’d be sanding like mad. We’d mess up people’s hallways, because they had the tile floors, and we’d come up there with a pocketful of sand. People would come out and yell, “Hey, get out of my hallway!”

SS: This is all before the war? Did you get called for the draft?

RB: Yeah, when I was in high school. But I didn’t go into the service. I had heard about how “Pres” [Lester Young] got out of the service. Every morning you would fall out with your rifle; he’d fall out with his saxophone! So they finally put him out. That’s where “D.B. Blues” comes from: Detention barracks blues. His early songs come out of his stint in the Army. Him and Jo Jones were in there together, and Jo Jones would fall out with his sticks. Why have some dudes like Pres and Jo Jones get killed over some nonsense. That’s all war is about. I just told them I couldn’t go. It was a bad scene anyway for me because I’m living as a second-class citizen in my own country. I told the military psychiatrist as much.

Why should I go into the service? This was when Emmett Till was killed. They were still lynching people. The psychiatrist rejected me. He said I had an abnormal personality; I was maladjusted and would be a bad influence on African-American soldiers. I told him, “Do you think I should lick the boot that kick me?” I was getting pissed off. I took my fist and hit on the desk — bam! The man got up and went to the door and wrote in big letters: “REJECTED.” He told me to go to another room. In the other room was the FBI. They told me that I could be put in jail for the duration of the war, and the war might last 20 years. I said, “I don’t know what I can do about that. You guys have the guns and the tanks.” So the dude said, “All right, well, sign this paper,” and I said, “I ain’t signing nothing. I don’t have no lawyer. I don’t know what I’m signing.” So then they finally say, “Get out and don’t come back!” And I said, “Well, I didn’t ask to come down here in the first place.”

For about a week or so afterward they followed me. They went into my neighborhood and asked the kids who were my friends, “Is he in a gang?” They even asked me, “Do you belong to a gang or an organization? Do you believe in killing?” “Yeah,” I said. “I believe in killing. If someone comes on my doorstop and shoots at me, I would fight, but I’m not going to go 3,000 miles away to fight for something when all this racist shit is still going on here.” So they didn’t bother me after that. They told me I’d never get a government job. I wasn’t planning on getting one anyway.

SS: Can you talk about recording with Sun Ra?

RB: I met Sun Ra when I was about 15 years old. We started talking because he lived right down the street from Bugs, a drummer I knew, and we started talking about life. He was well read. He had studied all of these different bibles. He was another prodigy. You’d go to his house, and he had a little bitty room, but it would be filled with books — wall to wall and floor to ceiling. He’d be like, “Hey, come down to the library with me.” He was working as Fletcher Henderson’s piano player at the time, and he was his arranger too. He was writing for the shows. He used to sit on his porch, and we’d all start talking. So we went up to his house and he played piano. He said, “You play drums?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, bring your drums and come on up to the house and we’ll play some.” Pat Patrick, Sun Ra and I would be up there playing all day and night. Then he went and got some singers they started playing with us — it was like four or five singers and this three-piece band. A guy sent me some of the discs. I had forgotten all about it. That had come off of a wire recorder. Sun Ra he had a wire recorder.

SS: And you were playing all of his music?

RB: We were playing all originals. He just let you develop. He wouldn’t give you no guidance. He’d just say, “Play what you hear.” Then when he started writing down at the Pershing, he would write heads but your solos were always your own.

SS: How long did you play with him?

RB: For a good while — from age 15 up to 22. Richard Evans was involved in the band, because Sun Ra was asking about new guys. We started getting dudes from the band at DuSable. I told him about Richard. At first, Richard and I were the rhythm section for Sun Ra. Richard left first. Then it was Ron Boykins and I. Occasionally Richard Davis would come and play, too. Everybody, it seems, did a stint: Johnny Griffin, Von Freeman, his brother, George. He never had no sad players. He had people who were interested in developing their talents.

The Use Of Percussion In Sun Ra's Arkestra

The Use Of Percussion In Sun Ra's Arkestra

By John Bacon, Jr.

© 1998 John Bacon, Jr.

The use of percussion in Sun Ra's Arkestra is rich and varied, encompassing Afro-Caribbean, African, Middle Eastern, Oriental, European and American instruments and their applications. Percussion instruments including timpani, keyboard percussion, tuned bongos and multiple percussion set-ups are used as solo instruments in both traditional jazz forms and experimental works unique to Sun Ra. The Arkestra also functions as a percussion ensemble, creating complex rhythmic and timbral textures as a back-drop for solo improvisations by other instrumentalists. Sometimes Sun Ra employs multiple drummers and other percussionists in an attempt to elevate the music to a higher energy level or to create a pastiche of cultural representations.

Percussion in the large jazz ensemble seems familiar, if not common place, today. Sun Ra's dedication to percussive sounds has had a major impact on this perception. Throughout the life of the Arkestra he nurtured an expanding universe of percussion activity. Photos as early as 1955 show Jim Herndon, a timpanist, as a member of the Arkestra. In 1990, near the end of Sun Ra's life, the Arkestra can be seen with two drumset drummers, a congero, a timbalero, marching snare drummer, surdo player, djembe player, clave player, gongs, cymbals and "Ancient Infinity Lightning Wood Drum". Sun Ra traveled the globe spreading his musical and philosophical message while continuously absorbing the world of percussion, integrating those elements in a myriad of ways and expanding our galaxy of jazz percussion.

I. Arkestral Percusssion
A. Timpani

The first appearance of kettledrummers in Western Europe was in 1457 as part of the entourage of the King of Hungary. Since that time the drums and drummers have enjoyed an exalted place in Western culture. In the courts or on the battlefield, Kettledrummers and their instrument were prized. The distinction of Kettledrummer was bestowed as a special rank within the military service and with it greater remuneration and special privileges were gained. The loss or gain in war of a pair of timpani was of great consequence. Frequently the timpani, a pair of kettledrums, were combined with trumpeters to form an ensemble used exclusively in the presence of royalty (Blades pp.226-30).

Since their introduction into the orchestra in the 17th century, followed by wide use in Classical, Romantic and Modern Orchestral literature, through their current maturity as a solo and ensemble instrument; the timpani have become the most prominent of orchestral percussion instruments. Our modern orchestral drums are similar to the small Arabian kettledrums, called nakers, that were brought to Europe by the returning crusaders. In Egypt, timpani like drums, baz, are attached to the saddle of a camel and used in religious processions (Blades pp.226-30).

Jazz music has had less familiarity with the timpani. In big band music we know that Duke Ellington's drummer/ percussionist Sonny Greer employed a huge set-up of percussion including timpani. Other Jazz percussionists, including Roy Haynes in his work with Chick Corea and Max Roach with Booker Little, have employed the timpani as a solo instrument with excellent results. It is difficult to document over a substantial period of time the use of the timpani as an integral ensemble member outside of Max Roach's M'Boom percussion ensemble and Sun Ra's Arkestra. Sun Ra may have been influenced by Duke's use of the great tuned drums since we know that he held high respect for Ellington and called him a "creator" of Jazz music along with Fats Waller and Fletcher Henderson (Rusch p.67). Additional sources as to the root of Sun Ra's use of timpani in the Arkestra can be traced to important ideas that are foundations in the overall spectacle and sound of his ensemble.Sun Ra's years of research in Egyptology, numerology, astrology, spirituality, mathematics, sciences, and the occult combined with performances at southern social clubs, urban dance hall floor shows and strip clubs combine to produce a dramatic multi-media effect that demands the pomposity of Hollywood movie music as an element in his sonic vocabulary. The timpani with its allusions to eastern warriors riding on the backs of great beasts and beating on mounted kettledrums are a vivid metaphor that would have appealed to Sun Ra's sense of the drama.

The earliest use of non-standard jazz percussion in the Arkestra is the timpani. By 1955 the Arkestra had taken shape. Using four to six horns and a rhythm section the music was "...partially based on the blues, but much of it also intensely percussive." (Szwed p.94) Jim Herndon, a member of the Chicago Civic Symphony, is the timpanist on many early recordings of the Arkestra. The timpani were used to play melodic lines, bass vamps and as a solo instrument. A unique adaptation of the timpani occurs on Supersonic Jazz (1956), originally issued as a single. This swinging horn chart features a Herndon timpani solo side-by-side with solos from the horns and piano. Sun Ra's attempt to realize the timpani as a voice equal in its expressive soloistic qualities with the other instruments, is somewhat successful. Usually during this period of Jazz when drums are heard as a solo instrument there is a rhythmically weak accompaniment necessitated by the drums switching roles and abandoning the rhythm section. Also, when the acoustic bass solos, we generally hear a weaker rhythmic accompaniment necessitated by the low volume of the soloing instrument. An interesting result of Sun Ra's experiment is the sound result of a rhythmically strong and low pitched instrument, the timpani, soloing over a strong rhythmic accompaniment from a full rhythm section.

The timpani are used in a different manner on Adventure In Space (1959) which is essentially a piano solo with percussive accompaniment. The string bass is eliminated altogether leaving the timpani to provide a bass vamp over which rhythmic drumset and a-rhythmic bells and scrapers are overlayed by members of the Arkestra as an accompaniment to Sun Ra's piano solo.

B. Heliocentric Worlds

The timpani remained an important element in the Arkestra through the recording of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra in 1965. Although album credits are somewhat deceiving on many Sun Ra recordings, three separate timpanists are listed on The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Vol. I . Here timpani act as a low register ensemble color with occasional brief solo passages. Their use highlights Sun Ra's taste for the bottom sounds of an orchestra. Passages during Of Heavanly Things feature a rumbling trio of bass, bass marimba and timpani with drumset accompaniment that are particularly characteristic of this flavor.

The music on this recording uses a vocabulary closer to 20th century classical music than to any jazz recordings up to that time (Gridley p. 270). There is a noticeable lack of any repetitive rhythmic structures, no thematic melodic material and no harmonic basis for any of the compositions. There is however a strong use of ensemble color juxtapositions, use of a variety of instrumental ensembles and soloists and a myriad of densities with regard to timbre and ensemble size. The fact that percussion figure prominently in all of the pieces on these recordings may be credited to the ease with which percussion lends itself to these type of musical treatments and that Sun Ra assigned virtually everyone in the ensemble the role of percussionist. With an extremely creative group of musicians assembled into a finely tuned ensemble but lacking in the technical norms of the average drummer/percussionist Sun Ra had at his disposal a responsive group of improvisers whom he could guide through a series of orchestral passages based on reaction time and inquisitive investigation of a variety of percussive colors.

The Cosmos , highlights an engaging amount of contrast and similarity among bowed bass, piano, timpani , cymbals, and drums with brushes. The registral range of the three percussion instruments is comparable to that covered by the piano and bass. But the percussion instruments are much less pitch specific than the piano and bass and give off a more complex harmonic spectrum. The quick attack of the timpani is in direct contrast to the slow sounding of bowed bass. Ringing sustain of cymbals contrast drier piano sounds. Scratching drum brushes mirror friction of bow hairs against strings. All of this in free rhythm and with no distinct melodic or harmonic theme. This passage investigates the sound of a group of instruments colliding and melding to produce an aural episode. Sun Ra was in control of these episodes, cueing the beginnings, pacing durations, rotating players to alternate instruments, clarifying roles, and thereby composing the improvisation (Szwed p.216). The strongest use of mallet percussion in the Arkestra appears on Heliocentric Worlds also. Sun Ra seems to have neglected the vibraphone, the standard jazz mallet instrument, in favor of electronic celeste, and vibe like sounds on most occasions. The percussive woodiness of the pitched Bass Marimba, a tone color absent from any of the otherinstruments in his ensemble, takes center stage during many passages on this album.

The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra highlight another interesting fact about Sun Ra's use of percussion that may have had a profound effect on the Free Jazz movement. Sun Ra's use of space, the amount of silence in his music and his willingness to allow non-virtouso passages on peculiar instruments seems to have had an effect on musicians in the AACM of Chicago. Groups such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago have become very skilled at improvising on a perplexing array of instruments many of which are percussion. Sun Ra's influence in Chicago prior to his NYC move likely coincided with this development.

II. The Arkestra as a Percussion Ensemble
A. Pop Rhythm Approach

By the 1970's the Arkestra had been making music for almost 20 years. The electric sounds and rock rhythms that infused jazz music during this decade had been incorporated into the Arkestra's sound for nearly all of those 20 years. Recording credits show the use of electric bass and electric piano during 1956. 1958 recordings credit electric guitar. From 1967-9 he incorporated the clavioline, the Solar Sound Instrument (Hohner Clavinet), electronic celeste and Moog Synthesizer. These instruments were used along with the Hammond Organ and the piano. Throughout these first 20 years Sun Ra was recording doo-wop, rhythm and blues and pop vocal music in addition to jump blues, swing, bop influenced jazz, rock inspired rhythms and his unique brand of space music. The search for new sounds was forever imminent and the field of percussion provided fertile ground.

Great Balls Of Fire (1958) is an excellent example of Sun Ra's use of pop rhythms and added percussion. The tune chugs along in a rock rhumba rhythm indicative of the current pop music with an accompaniment of drumset, timpani and other percussion behind the three horns, electric piano and electric guitar. His use of pop music percussion trends continued with Disco 2100 (1978), a song employing an electronic drum box along with a live drummer to create a repetitive dance beat.

B. Afro-Latin Rhythm Ensemble

Sun Ra had been using African string and percussion instruments at his performances at Slugs in New York City during the1960's (Rudd). In 1967 he met Olatunji, the master drummer from Africa who first exposed the American public to a wide variety of music from the African continent. Olatunji's performances were entire media spectacles that encompassed singing, dancing, and music from many cultures and styles. In many ways he and Sun Ra were interested in a similar mode of performance (Szwed p. 202). With a greater focus on African and Latin percussion instruments came a stronger rhythmic quality in the use of percussion in the Arkestra. The Arkestra began to explore musical passages where the entire ensemble played percussion instruments. Although the Arkestra used very little pure African rhythm or structure, the group was able to emulate the sound and timbral variation of an African drum choir without using the specifics of the genre. They were successful because individuals understood that their simple repetitive part juxtaposed against other percussion instruments playing similarly would create an intricate rhythmic counterpoint. Also the Arkestra began to employ multiple drummers functioning in similar if not identical roles or performing different layered rhythms on various size drums both of which are uniquely African drum concepts.

Spontaneous Simplicity (1968) features a simple bass vamp and a modal piano comp with a bossa nova rhythm. The flute solo completes a very typical sound world. As the ensemble adds small and large afro-latin sounding drums, struck metal plate and shaken bells the group sound transforms. We move from a jazz quartet sound to a percussion ensemble with
jazz rhythm section.

Exotic Forest (1966) highlights another development of this idea. A bass vamp is again the building block for an improvisation, on Oboe this time. The drumset set plays a much less predictable pattern that becomes more experimental as the tune progresses. As the wind chimes, bells, log drum, shakers, metal plate, other drums, shells and rims of drums are added the rhythms, become less and less metered. Eventually the oboe departs and the percussion are left to sustain the tune. The sound is that of a free rhythm percussion ensemble until some staggered groove playing begins to emerge.

III. Sound Complexities Through the Use of Multiple Percussion
A. Energy Music

One facet of the avant garde Jazz vocabulary with which Sun Ra's music is aligned has as its' predominant features the use of fast moving phrases, distorted instrumental sounds, loud ensemble passages, extended solo lengths and non-metered rhythm section playing. Some of the difficulties that arise with performance of this type of music are grounded in achieving and maintaining the proper intensity level. Musicians often need a warming up period to reach the appropriate heights. Sustaining this level once you are there can also prove to be a challenge. The Free Jazz big band format that Sun Ra was working with gave him a collection of soloists to draw upon for high intensity playing. If one soloist was played out another could come to his relief. The use of more than one drummer can be thought of in a similar way. By using more than one drummer, Sun Ra was able to achieve and maintain the high intensity level needed to propel the avant garde jazz sound he desired. In the Robert Mugge Film Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (1979) we can witness film footage from a performance by the Arkestra at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore, MD. Across the back of the ensemble are three drumset drummers and a conga drummer. All of these percussionists are involved in a free-rhythm intensity style improv with Marshall Allen playing the alto saxophone solo. There are relatively few other jazz ensembles that used more than one drummer in live performances to quite this same effect.

Another model for multiple drummers can be found in the musical groups of James Brown who often employed two or three drummers not only to provide a continuous level of intensity but also to capitalize on the strengths of a particular drummer. Sun Ra was noted for using whatever instrumentalists were at hand to assemble his group. He also knew how to utilize a musician to achieve unique results. Sounds, textures and rhythms that others would never have imagined were born of the fact that musicians were asked to play beyond their perceived level of competence on an instrument and that Sun Ra could conceive of a way to utilize the result. Roswell Rudd calls Sun Ra "A genius of getting quality out of those with modest abilities." An excellent example of this is John Gilmore's drumset performances. Gilmore is an outstanding tenor saxophonist whose accomplishments and influence on other musicians is well documented. He was used as THE drummer in the Arkestra on occasion. Initially the absence of the groups drummer forced him into that role.

On the recording of Love In Outer Space (1970), from The Singles (ECD 22164), we hear him interpret a waltz rhythm in an engagingly polyrhythmic manner as he superimposes 6/8 over the 3/4 in Sun Ra's piano bass line. The elusiveness of the downbeat in Gilmore's drum pattern and the clumsiness of his rolls give a unique quality to the groove of this recording that would have been lost with a technically advanced drummer. Obviously Sun Ra appreciated the feel that Gilmore could create since he continued to utilize him even when he had three additional drumsets as in the film Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (1979).

B. Cultural Adaptations
Sun Ra often spoke of assembling a very large ensemble of musicians from all over the globe. He imagined a mixture of musicians from Asia, India, The Middle East, Europe, Africa and the Americas under his leadership and producing sounds that only he had previously imagined. When confronted with the impossibility of such a feat he would retort that of course no one else would think it possible that is why Sun Ra would be needed to pull it off. In some ways He was able to achieve this impossibility although not on as grand a scale as he might have imagined.

It has already been mentioned that Sun Ra was an avid student of Egyptian culture. He integrated his interests and philosophies with regard to African peoples not only in the spectacle of their concert performances and the musical textures of their percussion ensembles but also in his selection of members for the ensemble.

During Make A joyful Noise, James Jac(k)son describes his interest in percussion and how Sun Ra directed him to make a drum. Jacson was unsure of what Sun Ra meant since he was not an instrument builder. Shortly thereafter a tree was downed by lightning in their Philadelphia neighborhood and a large section of the trunk of the tree was cut and left by the clean-up crew. Jacson took this large trunk and fashioned it into an African style drum that he proceeded to play with the Arkestra from thereafter. His method of alternate hand drumming with accentuation of every second or every third strike of the curved sticks produced an African derived drum color that became a signature of the groups sound. The "Ancient Infinity Lightning Wood Drum" was a much beloved part of the ensemble. Further incorporation of Brazilian drummers Elson Nascimento on surdo, a large Brazilian bass drum played with both the stick and the hand to create alternate open and muffled tones, and Jorge Silva on the repinique, a smaller drum also played with one hand and one stick, add to the cultural mix. There is also a collection of gongs and cymbals in Sun Ra's music that help to conjure the Orient. All of these distinctly cultural percussion instruments are used less in specifically derivative musical selections and more as colors in the ensemble blended with the free jazz, swing, pop, electronic and 20th century avant garde elements. Purple Nights (1989), a recording from Sun Ra's final years and one of the few recordings the Arkestra released on a major label (A&M), contains passages where all of these styles are intermingled with excellent results. Friendly Galaxy uses the African/Brazilian drum collection along with three drumset drummers to accentuate the strolling moderato rhythm of this selection, long a part of the groups repertoire. This passage is unique to the Arkestra and could only have existed in the environment that Sun Ra created. Rather than attempt to duplicate some type of Brazilian or African musical material in the horns and highlight a corresponding drum sound Sun Ra chooses to transplant these drums into a typically Arkestral arrangement and thereby create a new blend of musical styles and sounds.

As we have seen this blending, melding, intermingling, fusing, accepting, sympathetic, patient, lenient way of constructing music is a trademark of the Arkestra. Because of the variety of sounds, cultural representations and ease of performance of the instruments, percussion illustrates this idea better than any single instrumental group or musical style embodied within the Arkestra. Sun Ra realized this truism early on in the creative and practical development of his group. He developed the idea in many interesting and unique ways. His legacy, the
music and accomplishments of the Arkestra, provide a passageway through which we can explore the galaxy of jazz percussion.

Blades, James. Percussion Instruments and Their History. Connecticut:The
Bold Strummer, Ltd., 1972.
Jost, Ekkehard. Free Jazz. New York: Da Capo Press, 1974.
Mugge, Robert, director. Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise. with Sun Ra and the Arkestra. Rhapsody Films, 1979.
Rudd, Roswell. Personal Interview, November 21-23, 1997.
Rusch, Robert D. Jazztalk. New Jersey: Lyle Stuart Inc., 1984.
Scott, Reynold. Personal Interview, November 16, 1997.
Spellman, A.B. Four Lives in the Bebop Business. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1967.
Sun Ra. Heliocentric Worlds Vol. 2. ESP Disk 1017-2, 1965.
Sun Ra. Nothing Is... ESP Disk 1045, 1966.
Sun Ra. The Singles. Evidence, ECD 22164-2, 1996.
Sun Ra. Purple Night. A&M, 75021 5324 2, 1989.
Szwed, John F. Space Is The Place : The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

New Release: New Horizons By Sun Ra And His Arkestra

New Horizons By Sun Ra And His Arkestra - Deluxe Digipack

Featuring: Art Hoyle (tp), Julian Priester (tb), John Gilmore (ts), Pat Patrick (bars, as), Charles Davis (bars), Sun Ra (p, org), Richard Evans (b).

BAR CODE: 8427328604956

Chicago pianist Sun Ra emerged as a leader on the jazz scene early in 1956, when he assembled a group of neo-boppers that contributed to the original and exciting jazz sound offered by his new Sun Ra Arkestra, a medium-sized group that swung like a giant locomotive, an effect primarily due to an interesting use of two basses playing simultaneously. They featured the power of big band ensemble along with the excitement of combo blowing by fine soloists, among them the driving tenor John Gilmore, trombonist Julian Priester, and Hoyle’s well-directed trumpet. They played with swinging warmth and directness of emotion, but despite all this it was always Sun Ra’s musical personality which dominated the performances. He was a bandleader who dealt with the cosmos and its future and it’s worth hearing the new horizons of the first Sun Ra Arkestra. After all, they were busily turning the jazz cosmos itself upsidedown - and that is no small feat.

Personnel: Dave Young, Art Hoyle (tp), Julian Priester (tb), James Scales (as), John Gilmore (ts), Pat Patrick (bars, as); Charles Davis (bars), Sun Ra (p, org), Richard Evans, Victor Sproles (b), Wilbur Green (eb) Bob Barry, William Cochran (d), Jim Herndon (tympani, percussion)

Track list:
01. Brainville 4:13
02. Call For All Demons 5:11
03. Transition 3:37
04. Possession 4:55
05. Street Named Hell 3:35
06. Lullaby For Realville 4:39
07. Future 2:50
08. Swing A Little Taste 4:21
09. New Horizons 3:02
10. Fall Off The Log 3:55
11. Sun Song 3:37
12. Reflections In Blue 5:53
13. Two Tones 3:35
14. El Viktor 2:26
15. Saturn 3:53
16. Kingdom Of Not 5:31
17. Blues At Midnight 6:29
18. Super Blonde 2:35
19. Soft Talk 2:42

Recorded in Chicago, 1956.

James Spaulding

James Spaulding, alto saxophonist/flutist was a favored sideman for Blue Note Records between 1962 and '68, and holds the unique distinction of performing on Blue Note LPs now considered classics. He can be heard as soloist on recordings with Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Duke Pearson, Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, Stanley Turrentine and Hank Mobley. James has seven recordings as leader on the Muse and HighNote Records. In 2000, he recorded and produced under his own label, Speetones Music, a 2-volume set: Vol. 1, Blues Up & Over and Vol. 11, Round To It, recorded live at the Brooklyn Jazz Club, Up Over Jazz Café, owned by Robert Myers. Recently, James recorded live in Paris with the Pierre Christophe Trio, a CD entitled: Down With It, on the Futura & Marge label. Approaching his 70th birthday, James is performing in peak form, with no signs of slowing down - he's still blowing stronger than ever.
Spaulding's musical training started early, as he came from a musical family in his place of birth Indiana (his father was a professional musician who played the guitar and led his own big band, traveling throughout the country). James began playing a bugle when he was in grade school. He later took up the trumpet and saxophone on his own, and while in high school studied clarinet. He made his professional debut playing around Indianapolis with a rhythm "n" blues group.

From 1954 to 1957, Spaulding was in the army playing in service bands. When he was discharged, he settled in Chicago where he performed in clubs leading his own group, and had a stay with the Sun Ra Orchestra. He also furthered his flute studies there at the Chicago Cosmopolitan School of Music. In 1962, he arrived in New York City, and subsequently was associated with notables such as Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Max Roach and the Ellington Orchestra. In 1975, he received a bachelor's degree in music from Livingston College in New Jersey where he taught flute as an adjunct professor. James' daughters, Gina and Yvonne Spaulding were on the cover of his very first recording: "The Legacy of Duke Ellington," recorded in 1975. Mr. Spaulding's range of performance experiences extends nationally and internationally, from the concert stage to jazz clubs to colleges and street fairs. His original music, a suite entitled "A Song of Courage," was performed by him with full orchestra and choir at the Voorhees Chapel at the Rutgers University campus from funds awarded him by the National Endowment for the Arts. He holds a historically significant place in jazz reference books including, The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies by Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler; The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz by Brian Case and Stan Britt; The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz edited by Barry Keinfeld, just to name a few. He has performed as a sideman and been recorded on over 100 recordings.

Sun Ra

MC: 1954-1957 saw you in the army playing in service bands. During this time did you play only on base or had you a chance to play clubs, too?

JS: Yes, I was 17 when I joined the army and 20 when I was discharged. During this period I also played professionally with a group of young Indianapolis musicians which included Freddie Hubbard and Larry Ridley - we called ourselves the "Jazz Contemporaries.”

MC: After leaving the army you moved to Chicago and became part of Sun Ra's Arkestra. What had made you choose Chicago over New York with its then vibrant 52nd Street scene?

JS: I moved to Chicago to go to school on my G.I. Bill (more than likely thinking of my father's advice), where I attended the Cosmopolitan School of Music, and also to test the waters of really being on my own. I lived with my cousin and her husband, went to school and gigged. I studied flute for about six months under the tutelage of Professor Emil Eck. I also led my own group playing in local clubs and freelanced.

MC: How had you made the initial connection with Sun Ra?

JS: I would play at the jam sessions – and I met John Gilmore and Pat Patrick, who were both members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. I met Sun Ra when I was taken there by John and Pat.

MC: In later years Sun Ra would have his own personal mythos and imagery, some cosmic and Egyptian motifs. In these early years was he already projecting a specific persona to the public?

JS: Sun Ra was a mystic and I think clairvoyant. He would say to me: “Play.” And I would respond, “Play what?” He would say: “Just play.” At first, I was rather resistant; it was totally strange from my previous music training. He encouraged me to play notes without structured time. This was my first excursion into the style known as “Free Form.” As a personality, Sun Ra was rather peculiar, I thought, especially when he spoke of space travel. He also predicted travel to the moon before the Russian Sputnik. I played with his band (musicians really had to be in tune and have simpatico) on and off during the period 1957 – 1958/59.

MC: Did Sun Ra have you playing both your instruments? Were there any recordings made while you were in his band?

JS: Yes, if anyone is interested they can check my discography on my website at

MC: Some of his band seemed to stay with him forever (John Gilmore et al). Were any of his long-term players in his band during your stint?

JS: I played in the band with both John and Pat.

MC: You briefly moved back home before finally taking the plunge and heading to the then Holy Land of jazz, New York. What was the impetus behind this?

JS: I was only in my early 20s and I started to miss my family, so I went back home for some of my mother’s home cooking and spirituality, which I needed to recharge my battery. From 1957-1959 I played rhythm & blues with The Sonny Thompson Band (dance rhythms and blues singer).

MC: Whenever one reads the biography of an artist, it is easy to read “so and so was with this band for these years…” but often overlooked by the reader is that those dates represent part of a person, the artist’s life. Is it hard moving onto another band? I sometimes think it may be akin to breaking up with a girlfriend.

JS: Mostly, it’s just great to be working. I guess you could miss certain bandleaders more than others. The one good thing is that you’re not married to the group.

MC: Although your later body of work is equally as compelling and rewarding, you are perhaps best known for the large body of work you did under the Blue Note label. How had you initially come to the Blue Note roster?

JS: Duke Pearson was the A & R man for Alfred Lion at Blue Note records. He liked my playing and called me for the sideman dates.

MC: Whose was the first session on which you appeared? Did Blue Note try to promote or emphasize one of your instruments over the other?

JS: My first recording session was as sideman with Freddie Hubbard on an album called Hubtones. I was what you’d call a musician that “doubles.” This way sometimes the producer got two instruments while paying for only one. If a song called for flute or called for alto saxophone, I was your man. From 1962 until 1964 I was playing Hard Bop/Cool with the Freddie Hubbard Quintet, and recorded with the band on several Blue Note dates. One recording in particular, The Night of the Cookers, has now become one of the classics. I was the only saxophone on that date.

MC: You were on so many Blue Note albums in the sixties, to ask everyone their favorite would produce a diverse list of titles. Which is your personal favorite?

JS: I think Wayne Shorter’s albums were my favorites. There was great energy and creativity: The Soothsayer, The All Seeing Eye, Schizophrenia; I contributed one of the songs, “Kryptonite,” to Schizophrenia.

Tyrone Hill: His Story

Tyrone Hill: His Story

Text by K W Billerts based on an interview with Tyrone Hill in October 2000.

"I never heard music like that before. They played for 6 hours, 9pm to 3 in the morning, straight thru. No breaks. It was unreal..." These were some of the comments made by Tyrone Hill, trombonist and at that time, member of Philadelphia's Uptown Theater Orchestra about his first performance with jazz legend Sun Ra. Ra had just moved to Philadelphia from NYC, part of the non economic strategy employed by the visionary composer, keyboard master, band leader and all around cosmic being. It was 1969. Ra had called looking for a trombone player. It turned into a lifetime calling to the spaceways of the Sun Ra Arkestra.

"To be perfectly honest I wasn't really familiar with Sun Ra. I was familiar with guys in the band, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore. But my brother said that's a really heavy band. So I went and rehearsed with them. Other guys from Philadelphia were there, Keno Speller, Byard Lancaster. Oh it blew my mind. I had never played with a band like that, it was totally different. We played at Slugs, down on 3rd Street on the lower East Side. That was the first place I played with Sun Ra...then there were the people in the audience, Mingus, Monk, Miles... Sun Ra playing the organ behind his back! It changed my life. It changed a lot of my concepts about the importance of music. He really opened me up. He showed me that there's a lot of possibilities beyond what I was feeling. 'Tyrone, you playing what you know, play something you don't know.' Sun Ra always taught us to do the impossible. To do something you don't know. That you don't know about. That's totally impossible, like Christopher Columbus. What he did was impossible. They told him the world was flat. You gonna sail off the edge of the world. You gotta do the things they tell you you can't do... He used to call his music being tailor made, like going to a tailor and getting a suit that only you could wear. Sun Ra would write me a trombone part that only I could play. Even JJ Johnson couldn't play it...he and Duke Ellington were the masters at it."

The neighborhood around 17th Street and York in North Philadelphia was home to a lot of great musicians in the 50's and 60's. Sherman Ferguson, Middie Middleton, Odean Pope and John Coltrane were just a few of many. Some of Tyrone's earliest musical memories are hanging out at 17th and Cumberland harmonizing back in the doo wop days. Street corner serenades and checking out this handful of cats who always looked a cut above, who seemed like they were on to something. Cats that included cousin Freddie Paulin, a member of some of Tyrone's own groups these days, who encouraged his interest in music back then. Fate, in a pleasant mood, offered music education on a quality scale those days in the public school system. Digging Miles, the king of cool, trumpet was his first choice but a trombone was the first to make the trip home. "I fell in love with the trombone, it was an instant thing. I was playing it the first day I got it...the trombone is just like the human voice, with the slide you can get quarter tones, eighth tones." One of the first impressions you get hearing Tyrone is the sheer sound and power of his playing. His playing has been described as leather lunged. He laughed at the description, "...I get a pretty strong sound...I used to go hear the bands. I would watch the trombone players. It was like I could never really hear the trombone players...(so I said) if I play the trombone you're gonna be able to hear it...I play out."

Most of the popular music in North Philly those days was R&B. Tyrone soon became part of the Gamble & Huff scene of the 70's and 80's, when 'Me and Mrs Jones', 'Expressway to Your Heart' and other hits put the Philadelphia sound on the national charts. And then with the Uptown Theater on Broad Street in North Philadelphia. The Uptown was like the Apollo in NYC, the Howard in D.C., the Regal in Chicago, all hotspots for black music, dominated then by the Motown sound. Under the leadership of Sam Reed on sax and keyboard player Leon Mitchell, the band backed up Martha and the Vandellas, the Tempations, Smokey Robinson, James Brown and every other big time R&B act to make it thru Philly. Supporting Motown starpower turned into a graduate school of musical training that lasted over 10 years, touring at times with many of the groups, Stevie Wonder among them. And 7 years as musical director for Billy Paul. "Then Sun Ra turned my whole thing around." There were a dozen years from that fateful first gig at Slugs in 1969 before Tyrone formally joined the Spaceways. During that time he was still 'half on earth' playing frequently with the Arkestra yet still maintaining his planetary, often economic ties. Musically, he began to appreciate some limitations. He understood the music better but still couldn't express what Marshall Allen and John Gilmore routinely put out. And Ra would chide him for staying with those Earth bands saying, "When death comes you're gonna be put in your place, why don't you take your place (in life) now?" It was time to move into the band residence on Morton Street and get the full dose of Ra-ality.

Tyrone's reverence and regard for Sonny (Ra) are unmistakable. Sun Ra was a lot more than a musical mentor or the colorful jokester who once gave then President Richard Nixon '24 hours to get off the planet'. "Something else that attracted me to him was his philosophy. He used to say, 'Music soothes the savage beast.' You could change the world with the right kind of music. It's in the Bible where they talk about how Joshua blew the walls of Jericho down. He did it with 4 trumpet players. Blew the walls down with music! Sun Ra believed if you play the right kind of music, that positive music could change everything. We'd be playing a concert. People were dancing. (Someone asked,) 'How you gonna get them to outer space? How you gonna take them to outer space?'...with Music." At this point Tyrone's tone of voice carried the conviction of a missionary testifying to the one true faith. There is no question. To one blessed to ride Sun Ra's rocketship to that exhilarated state of grace, the leap of musical and all faith that Sun Ra taught, there is no doubt. The openness of being, the welcome to existence stand apart from everyday experience like galaxies to a spinning ball of clay. Like the endlessness of outer space. That only Ra knew well.

"We had been on gigs where he played the band. He used the piano like playing follow the leader. You see these flocks of birds flying together. All kind of ways. (But) all flying together...(sometimes) he wouldn't even tell us what we were going to play. Marshall (Allen, present director of the Arkestra) works like that. You gotta be tuned in. Or you'll be left behind. He would play the first 8 or 12 bars of a song...then you get the music out and he'd play something else...(it's all about) group improvisation, thats the basic foundation of jazz. Everybody's got to be together. A lot of musicians can't do that. Whatever you play, everybody's gotta be on the same place. With Sun Ra, he was sort of like a catalyst. All these ideas, musical forms just moving around him... Sun Ra didn't like the word freedom, he liked discipline. It takes a lot of discipline to play this music. You have to know when to play it (free) and when not to." Which is why the band rehearsed and rehearsed. And rehearsed. All times, night and day. The practice regimen of the Arkestra was legendary, subject to the limitless inner drive of their insomniac visionary, Sun Ra. "...Ra would say, 'Tyrone, make your trombone sound like a flying saucer, don't make it sound like a trombone.' ...when the band plays good and when it's really right theres nothing in the world like it. That's why I've been playing with this band for 30 years...its really special to do something with a group of people, to do something creative."

Sun Ra left this planet back in 1993. John Gilmore assumed leadership of the band and has since passed on as well leaving the band under the experienced direction of Marshall Allen. Marshall of the staccato cries, the seering and soaring alto, possessed of a musical sense of humor that can walk miles in any man's moccasins. During that time the band also unexpectedly lost James Jacson, bassoonist, flutist, infinity drummer and long time resident of the enclave on Morton Street in Germantown that has been home to the spirit gang for 30 years. Jacson was the one who inherited the rowhouse destined to be a museum sometime in and probably of the future. Reflecting on losing Gilmore and Jacson, Tyrone sighs and shrugs his shoulders in resignation to his increased responsibilities in the band. "A shock. Thats an understatement. We gotta keep it going. The music never stops. Sun Ra used to say that. John carried it on. Then he passed it on to Marshall. Under Marshall, this is the best the band has sounded yet...Marshall used to be a section man, he was out of the big bands...(he's used to) a lot of tight ensemble playing."

These days a lot of that tight sound depends on Tyrone's leadership in the horn section of the Arkestra where his powerful sound punctuates and inflects turning points as the band wheels over the extra-terrestrial dreamscapes of Sun Ra and their own compositions. He has found time to head up his own group, the Deep Space Posse featuring some of his own music as well as Sun Ra's. It's part of the growing collective, the Satellites of Sun. Along with California and NYC editions, the Philadelphia Deep Space Posse features leading edge talent like Elliot Levin, Rick Ianacone, Howard Cooper, Calvin Weston, Bobby Zankel, Freddie Paulin, and others. "It gives me a chance to play with some other musicians. A chance to hear the music in a different context." Sun Ra warned the band that he wouldnt be around forever despite media reports to the otherwise. "We're going thru changes. Marshall said you cant live off what Sun Ra did. Sun Ra taught us well. He was special. He kept us laughing, always cracking us up. We have fun playing."

Somewhere along the ways of the past 30 years the leather lungs and heart have come together and are sitting happy in one beautiful individual who has since become one of those 'cats' he admired back when around 17th Street. Once a year you can even find him wearing another hat. Taking part in Philadelphia's unique answer to the Mardi Gras, the Mummer's Parade. "...Mummers, its something I enjoy doing. Everybody puts everything aside, the races, what you think, what you are. You just watch the parade and have a good time. People doing things together. Beautiful things, creative things. If you can do something beautiful for somebody else, why not. Thats my mission. Keep playing music. I was playing with this R&B band. This guy came up to me and said, ' you tune me up, I'm out of tune.' And when I was finished the guy gave me a hundred dollars. (He said), 'thank you you tuned me up.' I thought about what Sun Ra said. Thats what we gotta do for people... tune them up."

Friday, June 13, 2008

Ahmed Abdullah's Memories of Montreux Jazz Festival in July, 1976

Above photos are my scans from the "Live At Montreux" Inner City Album

I love this story from Ahmed Abdullah's web site...

Excerpt from A Strange Celestial Road
(Traveling the Spaceways)
by Ahmed Abdullah with Louis Reyes Rivera
(click on "The Memoirs")

One really bizarre financial debacle happened at the Montreux Jazz Festival in July, 1976. Montreux, Switzerland, is one of a couple of dreamlike places I have been to. The Swiss Alps surround this rich smelling, immaculate town. The hotel we stayed at was fabulous. I had a huge room with a bathroom large enough to have been mistaken for a bedroom. I even used the tub as if it were a bed, especially after that long trip from Paris. Laying in the tub, I could open the window and stare out at a most breathtaking scene of snow capped mountains. It was better than National Geographic. However lovely, this was not a vacation. It was work.

When it was time to hit, the band had over 20 members on stage, all recorded with one overhead microphone. Sun Ra was in rare form, even for him; consequently, the band was turned on and played beyond itself. John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Marshall Allen (the big three) turned in amazing work. The two Dannys, Thompson and Davis, as well as Jack Jacson and Eloe Omoe completed the sax section. Sun Ra had also brought along a fellow named Reginald Hudgins, a soprano sax player from Philly. There were three dancers, Wisteria aka Judith Holton, Cheryl Banks, and Raymond Sawyer, someone else new to me who was every bit as great as Bob Johnson. June Tyson was present with her voice from another planet. My former trumpet teacher, Chris Capers, Al Evans and myself were one part of the brass section that was completed by trombonist Craig Harris (just out of college) and Vincent Chancey, both relatively new to the band. Ahk Tal Ebah had been left in Philly, so even though both Al and Chris had played in the band before, they hadn’t played with Ebah, who basically knew the arrangements. So, in a sense, things had rapidly fallen on my shoulders. I was kind of amazed at how quickly everything was moving. I had joined the band a little over a year before, and now I was leading a section in one of the prized Jazz festivals of Europe.

Richard Wilkenson, June’s mate, was our road manager. After the concert was over, everyone was flying high from the music. Richard had given me a padded shoulder bag to hold. I hardly noticed when he did it and certainly did not know its contents. I stopped somewhere on the festival grounds to hear another performing group and placed the bag under my chair. There were several stages at Montreux, and in each arena there was another group performing. At some point the people in the band were notified that the Arkestra’s bus was taking off. I quickly left to join the group and boarded and proceeded out of the dream town in high spirits befitting a band of conquering heroes.

Half a mile out of town I heard Sun Ra ask, “Richard, where’s my bag?”

Richard was sitting in the middle of the bus. I was near the back of the bus. Richard called out, “Ahmed, where’s the bag I gave you?”

In the post-gig excitement I had all but forgotten it. The bag had all the money from the gig, one of the best paying festivals in Europe, and I had left it under my seat inside the Montreux festival grounds. The driver was asked to make a “U” turn. I could feel my heart pounding like a piston as we ran up the stairs to where I had been earlier. There, under the chair, exactly where it had been left, was a bag with several thousand American dollars in it. I have never felt so relieved to see some money.

The concert itself must have put out such powerful vibes that no one would dare touch that money. We were thus well protected. The music on Sun Ra Live at Montreux, released on Inner City and Saturn Records, is a most fitting musical description of what I had actually experienced in that city and on that stage. The Montreux performance stands as one of the high moments in my recorded history with the Arkestra. The recording captures John Gilmore’s incredible solo on Take the A Train, accompanied by Clifford Jarvis on drums. The intro that Sun Ra plays on piano shows he now owned the song written by Billy Strayhorn, one of the Ellington Orchestra’s standard signature pieces. In the wake of Ellington’s passing (1974), he also now owned the position that Duke once had as the preeminent big band leader. This was Sun Ra‘s first recording in a few years, and even though his Earth years were advancing (now 62), his sense of showmanship seemed heightened as he, dressed in platform shoes, colorful robe, and pseudo-space-helmet, played the organ with his hands behind his back.

The sound of Sun Ra’s piano introduction to El Is The Sound of Joy still sends chills up my spine. Before I left to go on that trip, the record that I had been listening to a lot was the great Massey Hall concert. I loved the way Dizzy (I finally got around to studying him) and Bird were playing with the incredible rhythm team of Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach. I believe Dizzy’s approach influenced my concept and approach to El Is The Sound of Joy. Clifford Jarvis, drummer on the Montreux recording, kidded me about our being a Clifford Brown-Max Roach hookup. In my estimation it was one of Sun Ra’s best recorded live concerts.

Theban Mapping Project

Since its inception in 1978, the Theban Mapping Project (TMP, now based at the American University in Cairo) has been working to prepare a comprehensive archaeological database of Thebes.

Children Of The Sun...
Children Of The Sun...
Each And Every One,
Is A Child Of The Sun.

Never Missed A Day.
Never Missed A Day.
Never No Rest,
For The Sun.

Children Of The Sun...
Children Of The Sun...
Each And Every One,
Is A Child Of The Sun.

Take Me Away Fast: A feature documentary about a DJ who digs for vintage vinyl in the Mother Land

No Sun Ra content, but this is too good not to pass on...

“Take Me Away Fast”

A feature documentary about a DJ who digs for vintage vinyl in the Mother Land.

Check out the fundraising trailer on Youtube:

In 2005, Frank Gossner, a successful German DJ, uproots himself from the party scene of Berlin and moves to Guinea, West Africa. His entire life is now dedicated to digging for vintage Afro-funk and Afro-beat records buried in hot basements and on dusty shelves throughout West Africa. Over the last several years of digging, word has spread about the white man who will pay big money for old records. Recording studio owners and musicians have come forward to offer him a look at their collections, knowing that he will convert the albums into digital format and play them for music lovers at night clubs in New York City and Berlin. This documentary film follows this DJ’s journey to unearth these 30 – 40 year old, virtually unknown rhythms throughout Ghana and Benin in April 2008.

During the course of his record digging trip, Frank will visit fellow music aficionados, Afro-funk and Afro-beat musicians, recording studio owners, and local record shops owners. Musicians will reflect on a time when musicians “had real talent” and talk about the revolutionary time when these tracks were created. We will learn about the urgency of Frank’s work: as vinyl records possess little to no monetary value to locals, these irreplaceable musical gems are being burned by their owners. With the destruction of albums that were never transferred to cassette or CD, a piece of history is destroyed along with it. “Take Me Away Fast” explores this DJ’s musical obsession as well as shed light on the importance of Afro-funk and Afro-beat music, both then and now.

A Short History of the EVI By Ron Cole

A Short History of the EVI By Ron Cole

the first chapter of Ron Cole's doctoral dissertation, "The Electronic Valve Instrument: Nyle Steiner's Unique Musical Innovation," submitted to the University of Washington in June of 1998. It has been edited for use at this website.

The basic concept that was to give birth to the Electronic Valve Instrument (EVI)1 began in 1964. Nyle Steiner, a trumpeter, music student, and engineering employee at an electronics firm, envisioned an electronic string instrument in which the string fingerings could be manipulated utilizing trumpet-fingering technique. He states,

The technology wasn't anything similar in those days but I had some ideas of making an electronic device. I was going to make a tone by having a wire vibrate with things pushed down on the string to lengthen or shorten it. I was trying to figure out how to do the overtones on the wire.2

This project was shelved in favor of the formation of Steiner-Parker Inc., a Salt Lake City based partnership with fellow engineer Dick Parker, which began designing keyboard-based synthesizers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Steiner was responsible for design of the electronic portion while Parker designed and built the cabinetry and enclosures. Since Steiner was not a keyboard player, he resurrected his concept of using a trumpet-based controller to manipulate a synthesizer tone generator. His original goal was to create a synthesizer that trumpet players could easily play without having to learn keyboard-fingering technique. Steiner stated that,

The ultimate thing in the beginning was to make a trumpet interface so that any trumpet player could pick it up and say, "Hey, I can play the synthesizer now." But that didn't turn out to be practical; it turned out to be easier to learn some new techniques but have the instrument really be powerful. So, in certain ways, if we try to imitate all of a trumpet we also imitate some of its limitations.3

Development of the EVI began in 1971, with the first prototype being produced the next year.4 Commercial availability began in 1975.5 Steiner estimates around 200 Steiner-Parker EVIs had been produced between 1975 and 1979, many of them having been sold to university music departments and pop groups. He noted that,

We sold them around the colleges and universities. I remember (the pop group) Earth, Wind and Fire had one. They were one of the first systems we sold. Columbia-Princeton University ordered a couple of them.6

The first EVIs controlled only on/off tone generation in a dedicated synthesizer module, initiated by blowing into the breath pipe of the instrument, which activated a breath (air pressure) sensor. No air actually passed through the airtight instrument; the performer actually allowed air to pass from the mouth around the outside of the breath pipe to simulate the airflow through a wind instrument. Octave selection was achieved via a rotating canister and thumb-rollers, and pitch via three springed switches positioned to emulate trumpet valves.7 Toward the end of the 1970s, many of the added features associated with the later EVI versions were incorporated into the design, including CV (control voltage) directed volume via manipulation of air pressure at the breath sensor, a vibrato sensor, a "bite sensor" for controlling a portamento effect, and pitch bending plates (albeit retro-fitted by Steiner). Several commercially available synthesizers were also interfaced for use with the EVI, such as the Mellotron.8

Steiner-Parker Inc. dissolved in 1979, and Steiner was left with the rights to the EVI. That same year, he began a five-year relationship with Crumar, an Italian electronics firm in the business of designing and marketing keyboard-based synthesizers. The Crumar EVI, which debuted commercially in 1980, had all of the previously mentioned features plus the benefits of larger manufacturing and marketing resources, much more than Steiner and Parker had by themselves. The Crumar instrument sold more than double the amount of the Steiner-Parker EVI, around 500 units.9 Toronto trumpeter Bruce Cassidy of the jazz-influenced rock group Blood, Sweat and Tears made one of the earliest recordings using the Crumar EVI.10

The debut of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) specification in 1982 had enormous repercussions throughout the world of electronic music, not the least of which was the obsolescence of many makes of commercially marketed synthesizers. Some pre-MIDI synthesizers were adapted for MIDI uses. J. L. Cooper Electronics constructed MIDI adapter modules for several synthesizers, one of which was the Lyricon, a wind controller using woodwind-fingering technique, which was popular in the 1970s. Jim Cooper rewrote the software specifications of his Lyricon MIDI adapter for the Crumar EVI’s accompanying synthesizer module, and Steiner adapted the hardware interface. This allowed the Crumar EVI to transmit MIDI note on and note off, aftertouch, pitchwheel (pitch bend), and breath control (which could be used to control several effects, including volume). Los Angeles based studio musician Judd Miller to this day continues to use this version.11 Crumar never incorporated these MIDI functions into its EVI model and, in fact, never produced more than one model. Crumar ceased production of the EVI in 1984, and discontinued operations entirely in 1987.12

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Senior Times: Fifty years in the band still isn’t enough

Fifty years in the band still isn’t enough Paul Serralheiro

Montreal will be awash with jazz in the next few weeks, with a total of four festivals going on. There’s not only the International Jazz Festival that everyone around the planet knows about, but also two equally appealing festivals (if not more so, for hard-core jazz fans) following in short order, plus the festival Bryan Highbloom has been offering at the Jewish General Hospital. That spells a lot of music.

As usual, veteran musicians are a big part of the draw, whether they are jazzers, like pianist Hank Jones, or jazz-related like the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, who is still belting it out. Locals like drummer Guy Nadon and pianists Oliver Jones and Vic Vogel are also in on the fun. All of these performers are appearing at the high-profile Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. The two other festivals, the Suoni Per Il Popolo (run by the Casa del Popolo) and the Off Festival (run by and featuring Montreal musicians), have an equally interesting lineup, and this year they are teaming up to present a couple of events, the most prominent being the Sun Ra Arkestra.

Led by Marshall Allen after Sun Ra’s passing in 1993, the Arkestra follows the big band tradition but with an avant-garde twist, as likely to play When You Wish Upon a Star or There Will Never Be Another You as they are to revisit Sun Ra’s quirky themes like We Travel the Spaceways or one of the many tunes Allen has penned. Formed in the 1950s, the Arkestra is still thriving. I spoke to Marshall Allen, who still lives in the Sun Ra house in Philadelphia, a couple of days before his 84th birthday as he was preparing for a celebration in New York at Sullivan Hall.

I asked him about his long association with the band and about his long life in music. “It contributes to my well-being and in my 80s, that’s what I’m doing,” he said. “When you’re younger, you’ve got adventure, you’ve got a strong drive to move forward and get something down. Now I’m not that youthful, but there are still things I want to do, and I don’t have to go through a lot of that stuff like when I was younger. Now I have more time to stay with the music and more time to concentrate.”

He went on to tell me about life before Sun Ra, playing in Paris, Germany, and England, and spending time in the Army until he met Sun Ra in Chicago. “He lived a few blocks away from me and he rehearsed his band, and I went to rehearsals and listened and his other band in New York was breaking up and I got into the new band.”

That was 1958, and Allen waxed enthusiastic when he realized that this year marks the 50th anniversary of his joining Sun Ra. “Back in those days I didn’t think I’d still be playing in the band in 50 years,” he said in his endearing Kentucky drawl.

He has a simple answer to what keeps him committed to the band: “It’s the music! Sun Ra was a good teacher and that was like a gold mine. All I had to do was put in the time.” The time, in this case, has meant a whole career devoted to the Arkestra, which has required a lot of study, given the founder’s unique vision.

But there are also more practical issues: “Through the years, music gets displaced, songs are there with no names on them. It’s quite a thing to try to get the parts back together. It’s like a puzzle.”

He also still studies the challenging music: “Sometimes there’s time against time, or different times together. He always had a large band and a lot of stuff going on. So I just do the main thing and sometimes rework some of the music. He has about a thousand pieces, some of which haven’t been played yet. He would write for different people, change things, chords, melodies, depending on the person who would be playing… tailor made. So I still got some challenges, interpreting the music.”

The audiences are still coming to the concerts and include lots of young people. “We make a little story with the band going way back and coming right on up, so it’s like a music lesson for those who weren’t born. We show them what they were doing in the 30s and early 40s and what they’re doing now.”

The Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen will perform at the Sala Rossa Sunday, June 14 at 8:30 pm.

Marshall Allen (photo: Alan Nahigian)